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Office cubicles, desktop computers and a 9-to-5 staff have long been the standard trademarks of the traditional workplace. Today, however, non-traditional settings and practices are becoming popular as employers shift to more informal alternative workplace initiatives.
Research consortium New Ways of Working (New WOW) defines the "alternative workplace" as "the combination of nontraditional work practices, settings and locations that supplement or replace traditional offices," consisting of practices that include "mobile work inside and outside the office, hoteling, work from home (telecommuting) and work from third-party places, among others."
In New WOW's recent benchmarking survey of 143 leading organizations, including Fortune 500 and 100 companies, 74 percent of respondents said they have a formal or informal alternative workplace program in place. Yet the major survey findings indicate that there has been a substantial rise in the number of informal, ad-hoc implementations in organizations, climbing from 18 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2011.
While the top perceived value behind such programs has typically been cost savings, the focus is now shifting to employee-related values, including job satisfaction, work/life balance and talent retention. Such initiatives are changing both the look and the practice of companies worldwide.
The Informal Office Place
As employers strive to meet greater work and home-life needs, the office landscape is evolving from enclosed, semi-private cubicles and offices to more diverse alternatives.
While office savings are a major incentive, companies are catering to the current workforce by providing "relaxed layouts" and open spaces to encourage engagement and better communication. Online companies such as Google provide kitchens and leisure zones, while other leading tech companies such as Facebook have ditched standard office chairs for bean bags.
As Inside Intelligence Online explains, employers often have up to four generations of workers on the same payroll, and as new generations enter the workforce, businesses are looking to cater to all with a mix of formal and informal strategies. Informal strategies have found their way into staff meetings, where, in an effort to drive engagement and productivity, companies such as Microsoft practice "stand-up" meetings. As a response to this culture, office suppliers are designing furniture to accommodate standing discussions, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Even those without a formal office such as entrepreneurs, traveling workers and freelance agents are seeing the shift in their working culture.
Alternative workplace options for this group are now available in the form of "co-working" spaces, where industry professionals can spend the working day with like-minded professionals in places such as lofts or studios. As the New York Times notes, such spaces also provide a major incentive for communication and inspiration.
In contrast, "hoteling" for employees who occasionally drop by office sites or book working space via Intranet, has inspired new mobile office equipment solutions.
Tech and the Future of "BYOT"
The size and shape of office working space is also changing, with technology as a major driver. CoreNet Global's recent Corporate Real Estate 2020 study "sheds light on how technology is radically changing the nature of work and even transcending science fiction."
"Bring your own technology, or 'BYOT,' will impact the size and design of the corporate office, as fewer square feet per employee will be needed, and open, collaborative workspaces will continue to replace cubicle and personal office-based designs," according to CoreNet, an association for workplace leaders.
The wide-ranging study also highlights how advanced technologies will eventually make it possible to replace cloud computing with personal devices with near-infinite memory. "It's fast becoming collaboration in the pocket," Corporate Real Estate 2020 technology team member Keith Perske, of E-Business Strategies, says.
The survey also suggests that as nanotechnology advances, workers will experience more emotional intelligence incentives that aid in communication: "Sensing will increase, and buildings will become better equipped to recognize and differentiate people's preferred styles or routines." Technology is also a major part of the employee social scene, with virtual office parties emerging as a creative alternative to face-to-face festivities that can push employees out of their comfort zone.
How Companies Can Get Involved
Some new alternative office incentives, such as stand-up meetings and virtual office parties, may seem far-fetched to most traditional corporate cultures, but managers can garner feedback from employees to discover just how to implement workplace changes. While the top barriers to alternative workplace programs remain organizational, managerial and staff-related, concerns are dropping, particularly among managers, according to New WOW.
To get started, managers need an open line of communication with employees.
"Develop new ways of working by involving employees in interviews, focus groups and surveys," Dr. Joe Aki Ouye, co-founder and partner of New WOW, advises in Five Trends that are Dramatically Changing Work and the Workplace. "Second, the participants need to: assess how existing ways of working are helping or hindering their achievement; think through new policies, work practices, and technologies; and prepare a strategy for rolling out new ways of working."
Regardless of new technologies and cost-saving incentives, a restructure should start with employee feedback. "The best way to help them perform to their highest level is to give them choices," Ouye says.
Benchmarking Survey Finds Informal Alternative Workplace Programs Growing
New Ways of Working, Nov. 3, 2011
Alternative Workplace Strategies at Work in Bay Area Companies
Inside Intelligence Online, April 5, 2011
No More Angling for the Best Seat; More Meetings are Stand-Up Jobs
by Rachel Emma Silverman
The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 2, 2012
It's Not Just Standing Up: Patterns for Daily Standup Meetings
by Jason Yip
MartinFowler.com, Aug. 29, 2011
Putting a Shared Office to the Test
by Eilene Zimmerman
The New York Times, July 30, 2011
The Nature of Work in 2020: Employees Bring their Own Technology; Work Goes to the Worker
CoreNet Global, Dec. 12, 2011
The Virtual Office Holiday Party -- How Does that Work, Exactly?
by Cindy Perman
CNBC.com, Dec. 21, 2011
Five Trends that are Dramatically Changing Work and the Workplace
by Joe Aki Ouye
Knoll Workplace Research, 2011