There used to be a time when Corona was a clear indicator of informality. I am talking about the beer brand, available in every other bar, restaurant, and outdoor terrace on earth. While Corona has become mainstream, 10 years ago it was available in the places where the young, the hip, the creative tended to gather. A similar thing happened to the very places and the concept of these places. Informal meeting venues – bars, cafés, restaurants – inside and outside – have become part of the local professional ecosystems. People meeting in a café to work together or nervous applicants having their job interview in the same setting have become an everyday sight. How important these places have become can be seen in the increase of cafés in the last couple of years. In my home town Rotterdam within 5 years the number of cafés increased by 30% – against a country wide trend of decreasing numbers. Similar trends can be seen in other big cities. This to a substantial extent is due to the changes in how and where we work and meet. Cafés worldwide have become what they always used to be in Vienna – places to meet, work, read and interact in an informal way.
The other Corona, the pandemic, made an abrupt end to this informal extension to our offices. Today more or less than entire informal interaction that is crucial in many creative and problem-solving processes has vanished. Offices are closed or only allowing a much smaller workforce in and restaurants and cafés also had to abandon their customers.
What the exact long term effects will be is not clear but what I can see myself is that any process that needs to come up with ideas is hampered by remote working and those people leading teams have to spend a lot more time for formal communication, leaving them less space for other tasks and thinking. I can also see that relationships between colleagues change and often not for the better – many have this feeling of isolation and being alone out there.
While the situation on the office floor might be of temporary nature, the informal office extension in restaurants, bars and cafes will change forever, simply because many of them cease to exist. Many will not open again after the end of the pandemic or will close forever shortly thereafter because the reduced customer base will no longer support their business model. Add to that a looming economic crisis on the aftermath of covid19 and one quickly realizes that a lot of informal interaction is gone for good and with it many new ideas, accidental encounters and chance – ingredients that lie at the base of many amazing trends and inventions. Our global society will loose innovative power – something we need to solve many of the big challenges that we face.
What can we do to avoid that? I think there are opportunities in every problem. First of course we all should support the existing places for informal encounters. Let’s all visit them more often than before. Your takeaway coffee does not have to come from the supermarket around the corner or the 7/11 but it can be brewed in the café. It is usually better there anyway. With that we support their sheer existence we might want to rely on later in the day when holding a meeting with colleagues there.
Secondly, we should make our public space more suitable for informal interaction. Often streets are designed as transport corridors and not much else. They need to change and become linear public spaces that invite to be there and stay. A bench is an opportunity to gather informally. Add to that a table and there is a chance people will also use it to hold a meeting, have lunch together or go outside with their coffee. If the street then also features more green and water it is not only good for the environment but there is also proof that your meeting will happen in less tense atmosphere than in a meeting room in your office.
Thirdly, we need to change the fit out of our squares and parks. The Jardin de Tuileries in Paris has movable chairs which are used in ever-changing configurations depending on weather, time of the day and group of people that gathers in the park. We should learn from that and have movable furniture in every public space that can be used and adapted to the needs of the moment. With that our public spaces not only become more useable, but they also invite informal practices. A concert, a meeting, kids hanging out, aficionados playing chess – all can be facilitated.
Most likely the effect of these actions will not only be the regaining of informal space but also an increased feeling of ownership and care for these places. If Corona – the pandemic – results in these changes then we most likely will have the one or the other informal Corona – the beer – in these places.
by Markus Appenzeller