Alternative workplaces: Then versus now

In 1998, the Harvard Business Review published a futuristic article, The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work. While it was a new and exciting concept back then, in 2023, it isn’t too groundbreaking. If anything, it’s the new normal.

It describes remote work and a growing detachment from the traditional workplace. That said, it’s a prophetic-sounding piece from more than 20 years ago that predicted the alternative workplace we’re seeing today. 

Indeed, we have moved from an era in which people actively seek connections with one another to an era in which people decide when and where to disconnect — electronically and socially. Current organizations pursuing alternative workplace initiatives — particularly those with home office arrangements — must be mindful of that paradox. 

The rise of the alternative workplace has been a long time coming, as evidenced by the above passage. The global pandemic was just the latest catalyst driving alternative solutions into the spotlight. Today, alternative workplace strategies have taken center stage and are fulfilling the vision first adopted in 1998.

Alternative workplace definition 

What is an alternative workplace? It’s a fair question and readily answered by many of the work trends we’re familiar with today. Telecommuting and remote work. Coworking. These paint a picture of the alternative workplace. 

Alternative workplaces refer to where employees work that is not in an office, and how that environment supports their productivity.

In 1998, “alternative workplace” focused more specifically on alternatives to working in an office. Today, the definition focuses more on where employees work and how that environment supports them — from a well-furnished coworking space to the free Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop.  

Key elements of the alternative workplace 

Alternative workplaces are highly diverse because they can encompass just about any environment that supports work. So long as it supports your ability to work and it’s outside of the “home base” workplace, it falls under the guise of an alternative workplace. 

A coworking space might have an office feel and all the amenities of a traditional workplace. Still, it’s an alternative workplace because professionals from other companies and career paths surround you. Your home office is an alternative workplace. Even an airport lounge is an alternative workplace — even if you only work there for 45 minutes before a flight. 

Are you sitting in an alternative workspace right now? Take stock of the environment and see if it offers these essential elements: 

  • Are you using your own technology? 
  • Do you have control over your seating? 
  • Do you have control over your work habits? 
  • Is the environment conducive to your work? 
  • Are there people other than coworkers around you? 

Examples of alternative workplace

Most coffee shops, coworking spaces, home offices, breakout spaces, airport terminals, public libraries, and similar facilities fit the bill. But the alternative workplace isn’t only shaped by physical surroundings — more important is how it empowers employees.

Emphasize the worker instead of the workplace 

Alternative workspaces are defined by the freedoms they afford workers. These workplaces sever the tie between work and any one single place, which also means they give employees the power to self-govern. When allowed to choose their own venue and work in their own way, many workers seize the opportunity to do their best work in their best manner. 

It’s not surprising that many companies invested in alternative workplace strategies over the past two decades — even pre-pandemic. Unlinking work from the workplace and instead hitching work to the worker brings untold flexibility to the concept of what a workplace is. Hence, the current rise in alternative workplaces.

If an employee can produce 100% regardless of whether they work at a desk, in an office, or an easy chair at home, does it matter where they work? Most likely not. What if they could accomplish 120% from their easy chair? It’s a very real driver behind the hype in alternative workplaces. 

Alternative workplace concepts come down to an investment in work and the worker, instead of the workplace. So long as they can do the job, who’s to stop employees from doing it in a place that’s comfortable, familiar, and supportive of their personal work habits? It’s a trade many employers willingly make for bolstered productivity, improved culture, and employee satisfaction.

Alternatives are part of today’s modern workplace 

This is not a fad” is a simple but striking sentence in the groundbreaking 1998 Harvard Business Review article. Indeed, it’s not, especially to have survived over 20 years and become the foundation for the adaptive workplace solutions we see today. 

The rise of the internet, cloud applications, and better computing technology have all made alternative workplaces viable solutions as companies navigate the modern workplace.

Remote work, flex scheduling, hoteling, experiential workspaces, and coworking are all alternative forms of work, but they’re only part of the greater alternative workplace employees rely on today. 

Striking the perfect balance in workplace flexibility

How do workplace leaders and facility managers help strike a balance between the hybrid work model and the employee experience? How do remote employees who work from home feel connected to other team members who are working in an office on a set number of days per week?  

Answers to these questions reflect an identifiable tension between flexibility and certainty. While not a binary conflict, employees now desire to work more fluidly than ever before, yet organizations have a real need for predictable business outcomes.  

This tension can cause a variety of mixed reactions and behaviors from employees, managers, and leaders. It’s certainly playing out in the data we’ve captured from our customers in our most recent quarterly Workplace Index report and from the hundreds of conversations with facility managers and operations leaders we’ve spoken with regularly on our podcasts 

In the last year, there has been expansion of desk bookings across the globe but at very different paces and velocity depending on the region, according to our latest Workplace Index report: 

  • Asia Pacific (176%) 
  • Europe, Middle East and Africa (839%) 
  • Americas (281%) 

Most office environments are adapting to balance workplace flexibility, but it is not an easy feat. Many organizations realize they need to support their employees’ ability to work from nearly any work location – to help balance their personal lives while working to increase productivity, retain employees, and keep everyone engaged. 

