Emily Webster

Emily Webster

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio
As a Principal / SVP, Creative at ESI Design and at the helm of the studio's pioneering Media Architecture practice, Emily Webster leads teams at ESI to thoughtfully design how technology can be used to activate a space and tell a company story. Involved in projects from business development through to completion, she brings a strategic approach to the creative implementation of interactive technologies, and helps our clients create engaging, immersive and meaningful experiences that elevate their brand within the marketplace. She views buildings as platforms that can adapt over time as the needs of the space or the business change.

How to Feel Together While We’re Apart

Where Work and Collaboration Meet in the Era of Covid-19

August 19, 2020

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Emily Webster and Andrea Vanecko.


In the traditional workplace during “normal” times, an employee’s presence is felt as soon as they step foot into the office. Yet in the era of Covid-19, where some are in the workplace and some are remote, employees risk feeling increasingly disconnected from each other. While some tech companies and startups have worked with a distributed workforce for a while, many more organizations now have to consider how to effectively adapt to this unique way of working.

Now is the time to experiment. After months of working remotely, our perspective about our work and our office experience has changed. As new work styles and environments evolve, it’s important to continually test how people truly use their space and connect with one another. Changes to process, policy and the physical design of a workplace can mitigate this sense of disconnection, of which we list a few ideas to consider below. But the first step is to consider company culture:

  • How do employees, teams, departments and your organization work and meet? What are the daily patterns and rituals that make your company unique?
  • How do collaboration rhythms impact roles and departments that are more independent, versus others that are more team-based?
  • Does your company provide services to clients or produce internal products? Is your work on display or private?
  • How do you share exciting moments?

Answering these questions will highlight habits and perspectives that are central to an organization and reveal ways to carry these cultural benefits forward through the coronavirus and beyond. With these questions answered, the following design strategies can be integrated to create an environment of social cohesion, productivity and collaboration.

Humanize the Workplace

Employees who work remotely still want to chat, connect, and share ideas with their colleagues, even if they can’t share the same space. To build staff’s presence in the workplace, incorporate digital platforms to enable them to communicate in real time and customize their environment. Employees could push photos of themselves, share their work or send messages to colleagues on various-sized digital frames that can be used in the office or at home — and placed on a desktop or a shelf, or hung on a wall. Rather than computer monitors, empty desks could also feature dynamic computer wallpaper with digital greetings, documents and notes for in-office teammates.

Offer Dedicated Team Areas

Work stations may partially transition away from individually-assigned desks. Instead, staff could be assigned to dedicated team huddle areas. These rooms — located in or near the work zone — could feature tactile digital walls for collaboration sessions, brainstorming, project updates and idea-sharing. Teams could also leave analogue components, like sticky notes and posters, as well as other leave-behinds. Built-in cameras would allow remote team members to video conference in, and could also take photos and videos of the collaboration wall to share real-time progress with distributed teams. These areas could also feature more lounge-like furniture, such as couches, lounge chairs and ottomans to create a more comfortable environment for in-office employees. This would also allow remote staff to feel more connected as they could see more than just their team members’ faces, as body language is a crucial part of effective communication. In addition, these huddle rooms could have three walls or panels for a more porous feel, yet still provide an intimate space to build closer collaboration between virtual and in-person team members.

Create a Shared Dialogue in Communal Spaces

When colleagues are separated, how do you recreate the impromptu chat at the water cooler or the catch-up over coffee? To help connect staff in the office and those working from home on a more casual level, a “sharing space” that is physically present in the office but also tethered to the online world could help decrease isolation. Interactive space, simulation environments and sharing platforms could be created to allow staff to engage with their colleagues in a more personal way. Staff could leave artifacts — such as virtual messages, videos, social media feeds and other work or personal updates for remote and in-office employees. These could sync with the displays in conference rooms as well, or even augmented reality collaboration spaces. Finding ways for distributed team members’ personalities to come through, even if the entire work force isn’t physically present in the same space, maintains a sense of comradery. To strengthen a community connection, these solutions should not only be digital. In-person staff could leave friendly handwritten notes, community event flyers and team photos on these social sharing walls to be seen by colleagues the next day.

