Redesigning physical spaces for a ‘never normal’ future

Bronwyn van der Merwe
By Bronwyn van der Merwe | 21 July 2020

Bronwyn van der Merwe is general manager – Asia Pacific at Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive.

Since the beginning of time, humans have inhabited and created spaces, held objects and interacted with each other and the physical world around them. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our daily experiences in physical spaces more than any other event in recent history, forcing us into our homes and utterly transforming everyday interactions.

With the global pandemic fundamentally changing how we work, live and play, businesses across Australia and around the world are facing unprecedented challenges as they try to balance the immediate need of protecting their customers and employees with longer-term opportunities – all while trying to remain operational.

Industries such as healthcare, travel and hospitality, workspaces and retail are among the hardest hit by COVID-19, forced to find solutions for a new relationship model, that doesn’t involve physical interactions.

There are six ‘experience principles’ businesses must look to solve to deliver long-lasting solutions and thrive in a ‘never normal’ world:

Welcome robots with open arms
One of the positives of the pandemic is that it has allowed industries the chance to experiment with how technology can be integrated into our world and carry out tasks that would otherwise put human lives at risk.

In the healthcare industry, for example, hospitals around the globe have deployed robots for a range of functions, from delivering samples to labs and food to patients, to disinfecting rooms and surfaces. Outside of medicine, robots are being employed to enforce social distancing rules, like the robotic dog ‘Spot’.

Reduce friction and lower human density
Integrating product, digital and spatial design solutions will help businesses enable new forms of interaction and enhance emotional connection with their customers. The rapid shift to online shopping has laid the foundation for a range of new experiences such as curb side pick-ups and delivery as well as greater emphasis on e-commerce.

Despite this uptick in e-commerce, retail stores will still be an important touchpoint for brands to engage with their consumers, dialling up the emphasis on experiential shopping. This means they will be forced to think how they can manage customer flows and lean on technology to evaluate customer stress points for better experiences.

Integrate the virtual with the physical
The line between the physical and virtual worlds is perhaps thinner than ever with the rapid uptake of technology such as telehealth and telemedicine, along with biometrics and artificial intelligence. For the healthcare industry, integrating these two worlds not only minimises the health risks for people having to travel to the doctor’s office, but enables greater opportunities for the medical community to rethink traditional approaches to treatment.

Beyond healthcare, virtual technology such as VR has applications in the consumer shopping space. The automotive industry and brands such as BMW are pioneering virtual shopping experiences – allowing customers to sit in a 3D model of a car while wearing VR headsets to choose options in real-time. Elsewhere, the real estate industry has adapted to offer virtual property tours and walkthroughs.

Empowerment through technology
With COVID-19 impacting 68% of working Australians, many have been forced to adjust to new ways of working. This shift has brought about a modern approach to remote/hybrid work culture and employee wellbeing, enabled by greater access to, and engagement with, technology tools.

Digital solutions have been a panacea for helping people stay connected when working from home, and as businesses start returning to the workplace, employers must continue to utilise technology to its full potential. For example, some companies have created bespoke mobile apps that record which employees are in the office and when to safely manage access and flow.

Enable touch-free interactions
Technologies such as biometrics and facial recognition were making a splash long before the pandemic but now such technologies will become even more commonplace, transforming how we access information, pay for things and even how we are identified.
Hardware giant Bunnings has implemented a contactless ‘Drive and Collect’ service to help reduce traffic within stores, while Westfield’s introduced ‘Westfield Direct’ which allows users to shop online at multiple retailers, then collect their order at a designated drive-through location at their local centre.

Consumer trust in businesses to provide safe spaces via touch-free solutions will lead to the next wave of innovation.

Enable and formalise social distancing
Creating new standards for how we move and interact in commercial spaces has been an important learning curve for many businesses, most especially those designed for high-density usage such as supermarkets and office towers.

The monumental shift in consumer attitudes towards safety and hygiene will necessitate inventiveness from all businesses in terms of how to repurpose existing spaces so they are fit for purpose.

Australian businesses have learnt many valuable lessons from COVID-19 and will continue to do so as we adapt to life in this ‘never normal’ world. When it comes to designing spaces for the future, business must be innovative and anticipate how people will interact with one another and create resilient spaces that prioritise people’s health and wellbeing.

Achieving this while also balancing the need to deliver meaningful experiences, meet shifting cultural norms, and remain profitable/operational will be difficult but it is a challenge that must be faced head on.


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