Get the entire 2023 Workplace Index: Q1 report now. 

How can you balance flexibility in the workplace today? Hybrid work vs. traditional work

Much of the C-Suite is aware today’s workforce wants more autonomy than they’ve had in the past. Many employees expect to choose when they go into the office. From wanting to spend less time and money commuting or needing to help with family caregiving, today’s employees expect more work and life balance.  

“When employees perceive that they are free to perform their work in their own way within an autonomy-supportive context, they may be more likely to find that work engaging, [to] possess more favorable evaluations of the job, and [to] proactively engage with their environment and others with whom they work,” finds researchers from the scientific publication Emotion and Motivation, per the CFO article “Autonomy in the Workplace: Boost Employee Productivity and Happiness.”  

The challenge? With flexibility comes variance — and it has a cost. When daily schedules vary from team member to team member, space planning in shared workspaces can be especially tricky. It can create maintenance and operations friction for teams who need to plan around fluctuating workspace needs and building resource demand.  

Today, most organizations have directional policies on the company’s desired in-office attendance. Hybrid vs. traditional work models show: 

  • Split week: 35% 
  • At will: 24% 
  • Office first: 12% 
  • Designated teams for hybrid: 12% 
  • Remote-first: 8% 
  • Week by week: 4% 

Take note: Totally remote work is not as prevalent as you might imagine. Organizations and employees are finding value in being together. The days of commuting in five days a week for traditional work has dramatically shifted.  

A new maintenance and operation model arises: Midweek office occupancy

When we separate return visits from unique visitors, we have seen a 35% increase in visitor check-ins year over year. Peaking in November 2022, visits have now exceeded pre-pandemic visitor traffic levels with a gain of 60% from January 2022. Our most recent quarterly data continues to show a trend of unique visitors increasing over time overall.  

But on what days? To understand this more precisely, look at meeting room bookings. Over the past three quarters, most companies are experiencing a rise in what we call the midweek mountain since Monday and Friday are the least reserved days of the week. The data is loud and clear: Room bookings are highest on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — with similar patterns in desk bookings.  

What does this mean for the future workplace? For facility managers, maintenance needs to be planned around lower demand times. You need to choreograph maintenance work orders by watching attendance data closely and pay close attention to meeting room and desk bookings. It will all become a delicate balancing act as workplace leaders seek to create the optimal use of resources.  

Real estate teams face similar challenges with variable occupancy rates. There is no doubt that visitors to the office are on the rise, and there is increasing evidence to suggest these visitors are capitalizing on critical in-person connections by arranging multiple meetings. But with today’s flexible work patterns, it’s still difficult to get future visibility on likely office attendance.  


Workplace flexibility does not mean complete office exemption. The office is for human connection.

Think about this fact: Our customers have experienced 495% growth in collaborative room bookings since the beginning of 2022. Employees crave human social connection, unity, and a sense of being part of a whole. Employees are conscious of the need for collaboration to get things done and to support company culture and support other team members in person.  

Having a positive company culture is an important driver of employee retention and in attracting new potential employees. Employees often state that in-person proximity to management helps with career advancement and finding mentorship too. Employees desire to be together, just not every day.  


How to balance workplace flexibility and business certainty

To find balance, you need open communication and clear hybrid work policies with all team members using reliable technologies. This includes having solid video conferencing, strong presence awareness capabilities that make it easy to view and share in-office work schedules, and feature-rich collaboration software. 

But you also need accurate, reliable attendance and occupancy data that works in as close to real time as possible. How do you achieve all of this needed balance?  

Reinforce planning transparency and encourage weekly participation.

Make it about everyone on the team – not rules for the sake of rules. Managers can lead by example by sharing their calendar. In our case, we have plug-ins for collaboration software such as Microsoft Teams that make it super easy to share schedules and desk and room bookings, so everything is transparent.  

Make onsite the new offsite experience

Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but in-office attendance is not guaranteed anymore. The social aspect of the office is crucial now – as is the area of the office and the rooms you use. The in-office experience matters, so treat it as an event. Organize special lunches or happy hours or combine meetings with other departments and encourage collaboration with other teams.  

Encourage in-person training and development – and mentorship

This is especially important for younger workers that want career growth opportunities. If employees feel their growth is limited, they are more likely to seek different employment. The office should be seen as the meeting place for career expansion. 

See all the data. Download the full 2023 Workplace Index: Q1 report today.