Maximize Nature Outside-In

The positive effects of viewing green plants — whether real, simulated via digital displays— are proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Offer novel opportunities for distributed employees to connect with green spaces to create a more invigorating and nourishing environment. Outdoor cabanas or “offices in a box” could provide a refreshing and meditative change of scenery as well as natural ventilation, to offer staff unique ways to collaborate in person and virtually, as well as decrease stress. Outfitted with conference tables and chairs, or even lounge-style couches — and equipped with lush planter boxes and the latest teleconferencing technology — these spaces for one to six people could powerfully leverage indoor-outdoor connections for distributed teams. Rooftops with shaded tables, seating and wifi could also provide ways for in-person and remote staff to collaborate outside, even in drizzly weather.

Yet nature isn’t limited to the outdoors of course. The interior environment can be landscaped too, to help better connect a distributed workforce. Donut- or triangle-shaped multi-desk configurations with trees and green plants placed at the center can bring the positive effects of nature into the workplace to both profound and breathtaking effects — and create more engaging spaces for video calls. Other areas around the office can create peaceful, nature-filled nooks for remote touch-bases, such as booth banquets with planting screens. When true natural views aren’t possible, offering bucolic digital views for both in-person and remote staff could still bring benefits.

Change is inevitable. How do we embrace the new structures of the workplace and the work day? To flex to this new era and the “next normal,” it’s critical to rethink how and where we work. As our work environments evolve, it’s important to continually test new collaboration modes. With this unchartered territory, success lies in transforming this disruption into positive opportunities to reconnect with colleagues on new levels.

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.


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Buildings in Conversation with the City

Four Opportunities for Commercial Offices to Build Connection Among Tenants and the Community

July 9, 2020

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Emily Webster, Chris Niederer and Tim Johnson.


“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

As our cities reopen following the pandemic, they feel much quieter than usual. The coronavirus has disconnected us from each other and our urban spaces. Given this shift, how can we re-engage with them in meaningful and effective ways?

One of the first places we will return to will be commercial office buildings, which can serve as powerful catalysts for reconnecting us with our communities. To create more engaged and healthier urban centers, our buildings can provide experiences that celebrate, amplify and augment these spaces. Below we outline a series of experience design ideas and strategies — which can easily shift and evolve — that commercial buildings could employ to reinvigorate civic life.


Rethink the Lobby

It is important to prioritize elements that reduce stress for tenants who return to the office building, beyond communicating social distancing protocols. One way is to employ nature’s science-backed calming effects. Numerous studies demonstrate looking at nature — even simulated — is proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Digital views of nature that respond to people’s movements can provide a rejuvenating enclave in a busy urban environment — and greet building lobby visitors with delight even when there is no front desk staff present. Immersive installations can provide a comforting animated landscape inspired by local surroundings, with digital flora and fauna welcoming and interacting with visitors as they walk by. Light installations can also simulate the supremely calming experience of sunlight hitting water ripples to create unique meditative moments.

These digital layers could be customized at any time, not only to create a livelier environment, but to act as a communications platform that offers an air of exclusivity never experienced before in a multi-tenant building. Lobby media architecture could be tailored for specific tenants to provide unique branding experiences. In a world with proposed timed tenant entries for high rises, lobbies of multi-tenant buildings could become intimately branded for one tenant’s arrival time via specific messages and graphics for their employees to create a more personalized experience. On the weekend, these displays could engage the surrounding neighborhood by showcasing local public art, environmental data, or educational information.

Meanwhile, digital installations can also reinvigorate lobbies in aging or historically-significant buildings, while also providing visibility to street passerby. Media architecture that changes with the weather, seasons, and other neighborhood inputs can bring dynamism and sophistication to urban icons that a static art piece cannot. Custom human-scale lighting installations can also bring warmth to landmark buildings and transform areas of frequent movement (people entering and exiting) into destinations too by inviting tenants to sit and take in the digital art.


Address the “Front Porch”

Consider the space outside your commercial building. How can you create a more welcoming presence that invites not just tenants, but passersby to stay and linger in a safe and socially-distanced manner? While a plaza filled with seating and chairs provide places for people to sit, consider an element of surprise or serendipity to maintain engagement. Temporary graphics and pop-up interactive digital “sculptures” which can also serve as seating, exercise equipment or play structures for children, can encourage people to explore and linger in their neighborhood throughout the week and weekend.

Design that engages the senses — through thoughtful and dynamic exterior lighting, soundscapes, landscaping and water features installed outside commercial buildings — could help reunite us with our cities. Interactive multistory digital façades can enliven barren spaces while offering a sense of respite for building tenants and the community. An LED light trellis can become a living wall, simulating dappled light through trees via data-driven animations. This type of installation can transform a former concrete wall into soothing lights to create a peaceful moment, both during the day and at night, at the center of a busy city.

