This article initially appeared in Banker & Tradesman on April 18, 2021.
With her specialty in interior design, TRIA’s Marilyn Shen says she spends the vast majority of her time anticipating people’s needs and likes. That emphasis has taken on a paramount role in her new position as the Boston-based firm’s director of integrated workplace design, as companies ponder how to configure their post-pandemic real estate. Architecture was a change of career for Shen, who started out in consulting and, like many professionals of her age group, enrolled in graduate school following the dotcom meltdown. Shen joined TRIA in March following 15 years at Visnick & Caulfield.
Q: How are clients approaching their future workplace strategies as the pandemic appears to recede?
A: I think a lot of clients are confused. Nobody knows what to do, so there are no steps to figure out because nobody knows what’s happening next. Now we’re opening a new stage where people are starting to think about it. More people are getting vaccinated and people are trying to think about how we bring people back and more importantly, do people want to get back? They are going into a cultural assessment of what does a hybrid model look like, and what does that mean to the space? A lot of clients are asking if we can assess, in surveys, why people would want to come back to work and how to make people feel comfortable. Where most places are hoping to land is something like a hybrid model where we don’t design the space for the whole population. Even pre-pandemic, a lot of companies were trying to get to that. They just couldn’t get over the hump of the remote worker. Pre-pandemic, nobody had an assigned desk. Because of COVID, desk sharing is more of a concern. People now want their dedicated space.
Q: Is bench seating gone for good?
A: I don’t know if it’s no longer in the picture, but I do think more barriers and the 6-foot distancing model will stick around. People will feel most comfortable if they’re spread apart.
Q: What sort of questions do you ask in the employee surveys?
A: The first thing to understand is why people would come back to the office, and what is the type of work that requires you to come back to the office, and to design a reason for people to want to come back. It’s around teaming, collaboration, mentoring and what you’re missing being at home. The survey also addresses what tasks you feel are more productively done at home. Other clients question the culture and social aspect of work, and how that impacts their relationships with coworkers and creativity and innovation. That’s a big topic.
Q: Do the responses vary significantly by industry?
A: From my own personal observation, I feel everybody is equally confused. But I think it’s less industry based, but more generation-based. I look at TRIA: Our offices stayed open because we were deemed essential, and it’s interesting to find most of our junior staff don’t come in as much because they’re much more comfortable doing things remotely and they grew up with the virtual meeting as “normal.” For us who are used to seeing people in person, it’s different and you see more of the older generation at work.
Q: What programming tools do you use to help clients make these decisions?
A: Our programming process is quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative is how big and how many? We set up a spreadsheet, put the square-footage and people in and how much space you need. With COVID, circulation needs to be increased. The other, which is more qualitative, is visioning sessions and interviews with clients to understand their culture and what they want to accomplish. The space is where our clients create a culture for their employees and their clients, so it’s asking questions about what they want and need in the space.
Q: How can architects use design to advance diversity, equity and inclusion?
A: I’m a firm believer in universal design as a concept. A lot of people think only in terms of accessibility. That’s one thing. You want to design a space that makes every person feel comfortable. We should be celebrating ramps instead of making it an additional thing in case somebody needs it. You’re not just doing that for the person in the wheelchair. You’re doing it for the employee who goes skiing and breaks a leg. It isn’t just about the disability. You’ve got to include everyone, whether they’re tall or short. I’m 5–1, so some spaces are hard to navigate and read something at a typical height.
It’s also to celebrate cultural diversity and pay attention to the psychology of certain colors. Some colors mean things that make people uncomfortable. My mom always tells me in Asian culture, red is a very lucky color. If you look at the stock market in Asia, red is positive and green is negative. It’s creating these things that everybody enjoys and celebrating diversity. As a woman and mother, we talk about wellness rooms that double as a sick room. As a working mother, I do not want to pump my milk in a room that somebody just got sick in. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s simple stuff.
Q: As an Asian woman, have you encountered biased attitudes or treatment in your professional life?
A: I definitely have in my career experienced stereotyping but I can tell you whether it’s because I’m a woman or an Asian. The fortunate thing is we live in a community where diversity is celebrated. I feel my Asian identity has less of an influence than being a woman, but it’s hard for me to decipher because I’m both all the time. It’s getting better, but a lot of clients, when I’m having a meeting with the C-suite, often I’m the only woman in a room of older white men. There is always this stereotype because I look younger: Does she know what she’s doing? Fortunately, it hasn’t been to the point where it’s been crippling or I can’t handle it.
Q: How has your own work routine changed over the past year, and how do you rate your own productivity compared to pre-pandemic?
A: I come in more often because I’m new to TRIA, so for me to meet people and establish my presence and understand the culture, I need to be physically here. I have been coming in three days, and the last two weeks four days, on average. I think people are productive. When doing head down work, checking emails, it’s much easier at home in some ways because there’s no distractions. The benefit to the office is doing collaborative work, especially creative work.
Shen’s Five Favorite Children’s Books:
1. “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
2. “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein
3. “Saturday” by Oge Mora
4. “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney
5. “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson