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As ceo of Vitra, one of the world’s largest design brands and global suppliers of office, home and public furniture, Nora Fehlbaum is in a unique position. While steering her company through the pandemic, she and her brand have become a go-to resource for architects, designers and ceos who are grappling with the question of how we will work in the future. In her words, this topic has “never been so interesting” and it’s now high on the agenda in discussions worldwide. Sitting down at Vitra’s base near Basel – a handsome, airy Frank Gehry building – we discuss what has been learnt.

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Nora Fehlbaum in her office near Basel

How is Vitra forecasting what the future of work will look like?
Before we talk about who works where and what the workspace looks like, we need to clarify how much physical office time is needed, how much remote-working time is needed and what works best for whom. We identified four types. We have the “workplace resident”, who has to be physically present – someone in a workshop or factory. Then there are the “enthusiasts”, who don’t have to be there all the time but like working from the office and profit from interactions with their team. We then have the “citizens”, who spend more than half of their time at the office, perhaps an IT person who sometimes needs to have their head down at home working through one task for a day. We finally have the “nomads”, a small category where someone is perhaps based in another country. But at Vitra almost no one is out of the office more than 50 per cent of the time. If staff are out more than they are in, it becomes too disruptive. By defining these groups, we’re solving issues that apply to some of our customers as well.

It sounds like learning from your own offices is becoming a strong asset for helping clients to understand how to use your products in their workspace design...
This is something we have been doing for decades. At the moment we’re building our “Club Office” here in Birsfelden, which is a concept of three different working modes that can be viewed by visitors and enjoyed by our staff. The first work mode is an informal, collaborative set-up where the serendipitous moments of creativity that everybody talks about in the creative industries can happen. The second part is designed to get people collaborating more productively and rather formally. It offers spaces where teams can come together to get a specific project done, almost war room-like set-ups. The third mode is about privacy, where you can read contracts undisturbed and people know you’re in the office but also that you want to be left alone. We realised that we have these different subcultures and work modes, so it was interesting to serve those and improve our offering.

“For decades now we’ve seen signs of the home moving into the office”

How much is Vitra rethinking the design of its products?
There are new functions and needs that our r&d department is working on serving better. What I also find interesting is the ways in which existing products can be applied differently. So, for example, if you’re working from home more regularly you might want an ergonomic task chair but you might not want the full “machine”. If you’re living in a small apartment you don’t want that symbol of productivity always around you. You might choose something more suited to a residential environment, but that still has height adjustability. This could be our classic Eames Aluminium or Eames Soft Pad chairs or our Rookie chair, which still serve this sort of environment but are more affordable.

We’re entering a very interesting phase of workplace design. For decades now we’ve seen signs of the home moving into the office. So offices have become softer with more textiles, brighter colours, sofas and so on – we’ve been trying to make people comfortable at work. Now, suddenly you have the office moving into the domestic environment.

For the entrepreneurs and managers reading this, what are the design fixes that will help get staff back into the office?
The expectations that staff now have of the work environment, which is worth the trouble of travelling to, is simply going to be higher. I visited a finance office in Zürich recently and they told me that they wanted to have their staff to come back in. I looked at the workspaces and thought, “These are highly paid people who probably have beautiful houses with great furniture and lovely views – and this office is squeezing people into rows of desks in one room and asking them to have sad desk lunches.” I am not surprised that people aren’t volunteering to come back to environments like that.

Getting people back in the office comes down to what you as an employer want from your team. Those intentions need to have an impact on the environment you build. Right now we’re having a lot of great conversations about making more attractive workspaces.

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