‘Distributed work’ and how it will impact employees and organisations
The pandemic has pushed employers to more flexible ways of working, and “distributed work”, which embraces a variety of spatial possibilities, appears to be the most viable for many.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made familiar and permanent many terms regarding workplace practices that were sidelined as optional scenarios. WFH (Work from Home), IRL (an acronym for In Real Life, versus activities undertaken on digital platforms), WFA (Work from Anywhere), remote working and distributed work are some of them.
What ties them together is their relation to a flexible mode of working that company leaders have had to grapple with for their businesses to carry on amid pandemic isolation and minimal travel.
With mutated strains causing repeated lockdowns and ups-and-downs in case numbers delaying a life back to normal, the reality is that a hybrid model will become the new norm whether we like it or not, particularly among more highly skilled and well-educated workers in particular industries.
“Profound change in the behaviour of organisations and individuals does not come easily. The technology and digital connectivity that enables WFH has been available for years, but it took a global pandemic for remote working to lose its stigma and for us to begin thinking about the broader implications of distributed work,” said Nora Fehlbaum.
The CEO of Swiss furniture company Vitra – a forerunner of inventive workplace solutions – highlighted this in the first session of Vitra Talks. The series of 90-minute digital seminars focusing on the future of work was held in March this year.
The topic Distributed Work was timely, considering how a large percentage of the global workforce in developed countries have had to work from home or venues other than the office due to lockdowns. It differs from remote working in that the latter refers to a separate place of work for the individual worker, while distributed work is an organisational model that sees workspaces spread intentionally across an assortment of spatial typologies – be it from home, a co-working location, or even a cafe.
The model embraces variations. It can be partially distributed with both on- and off-site employees, or fully distributed. Some employees may be stationed mainly in the office but work from home a few days a week.
The basis is that regardless of place, work can be done effectively, and the company offers support and resources for that to happen. This involves creating working conditions that are conducive, be it in or out of the office, and that promotes the safety, well-being, productivity, creativity and personal development of employees.
“The technology and digital connectivity that enables WFH has been available for years, but it took a global pandemic for remote working to lose its stigma and for us to begin thinking about the broader implications of distributed work.” – Nora Fehlbaum
The shift to distributed work has repercussions on spatial design in the affected venues. “At Vitra, we believe that our surroundings shape our thoughts and feelings. Our interiors influence our every day. Spaces can shift corporate culture, lift spirits and impact our well-being,” said Fehlbaum.
Products like Vitra’s Soft Work modular sofa that accommodates both large and intimate groups, as well as the Dancing Wall mobile partition that can easily divide offices into zones or become green walls were designed along this mindset.
Research has shown that the office is still vital in seeding spontaneous discussions, which may lead to creative outcomes. The sense of camaraderie that builds a sense of belonging to the organisation is also hard to replicate when working alone.
“In a way, the best offices are like hospitable homes, but for our working selves, welcoming without being overwhelming, providing some refuge, some conviviality, and a place, so to speak, to go from,” said Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD and a speaker at the Vitra Talks session.
“Good leaders… try to cultivate cultures that foster a combination of autonomy and community. You see those efforts reflected in office culture. Some of us, and some types of work require more solitude, others require more sociality, but in general when we can move between the two without much effort, we tend to feel good,” he added.
“In a way, the best offices are like hospital homes, but for our working selves, welcoming without being overwhelming, providing some refuge, some conviviality, and a place, so to speak, to go from.” – Gianpiero Petriglieri
Designers have also had to respond similarly.
In the Anshu IBC @ Parkview Green Beijing office, architect and co-founder of Formwerkz Architects Gwen Tan incorporated touchscreens onto the pantry’s central counter so that conversations and exchange of ideas can be extended onto the digital platform even when one is holding a coffee cup.
“It can transform to accommodate table-top games during break times, as well as facilitate the presentation of certain information that is best studied at planar view,” she said.
In the design of the library at ARCC co-working office’s flagship location at One Marina Boulevard, which was completed last year, she specified Hay DLM lightweight side tables with handles that allow one to lift with one hand and move to a preferred location even if one’s mobile phone is placed on it, thanks to an upturned edge.
The co-working office is an excellent poster child of agile working. Employers seeking business continuity plans to meet safe distancing measures looked to satellite locations such as these to offer staff rostered to work from home an alternative venue. At the same time, the hot-desking option was ideal for workers who needed an immediate work space away from the hubbub of home.
“We have been relying on technology for the past six years or so. This pandemic has accelerated the use of it not only in work styles, but also in our daily lives,” said Tatiana Gomez, workplace consultant at Herman Miller.
The home setting saw many workers outfitting their homes and study rooms to replicate effective office design solutions, such as with ergonomic office chairs and adjustable tables that support both sitting and standing heights. Herman Miller’s new OE1 collection responds to this. It adapts to any existing or new scenario regardless of scale, such as an impromptu office hallway or a small study room in the home, and will be available in the Asia-Pacific at the end of 2021.
Micro Packs is a height-adjustable table in a small footprint – many such tables are larger sized – that can be used as an individual workstation, in a three-way collaborative configuration of a typical four-way office cluster; Storage Trolleys is a moveable accessories unit which has an upholstered top that doubles as a seat for colleagues when they come over.
Previously many office products have been designed to address only one or two issues at a time. “It is a great example of an innovative product line that responds to the demand for distributed work and everything that will be important in the new workplace – adaptability, hybrid work, inherent flexibility, playfulness, smaller-scaled neighbourhoods and choice,” said Gomez.