Vitra Summit Experts Weigh in On Whether We’ll Miss the Office

The first Vitra Summit saw industry experts including Virgil Abloh, Google’s VP of Design, world-renowned designer Ilse Crawford, and Design Miami’s Aric Chen come together to tackle some of the biggest questions facing our increasingly decentralized workspaces, from how complex social ecosystems shift online to the alchemy of a “good office,” and the aesthetics of space in a post-covid world.

With more people than ever currently working from home, the very existence of the office as a workplace has been called into question this year. It’s something our newest White Paper — “IN FAKE LIFE” — considered recently, so we were particularly intrigued to find out about what leading experts had to say about the existential threat to office culture as we know it.

The question “Will we miss the office if it disappears?” was posed to psychotherapist and author of How’s Work?, Esther Perel, to Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Gianpiero Petriglieri, and to Gary Turnbull of design firm Sevil Peach. Each panelist proved to be uniquely positioned to address the shifting psychological and empathetic attitudes to work as the domestic space became the ad hoc workspace of 2020.

Petriglieri argued that the office is “a place in which your body can inhabit your working identity, your ‘self’ at work.” He suggests that “culture always meets flesh at some point” and for almost 100 years the place where working culture meets workers’ flesh has been the office – a place to inhabit working life.

He contended that the question should actually be “who will miss the office if it disappears?” If the office was a place of comfort for you, maybe of liberation, a place of the imagination, then you probably will miss it. If, on the other hand, it was a place of suffering and of feeling invisible, then you might feel liberated by the disappearing office.

“I found that people like me were very fond of their office. They think of it almost as a sanctuary for their work,” he noted. “And I’ve also met people who thought the office was a place where work went to die.”Petriglieri is in a privileged position compared to most office workers. His work environment is self-contained, with its own espresso machine and coaches. He argues that “good offices” such as his allow space for solitude and concentration. “You have to have a box if you want to think outside of the box.”

For Perel, the office often viewed the worker through the lens of a contract, with productivity being measured by time rather than output and delivery. Hard skills have been prioritized while the relational dimensions of work were largely devalued. With the shift to the home office, Perel reveals, “the word on the market is the gap of the soft skills.”

What’s more, with the shift to a more digitized and decentralized workspace, people are increasingly concerned about the loss of the human dimension. Like many of us, Perel asked, “what will happen to collaboration, to how we establish trust, to how we take those lunches that are a little bit longer?” We’re becoming more aware of the fact that we can do the tasks outside of the box, “but what do you do about the relationships that seem to coalesce around the box?” After all, this is the coach where salaries are negotiated, the coffee area where ideas begin to take shape.

As a designer, the coronavirus has taken a toll on the creative aspects of Gary Turnbull’s professional life. “It’s really so much more effective with personal contact.” He concedes that for his design practice, Zoom has been a fantastic tool but “if you’re trying to discuss an emotive issue, a feeling, it’s really difficult. You can talk about square meters or the cooling or a circulation path, but these softer aspects are harder to get across.”
Looking forward to the office space in a post-covid world, Turnbull predicts that, “the post-Covid office is really going to be about the aesthetics of space. I think we’re going to be far more conscious of it.” The answer involves “creating a series of possibilities for people to really select how they want to work with options to socially distance and isolate as they choose. Reintroducing cubicles, however, would undo the progress made to the social structure of the office.
For Perel, work has become an identity project, where one finds fulfillment, purpose, identity, and for some, a sense of belonging things we previously asked of governments, and religious institutions. “I don’t see that changing,” she said.

Moderator Mateo Kries closed the discussion with the prognostication “we won’t miss it because it won’t disappear. It will change, it will adapt, hopefully adapting in a positive way to what you all mentioned today.”

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