Distributed work: leveraging decentralization in the office

Distributed work: leveraging decentralization in the office

The term “distributed work” bridges physical and virtual workspaces into a single concept that is said to be the future of the modern office.

Distributed work model is a blended work model, comprising remote and on-site operations in different locations, and removing the mandatory presence at a central hub. Its popularity is rapidly growing, but what does decentralization mean to office spaces, and how to know you’re doing it right? We’ve put down some insights in this article.

The difference between remote work and distributed work

Studies distinguish 4 separate categories of work organization, based on the environment:

  • Fixed static
  • Internally mobile
  • Externally mobile
  • Telecommuting

While most fixed-in-place employees are engaged in independent work, all other models promote collaboration on different levels. Locationwise, in both static and internally mobile setups, the work is conducted without leaving the corporate office environment. External mobility, on the other hand, means detachment from a single place - the operations can be dispersed within the office and (partially or occasionally) hubs, informal facilities, etc. Meanwhile, telecommuting focuses on full-time remote operations, usually from the employees’ home or co-working facility of personal choice.

Let’s visualize all of this:

Categories of work organization

Source: Designing for a Distributed Workforce by Jay L. Brand, Ph.D

Taking into account multiple locations, it is clear that the distributed model is organized keeping external mobility in mind, while remote work is a synonym of telecommuting. This draws a conclusion that the key difference between remote and distributed work is… the office. It is a stable establishment in the distributed work environment, although the workforce is not always there.

How distributed work is changing office design

The office for a distributed workforce is more of a meeting spot than a place to sit at the desk. Given this premise, the workspaces are being (re)designed to accommodate more collaborative areas in a sound-controlled environment.

Irregular office attendance also means smaller density, allowing to space out individual workstations, giving employees more personal space - it is one of the reasons why distributed work is considered as an effective physical distancing strategy. Shrinking levels of office occupancy might lead to an even higher level of distribution as businesses are deciding to exchange large corporate locations to smaller ones.

Along with the design changes comes a fresh space management approach to master all the variables: rooms, desks, locations. An increased number of co-working areas calls for better scheduling, so that the meetings always have a site and don’t overlap. Meanwhile, the workstations’ demand and supply can be managed with a desk booking system. Knowing that most employees are not regulars at the office, wayfinding and digital signage solutions guide people’s behavior and travel paths in and around.

Measuring success: distributed work metrics

Physical space is just one angle of the distributed work arrangement - it also comes down to other investments, such as technology, as well as policies which have a direct impact upon employee satisfaction. To deliver a positive work experience, they all have to go hand-in-hand.

However, it is easier to measure employee satisfaction than to get an understanding of ROI on space and technology innovations. How to know that the distributed workplace model works for you? Knoll Workplace Research paper distinguishes a few frequently used measures of success, for example: seat occupancy and square footage reduction, consequent monetary savings, as well as savings per person. A significant number of companies also use sustainability metrics: water, electricity, and commutes saved, etc.

As a general trend, the same report reveals that distributed workplaces have a greater space utilization (7-12% better than in other types of offices) and benefits from 33% first year cost avoidance over conventional workspace, with greater savings thereafter.

Is it a one-size-fits-all approach? Not always. The key is to focus on business-relevant goals. As many organizations are now turning to a distributed work model in order to create a safe and physically distant work environment, the health and safety indicators might be more informative than financial metrics.

The distributed work package contains a blend of different locations, autonomy over an individual’s work style, and appealing cost savings. Contrary to a popular opinion, decentralization does not mean the end of the office. Instead, it is a chance to create more functional, better utilized, on-demand workspaces.

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