What is an Alternative Workplace?
By Dave Clifton
Content Strategy Specialist
In 1998, the Harvard Business Review published a futuristic article titled, The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work. Read through this article today, in 2020, and it doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking. It describes remote work and a growing detachment from traditional workplace norms. That said, it’s a prophetic-sounding piece that seems to have predicted the alternative workplace we’re seeing today more than 20 years ago.
Indeed, we are moving from an era in which people seek connections with one another to an era in which people will have to decide when and where to disconnect—both electronically and socially. Organizations that pursue alternative workplace [AW] 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. COVID-19 is the latest catalyst driving once-alternative solutions into the spotlight as companies search for the “new normal.” Is this the year alternative workplace strategies take center stage and fulfill the bold new vision adapted back in 1998?
Alternative workplace definition
What is an alternative workplace? It’s a fair question and one that’s readily answered by many of the work trends we’re familiar with today. Telecommuting and remote work. Coworking. These workplace changes paint a picture of the alternative workplace.
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.
Elements of the alternative workplace
Alternative workplaces are extremely 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, but it’s an alternative workplace because you’re surrounded by professionals from other companies and career paths. 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.
Wondering if you’re 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?
Most coffee shops, coworking spaces, home offices, airport terminals, public libraries, and similar facilities fit the bill. But the alternative workplace isn’t merely shaped by physical surroundings—more important is about 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 way.
It’s not surprising that many companies invested in alternative workplace strategies over the past two decades. 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 rise in alternative workplaces. If an employee can produce 100% regardless of whether they work at a desk in an office or in an easy chair at home, does it matter where they do that work? Probably not. What if they could accomplish 120% from their easy chair? It’s a very real driver behind the rise 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 work, 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 the likes of bolstered productivity, improved culture, and employee satisfaction.
Alternatives set to become the new norm
In just the second paragraph of the Harvard Business Review article on alternative workplaces, there’s a simple, striking sentence. “This is not a fad.” Indeed, it’s not, to have survived 20-plus years and become the foundation for the adaptive workplace solutions we’re seeing today.
The rise of the internet, cloud applications, and generally better computing technology have all made alternative workplaces viable solutions as companies try to navigate COVID-19 and the future of work after the pandemic. Remote work, flex scheduling, hoteling, experiential workspaces, and coworking are all alternative forms of work, but they’re part of the greater alternative workplace employees rely on today.
Keep reading: How to increase workplace productivity