Vaccinations are going into arms every day and more schools are meeting in person for at least a few days a week. This momentum has enabled some employees to visit their offices and literally dust the cobwebs off their workstations.
The work-from-home dynamic, which scaled up significantly in 2020, has turned out to be technically feasible for most, but many believe that it is not an equal substitute for face-to-face interaction in an office environment. According to Mia Marshall, a principal with architecture firm MZA based in Seattle, “the face-to-face component is critical for informal interaction and taking relationships to a different level.”
Companies recognize that in-person workplaces are still critical to maintaining company culture, innovation, employee onboarding, training and much more. But as communities slowly reopen, the looming question for office-based business owners is not ‘do my employees need to return to the office?’ but rather ‘how often do my employees need to work from the office?’
LoopNet compiled a list of key terms and concepts to help business owners determine if it makes sense for their enterprise to adopt a remote work policy and, if so, what it might look like.
Hybrid and Flexible Work
These terms are often used interchangeably, but generally hybrid work models emphasize the physical locations in which employees labor, while flexible work policies mostly refer to how an employee organizes their workday or week.
Hybrid work. Hybrid work, or the hybrid work model, establishes some balance between working in the office and working from a remote location. Each employer will need to figure out how many and which days each week, month or quarter employees will need to be in the office. “I think there is definitely no one size fits all. I think every company is going to be different. [Decisions will be based on each] individual, their role, [and] what their job position within the company is,” said Marshall. Each hybrid work model will vary by task and department, time of year, urgency of deadlines, stage of a project, etc.
Flexible work. This term is sometimes used as a substitute for hybrid work, implying that employees have latitude to work from a variety of locations. However, in practice, flexible work policies in most employee handbooks tend to give employees options relating to the number of hours they will work each day or week (e.g., four 10-hour days or five eight-hour days, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). In some cases, flexible work policies also cover the locations from which employees will work, but the point is that these are two distinct considerations, each of which needs to be addressed.
Remote Work, Work From Home and Distributed Work
These terms are sometimes used interchangeably but there are nuances to each. Understanding those nuances upfront may help employers be intentional about the parameters they set for their hybrid work policy, ensuring that it makes sense for their workflow and culture.
Remote work. This term has been used for decades and generally means working from anywhere that is not an assigned company office. Today, remote work means that an individual can work from any location with a Wi-Fi connection (e.g., an airport, a coffee shop or their mother-in-law’s house) as long as they can access company networks, communicate with clients and colleagues, and be productive relative to the work that needs to be done.
Each company defines remote work in its own way. For example, a company with a headquarters location and several suburban or nationwide locations may say that an employee working outside of their assigned office is working remotely.
Work from home (WFH). On the surface this seems clear, but this definition varies. For some employers it means literally working from home from a designated workspace where computer monitors, and other necessary equipment are set up. Others use WFH as a substitute for remote work, but in essence it is a subset of remote work and employers will need to determine if their hybrid model will confine employees to their desks at home, i.e., literally working from home, or if it will give them the latitude to work from any non-office location.
“Are you at your highest and best use sitting at your home office where you can kill it and get all your work done or are you highly productive in the office,” posited Marshall. “It all comes down to where you do your best work,” she said.
Distributed work. According to a CoreNet study, distributed work means physically separated workplaces from which businesses can continue to operate. In practice, this model typically features a headquarters location with most employees working from home. In a regional setting, employees may be just a car ride away from one another; in a national setting they may likely be scattered, needing to fly to gather with colleagues. The model enables companies to reduce real estate costs because they lease very little office space. It also allows companies to reduce overall salary expenses due to lower salary requirements in secondary and tertiary markets.
However, with distributed work “you basically have no hub, or home base to be your center of culture [or place where] you’re managing your brand and culture,” said Marshall. Employees can gather for retreats and team-building sessions “but you don’t have the same brand and cultural development in a conference room in a hotel that you have at the headquarters office,” she noted. “And while, you might save on some real estate, your travel expenses [may] skyrocket.”
The Hub and Spoke Model
This is a term believed to have originated in the airline industry to describe groupings of one large and many small airports for purposes of routing air traffic. In the office sector, the concept has been adapted to convey the idea of a centrally situated headquarters in a central business district (CBD) that is supplemented by various smaller offices and workplaces in suburban locations.
This notion existed in real estate decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, as employers worked to balance elements such as client engagement, employee productivity, commute times and real estate costs. The concept is remerging with vigor as companies focus on creating post-pandemic real estate footprints that will optimize their version of the hybrid work model.
In the model, the headquarters office (or hub) is in a geographically central location and serves as a place for meeting with company leadership, to collaborate with team members, work on critical projects and have challenging conversations — all things that seem to work best in face-to-face settings. “Spoke” locations are generally smaller facilities, such as satellite offices, coworking or executive suite spaces, hotel lobbies, coffee shops and employee homes.
The Third Place
The third place is a term that can be applied in various contexts. With the hub and spoke model, the third place means a location that is neither one’s home nor office. Examples include a coffee shop, a coworking facility or even a company office other than the employee’s designated location. The “third place will always be the next step; it’s not your home, it’s not your office, it’s something in between. This concept was prevalent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will become mainstream, more than ever, across many industries,” Marshall said.
Coworking spaces are often mentioned as a type of third space for employees. Marshall said these spaces can be secured in various parts of a region for employees to meet as teams or to provide a change of scenery — and boost in productivity — for an individual worker.
Relative to an office building, third places include shared locations or common areas in buildings like a lobby, lounge area or coffee/sandwhich shop. Inside an office suite, this space can be a quiet room meant to serve as an escape from a desk in an open-plan office, the office kitchen or meeting areas. These are all places that, if properly designed, can be offered as “touchdown” spots for individuals that work from the office occasionally.
Desks, Offices, Collaboration Rooms and Scheduling Apps
Once decisions are made about the real estate “footprint” or the combination of locations and types of facilities that fit the needs of an employer, decisions need to be made about which buildings employees will have access to, when they will be able to work there, what types of workstations will be provided and where each employee will land when they arrive. These are granular decisions that will need to be made in concert with the remote work policy of each company. The following are terms that will arise in the course of making those determinations.
Assigned and Unassigned Desks. For the hybrid work model to be cost-optimized by employers, Marshall said “you have to fill the real estate all the time. I mean, who wants real estate that’s not being utilized?” This means the days of assigned desks may be over and “desk sharing will be happening more and more,” she added. Other terms for unassigned office seating include free address, hot desk, hoteling and “touchdown” space.”
Private Offices. Private offices will continue to exist in a hybrid work model, mostly for C-suite positions. But Marshall said they will do double and possibly triple duty. Individuals assigned offices may be sharing them with another senior employee, and, if neither of them is using it, the private office may be used as a conference room.
Conference, Huddle and Collaborative Rooms. These spaces where multiple people will gather inside the office are considered the heart of the hybrid work model. “Collaboration space is going to grow substantially,” said Marshall. She indicated that roughly half of the space in an office suite could become collaborative workspace. There will be “larger meeting rooms with moving walls that can open up and flex into much larger space and really can expand and contract.” These rooms will be designed to accommodate two or more people with tables, chairs, extensive audiovisual features and robust soundproofing.
Scheduling Apps. Marshall noted that scheduling apps will be a critical part of the hybrid work model. “There’s going to be a reservation process where you can see, ‘this is the space that’s available on Tuesday between two and four o’clock, I’m going to grab it.’” These scheduling apps are often partnered with sensors attached to workstations, offices and conference rooms. Vivid floorplans show the location, size and capacity of work areas and indicate when each is available or booked and by whom.