Alternative Workplace Strategies: Understanding Process and Approach
Tom Mulhern in Consulting, Mobility, Workplace Design

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of companies seeking to align their work environments to a world that’s fast, flat, mobile, and global. One approach that appears to be a win-win-win for the individual, the organization, and the world is to break the bond between “work” and “the office” using Alternative Workplace Strategies (AWS).

The basic premise of AWS is using less real estate to support more performance. The people are happier because they spend more time being productive in places outside the office – client sites, home, coffee shops nearer to their homes – and less time commuting and polluting. When people do come into the office, they use their time to collaborate and build connections to each other and to the organization’s culture and brand.

Alternative Workplace Strategies run a pretty wide gamut, from telecommuting – in which the company doesn’t require the employee to come into the office at all – to “flex work” – in which the company lets the employee choose when and how to come into the office – to “free address” – in which the company simply doesn’t assign work space to specific people, but instead provides a range of office and desk types and lets the team sort it out on a daily or weekly basis. And there are other flavors, distinguished not only by work setting but also by policy and technology variations. For example, some companies are paying for home offices. Others (far more) are simply permitting or supporting them.

Below are ten important lessons we’ve learned from our experience with Alternative Workplace Strategies to date:

  1. HR + IT + RE. Depending on the organization and driver, one of these functions may lead, but your program won't be successful unless all three are at the table in a coordinated effort.
  2. Set concrete, clear ROI targets. There are many potential paybacks from AWS, and usually a pretty solid business case can be made. It's important to know which returns on investment are being targeted and the specific impacts desired. If the payback is going to come from Real Estate savings, a different program will emerge than one where the payback is from talent attraction or process efficiency.
  3. Focus on gain rather than loss. Rather than “taking away a seat,” AWS can and should mean that people “get” something – a system of spaces, special access to technology and support, additional training, etc.
  4. Design for presence, not absence. Successful alternative work spaces are not just shrunk-down versions of standard workspace. They are highly activated places in which things that need to happen face-to-face happen in extraordinary ways. This is fundamental: as going to the office becomes optional, organizations need to create offices worth going to.
  5. Mobility is an acquired taste. In prospect, alternative work settings can be intimidating to many people. There are real, and very valid, concerns about personal visibility, career growth, distraction, loss of status, and lack of information. There is no way to overcome these concerns in the abstract, they must be handled with a strong plan in place.
  6. Be flexible about flexibility. AWS is by no means for everyone. Not only are certain job roles unsuited to remote collaboration, but certain personalities do not experience the positives of mobility, only its negatives. Several successful programs operate on an annual enrollment or “opt-in” basis. Contributors and managers who are not comfortable or confident with flexibility after having tried it should not be forced.
  7. Get on the same page. AWS, like many emergent ideas, is not understood the same way by all people. For many, the definition is limited to “Work From Home” or “Hoteling.” Differences in definition can wreak havoc as people may use the same language to refer to very different things.
  8. Beware stereotypes. Two assumptions – that mobility is for young people and that it is for high-tech workers – are often exactly wrong. Young people need mentoring, which often requires face-to-face communication. Some of the most advanced technology tasks require tight, co-located teams.
  9. Link time and space. People count on space – co-location and fixed workstation addresses – to manage time. When space becomes more variable, people need to focus very explicitly on time management. Not all groups contemplating mobility/AWS will figure this out during a planning phase, so it's important to draw their attention to strategies to manage this (common work hours, for instance).
  10. Count what really counts. One of the biggest benefits of AWS is that it forces companies to understand productivity at a much deeper level. Managers can no longer simply rely on seeing who’s at their desk as a way to (often inaccurately) measure who is working. Instead they can step back and identify the results they seek and then manage those results.
Tom Mulhern, a strategic planner in Gensler’s Chicago office, works at the intersection of people, space, and technology. He consults with clients and design teams to identify and create contexts for great design. Tom is fascinated with the synergies of office space and the challenges, and unexpected synergies, that designing a great workplace present. Got a workplace design question? Shoot Tom an email at
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