Neuroscience shows “prospect and refuge” — the ability to both survey a space and also find shelter — is hardwired into our brains. More permanent exterior design solutions could provide this. For example, iconic entry canopies can protect people from the elements, while small roofed structures placed in plazas can create socially-distanced niches for reading, lounging and people-watching, as well as areas for farmer’s market stalls. To redefine the street-front, immersive digital entry portals can serve as a neighborhood anchor and branding experience. An exterior-interior multimedia installation can create a new identity that is both a lighting surface, content display and architectural enhancement. Unique digital displays can wrap around building exteriors and move into the interior to offer a dynamic media element that can evolve as needed. Etched glass layered on top of different LED resolutions can create a seamless digital experience that renews an aging building.


Be a Good Neighbor

To help reactivate the city and extend the network of building users on a daily basis, commercial buildings could host a series of rotating platforms that artists can use to enliven empty or underutilized commercial space. In addition to independent artists, these vacant commercial spaces could also allow cultural institutions to show more of their collections. In New York City, the Museum of Modern Art only has space to display 30% of its full collection — which contains more than 200,000 pieces — while the Guggenheim Museum only shows 3% of its works. By distributing these artworks throughout the city, taking advantage of newly released real estate, museums could utilize highly visible spaces and extend where and how people see art. For example, the Rijksmuseum store at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam utilizes empty retail space, and was the first art museum in the world to open a new branch at an airport.

Art walks have long been a popular urban event. In this spirit, commercial buildings could go a step further and develop partnerships with local civic or business improvement districts (BID) or even each other to bring amenities outdoors and repurpose underutilized areas, sidewalks or vacated parking spaces for outdoor dining, pop-up retail and more. In New York, the Madison Square Park Conservancy produces a popular culinary pop-up market, Mad Sq. Eats, which draws local restaurants from around the city into an underutilized plaza. This program brings the kitchen to the street to not only create a welcoming public outdoor dining experience, but also bring greater visibility to the community and neighboring businesses.

Temporary educational signage posted on or near commercial buildings can also encourage people to reconnect with their urban communities. For example, sidewalk decals can provide self-guided tours that help people learn about the history and significance of local architecture. Philadelphia’s robust wayfinding system features color-coded maps throughout its diverse urban neighborhoods to spotlight the city’s iconic built environment, orient visitors and help locals better navigate their city.

With dramatic drops in car traffic due to stay-at-home orders, some cities are temporarily and permanently closing their streets to serve pedestrians, bikes and other social-distanced activities. Some of these spaces have transformed into neighborhood greenways or linear street “parks.” Adjacent commercial buildings can take advantage of these areas to better connect tenants, residents and visitors alike. To create a safer pedestrian environment, LED mesh street overlay lights can provide greater visibility and direct cars away from these areas at night.


Build Community via the Skyline

Commercial buildings can create conversations with their cities and differentiate themselves in a crowded skyline. Digital exterior screens, perhaps even sponsored by tenants, can convey engaging messages for the city that could rotate monthly. Large-scale media installations across a set of buildings can create an expansive canvas for storytelling.

While cities and buildings have used crown lighting to show support for holidays, the expression is limited to colors and patterns. What if urban residents and visitors could contribute imagery, or words, to the installation? Could there be an audio component that people could tune into to hear stories or oral histories? Through these elements, city residents could see themselves represented in the buildings that surround them. Currently, the artist Jim Campbell captures daily recordings of city life in San Francisco and displays them on the top of the Salesforce Tower, which can be seen up to 20 miles away at night. National Geographic has projected wildlife photography on buildings around the world, from the Empire State Building to the United Nations headquarters via its Photo Ark initiative.

What if we transformed our skylines through user-generated content and through community engagement? To create space in the skyline that reflects the people who inhabit each urban neighborhood allows residents to simultaneously become the directors, performers and audience of these installations. By prioritizing the collective and setting aside our individualism, we may better unify our communities. Ultimately, it’s not about how a building can stand out on the skyline — it’s about how our buildings can contribute to the greater good of the city to become part of the identity and fabric of our city centers.


In Summary

The coronavirus has changed the urban experience and the way we interact. To create more livable and resilient cities, commercial office buildings are an important piece of the puzzle. They must open themselves up to their communities and engage their urban centers in more expressive ways, through opportunities that support social engagement, culture, health and wellness. The resulting economic benefits, but also social and environmental ones too, could help reposition a building’s assets and strengthen our neighborhoods.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio.

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