The post-pandemic world of distributed work

April 05, 2021

From reduced real estate costs, global recruitment and geographic flexibility to fewer commutes and better work/life balance, the pandemic taught the white-collar world that work can be done in more fluid and flexible ways than originally imagined. In 2020, we learnt to be more agile within our own four walls but now the world is opening up again, it’s time to start asking, what will home working look like, how will the role of the office change and how can we find new ways to work together?

TFP attended the Vitra Sessions on Distributed Work – key digital sprints overseen by Vitra’s CEO, Nora Fehlbaum, delving into the possibilities of what work will look like post-pandemic and how design will play a part in that. Here are our key takeaways.

Long-term distributed working needs to be humane and sustainable

In the first session, From Remote to Distributed Work – Implications for Individuals and Organisations, Gianpiero Petriglieri – a management professor at INSEAD – alongside Vaude’s CEO Antje Von Dewitz and Nora Fehlbaum discussed the need for this post-pandemic transition to not just focus on practicality but on humanity, as well.

Different companies will approach distributed working in different ways and Fehlbaum stressed the need for company leaders to decide where on the spectrum of ‘remote’ to ‘in office’ they want to fall and the practicalities of what this will look like.

They discussed the fact that the value of the office space is changing – becoming more a place for ‘gathering’ to ‘access other minds’ and enjoy ‘interdisciplinary communication’ rather than simply a place to sit and do work – and, as pointed out by Von Dewitz, is becoming more of a ‘supporting act’ to the people companies employ.

With much more remote working expected, though, how do leaders keep company culture alive? Von Dewitz pointed out that the best way to do this will, indeed, be to focus on the people. Quality of life – both in work and in personal time – is of utmost importance because companies need ‘the whole energy’ of a person when they show up to work. In order to do this, Vaude is distributing care packages for those working remotely on particularly tough projects and managers are taking part in weekly ‘virtual campfire’ discussions that can be watched by everyone. Over at Vitra, Fehlbaum said that homeworking will be consciously organised in advance between team leaders and members, based on each person’s needs and that she, as CEO, will be setting the example of valuing productivity over presenteeism by not always working from the office.

We need to find ways to foster an ‘open door’ policy, even when working remotely

Bestselling authors of The Decision Book, Mikael Krogerius and Roman Tschäppeler tapped into the difficulties we will now face in making decisions, particularly about ‘unknown unknowns’ – the things we don’t even know we don’t know. They explored the fact that, though our set up is dramatically shifting, our cognitive logic has remained the same. Our ability to innovate depends on the amount of spontaneous input we receive through chance encounters and conversations – something that remote working and all the uncertainty it presents, will make infinitely more challenging.

In order to overcome this new hurdle, they suggest fostering a digital version of an ‘open door policy’ – an open invitation for employees and team leaders to chat about anything, as such conversations are what often lead to new ideas and new solutions.

Our focus should not always be on productivity

In the third session, CEO Gill Parker and CCO Colin Macgadie of BDG architecture + design tapped into the question, can a dispersed team be creative?

Having spent much of their working lives pre-pandemic travelling between offices, they were used to finding creative solutions to remote working problems, whether they were working from a hotel lobby or an airport lounge. Of course, as Macgadie points out, this is a much greater undertaking when you’re trying to mobilise an entire workforce to work remotely.

Whilst the situation has made creatives more trusting and more open to collaboration across time zones, says Parker, it is harder to foster a sense of team spirit when the people who make up that team are dispersed.

Some of the ways BDG has worked to overcome this include monthly studio get togethers – for example, baking competitions between their New York and London offices – more systematic communication practices and a full digitisation of studio projects, allowing everyone to access creative projects virtually. Whilst this has proven an excellent way for their workforce to keep up to date, Macgadie stressed that it would not completely replace in-person collaboration, as input and spontaneous feedback mid-project play a vital role in creative processes. So, whilst dispersed teams are able to be more creative in work processes, a central meeting point for in-person teamwork will remain essential.

Expanding on this point about office roles, Parker noted that though the conversation has shifted away from ‘open plan vs cellular’ and towards ‘home vs office’, it doesn’t have to be binary and that the strength of creative collaboration moving forward will be defined by companies’ willingness to accept a fluid mixture of in-person and virtual working.

Companies will need to foster a culture that makes people feel committed but not captive

With dispersed working becoming the norm, companies will find it harder to retain talent. When we work alone, Gianpiero Petriglieri stated, it’s easy to feel committed to work but isolated from colleagues. The pandemic has left many of us feeling more stressed out and spread out than ever and has strained companies even further – none of us, he pointed out, can any longer expect or promise loyalty.

So, how does one retain talent in this climate? How does one convince talent to stay in a particular role or company? The key, Petriglieri said, is to keep the promise of learning- to offer the opportunity for the talent to do good work that’s meaningful, valuable and allows for growth. In the modern world, much of this happens when people are allowed to connect and collaborate with other talent in serendipitous ways so we will continue to appreciate the opportunity to gather physically, particularly if it focuses on connection, community and learning. Where this is not possible, it will be up to leaders to ensure that people still feel connected to their work and each other.

Because we don’t just need good digital tools, we still need each other, too.

Because people will always remain committed to people and places that make them feel most free.

For more information on the upcoming Vitra Sessions, visit their website here. To keep up to date with news, industry events, and our latest projects – subscribe to our Journal.

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