Distributed work

Today I hosted a workshop on innovation in a distributed work environment. A little more than a year ago, it might have been “innovation in a remote work environment.” But it is more clear now that distributed is a better term: many of us will be distributed across space and time for our jobs going forward.

I don’t think the office is going to go away. There are plenty of incentives to bring people back to working together in person, quite aside from the fact that many people simply prefer it to the home office.

Anecdotally, I talked with a flight attendant at Alaska Airlines last week who told me that they were starting to see their MVP Gold tier customers back on planes for work trips. One of them reported that they had lost a customer because a competitor had been making trips in person while they had remained virtual.

This kind of pressure is going to drive business travel back quickly. As more people become vaccinated, flying becomes safer and safer, even for people like me who aren’t going to be vaccinated until maybe June or July.

What has changed, and what will likely stay changed, is that we now understand that most kinds of knowledge work can be done from anywhere, for at least a year. This is good and bad. It’s good because it means lots of us have more options. We can live in a different city than we work. Startups, always at a disadvantage on salary and benefits when competing for top talent, can now compete on flexibility.

As we’ve taken knowledge work home over the past year, we’ve also learned to distribute that workload over the entire 24 hours of the day. For some people this is a good thing, and for many it is not. Knowledge work has always bled outside the edges of a 9 to 5 workday, but now it’s inverted: sometimes it bleeds in to the classical workday.

The other thing we’ve learned to distribute is communication. It used to be that live conversation was the gold standard, and maybe accidental “hallway” conversations were the best of those. With kid schedules, health schedules, shared home-office schedules, and more to juggle, we’ve gotten more used to the idea that we may have to communicate asynchronously to get things done.

Overall, there are a lot of interesting opportunities here to change the norms around work once we go back to working in-person. There are a lot of opportunities to build companies around the ways our habits and norms are going to change, and I think many of them will have to do with travel and commuting, both of which will probably look very different in a few years.