Distributed Work and the Displaced Workplace

By Robert Atkinson | Project Manager, Associate

Swift, decisive, and humane action that maintains an effective level of operation is the goal of many enterprises in response to a crisis like the current pandemic. That accomplished, staying agile and prepared is essential to handle repercussions and new upheavals. For some, distributed work, with its own set of necessities, can help achieve that goal.

Pre-planning for a quick, adaptive capability across all business sectors should be in the playbook of any enterprise. As we’ve seen, for companies that invest and empower staff with the technology to work remotely, collective yet distributed work done in self-isolation can support a continued work-flow, often with a relatively unchanged daily schedule. Face-to-face encounters are recast as Skype or Zoom meetings. Synchronous communication is replaced by simple emails, Microsoft Teams, Marco Polo, or Slack messages that don’t require the simultaneous presence of sender and recipient. The amount of time these methods of communication can help to save can add up, and make the workday more manageable. Success rides on technology, connection speed, secure software, employee innovation, and leadership.  

A company transforms itself, not just organizationally but culturally, when transitioning to a distributed work mode. The fact of working remotely nurtures the concept and mindset required for production in a dispersed scenario, demanding a high level of communication and trust even as it creates new opportunities.


Managing Distributed Work

For management this can mean a serious shift in the notion of leadership from supervising employees on a fixed schedule in a dedicated workplace to monitoring an amorphous virtual workplace, where trust and the belief that employees can and will deal with tasks independently and self-sufficiently is required. With so many parts to a project and changes and uncertainties both upstream and downstream triggered by the crisis, managing complexity means tempering fixed notions of accustomed methodology, accurate prediction, and planning. Now more than ever, by rethinking some traditional managerial concerns—regular office hours, set routines, and fixed protocols—organizations can increase staff autonomy, build trust, and inspire the kind of innovation and creativity that allows employees to be a more integral part of a network.

Another factor in the absence of a company-dedicated workspace can be increased ambiguity. In a shared remote work setting, communication can be open to more than one interpretation resulting in misunderstandings and misdirection. Here both low-tech (pick up the phone) and high-tech solutions are useful to reduce complexity and ambiguity.

A business culture moving to remote work in the midst of adapting to a crisis will change its behaviors. Current information will provide the basis for cognition, forcing organizations to deal with uncertainty driven in part by the inability to assess and understand all aspects of a project at once. A strategic approach, however, that operates under multiple outcomes and is premised on organizational flexibility can offer effective solutions.

The emphasis has to be on shared responsibility and the expertise of each team member, allowing all to work and stretch within and beyond their recognized efficiencies. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each team member means guiding their skills, inspiring their ingenuity, and identifying opportunities for grow within a format that allows all creative suggestions to be heard.

IA-designed interior workspace in Charlotte North Carolina

Confidential IA client in Charlotte, NC.

Key Takeaways

A key takeaway learned from working in distributed mode is the importance of relationships and rapport. This includes the relationship of employees to management and to one another, and more broadly to the company and its values and objectives. Involving staff with the entire process of a project is one way to nurture that connection and inspire investment.

Trust is another factor. With staff no longer gathered each day at a dedicated workplace, corporate hierarchies and power structures are destabilised by default.  The era of exclusive management-driven solutions, once the norm, now seems endearingly quaint as virtual teams self-organize, assume new roles and responsibilities, and allow one another enough freedom and agency to get the job done. Granted, employees must clearly understand their roles, responsibilities, and deliverables and work from there. In addition, what has made the experience of distributed work interesting is not just the exercise of doing remotely what was normally done in an office but the pronounced sense of purpose it inspires.

Case Study

Post lockdown, IA was able to continue its operational capability relatively seamlessly, as technological enhancements previously installed to accommodate remote work were tweaked, giving staff access to all servers and software to enable further collaboration.

In London, where I am based, teams meet every morning for virtual coffee to share a common understanding of each project, discuss progress and/or disruptions that may have occurred over the last 24 hours, and agree on what our response should be. Work is distributed and teams stay in constant contact for updates, to push through approvals, and to inform each other of developments liable to impact the project. Our problem solving has become much more rapid, sometimes developing more than one creative solution that we stress test against different variables before pursuing further.

Closing Thoughts

If working from home becomes a more medium-term or long-term prospect for an organization, understanding the appropriate work-life balance for all colleagues means that loyalty lies with one another’s wellbeing along with that of the project. When employees are healthy and happy they are more efficient and dedicated to the company and its mission.

In the absence of a physical office, through choice or outside circumstances, relationships, trust, engagement, purpose, and caring can carry the company culture forward. A resilient workplace as a human environment and the site of enterprise productivity can be both virtual or physical.

Robert Atkinson

Project Manager/Associate

Based in IA’s London office, Rob Atkinson is a sustainability/wellness subject matter expert and frequent blog contributor. With over 20 years of design industry experience, he has worked on projects in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

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