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Buzzwords Defined: Workplace Models


Kerry O’Brien

Date Published

Mar 20, 2023
8 minute read

As businesses and government agencies continue to evaluate and tweak mobility and flexibility standards, we’ve seen buzzwords about workplace models proliferate. Today, we’ll take a look at the range of workplace models, the ways they signal how organizations function on the spectrum of physical location and collaboration methods, and how they risk being increasingly disconnected from workspace design.


Level-Set: What are Workplace Models?

At the most basic level, workplace models clarify our physical relationship to a place of work and the ways in which we connect with colleagues. The spectrum runs from “fully remote” (employees are distributed physically at their own work sites, have full flexibility in determining where their work takes place, and are equipped to work together in ways that do not depend on being co-located), to “remote-first” (employees operate from their own work sites but have the option of a shared office environment) to “hybrid” (a messy mix – more on this below!) to “office-centered” (employees operate from the office but have some degree of flexibility or remote work choice) to “in-office” (fully in-person at defined sites).

Workplace Models


The term “hybrid” is especially buzzy and ill-defined. It can refer to an individual who splits time between working remotely and working in a company office, a company whose employees exercise a range of options in their work locations, or a type of meeting where some participants are onsite while others are connected virtually.

Each workplace model is accompanied by a stunning array of policies that define the degree to which individual employees operate within the model–a critical layer that establishes the outer limits of each set of options and maps the maximum and minimum amount of flexibility that an individual employee has in customizing their work routine.

And finally, each team has a culture layer that shapes how those operating at the extreme ends of the policy are perceived and treated. This can create an unspoken set of expectations about how an individual will navigate the organization.

The workplace model spectrum often brings to mind the coping strategies and after-effects of the pandemic. However, at The Clearing, one of the first things we do is help businesses and federal agencies decouple the pandemic from their office policies and workplace models. That’s because we believe it is no longer useful to frame preferences, policies, and space design in 2020 terms. The path is now defined by competing priorities and commitments: executive and employee preferences about ways of working are bumping up against the hard reality of expiring leases, commercial office discount deals, modernization demands, and capital budgets.

So, let’s dig into the push and pull between workplace models and space use, and share what leaders are thinking about as they define work environments for their organizations.


The Relationship Between Workplace Models and Workspace Design

Workplace models used to map fairly clearly to space use, layout, and design. These were dictated by straightforward considerations like headcount and monthly lease terms. Now, we’re seeing an extreme divergence between workplace models and workspace design, along with major efforts to better align the two.

Mapping a workplace model to workspace design now requires highly variable planning. Executives are comparing anticipated and actual headcounts, projecting how activities may unfold across the range of work locations available, and regularly unveiling updated policies, all while the siren song of commercial real estate discounts loudly plays.

Just as you have a range of workplace models, a new crop of workspace design principles and space use conventions have become standard.

  • “Remote-first” organizations are finding that they need to re-orient their offices in ways that typically either maximize flexibility (unassigned, reservable desks, “hoteling”, highly flexible meeting rooms, new storage solutions that allow for equipment mobility) or that minimize cost outright with a reduced footprint (this is where buzzwords like “right-sizing” come in).
  • Companies with even a minimum level of flexibility are repurposing square footage away from individual workstations to create more flexible small and large meeting and collaboration areas, and expanding common areas to bring employees together in new ways.
  • Workspace design now tends to be “activity-based” – flexible spaces that are open for use by any team member are available for selection based on the task at hand.
  • Fully “in-office” organizations are finding that they need to offset concerns about wellness and productivity with investment in facilities upgrades like air filters, acoustics, and amenities.

We are also seeing these considerations collide with the move to open office plans. Organizations that created open office layouts may still desperately want the flexibility and visibility that these spaces provide, but are also reckoning with the wellness and productivity concerns that workers bring after years of remote work arrangements. To that end, we see companies and agencies scrambling to align their workplace model with workspace design – or rather, not scrambling as much as plodding along with a mismatch that is both expensive and unproductive.


What to Consider When Thinking About Workplace Models?

While these decisions inevitably involve some degree of zero-sum gaming, workplace decisions are an incredibly exciting time for mission alignment, branding, employee engagement, and investment in the future. For leaders making decisions about the workplace and looking to align policy with design, here is a starting point for optimizing what you have and identifying the outcomes you want.

  • Business needs and goals: How does your team actually get work done and advance the organization’s mission? What must be true about where people are located and how they work together in order for great work to happen, and how can you articulate this to your staff?
  • Real estate footprint and budget commitments: Can you afford to make changes to space use and technology? Can you afford not to?
  • Operational realities: Can your team accommodate changes to technology, equipment, seating, space use systems, storage, accessibility, security, risk, and compliance?

While we encourage leaders to consider these conventional bottom lines, it is hard to overstate the degree to which employee experiences and preferences need to be part of the equation. How does your team function and lead across recruiting, onboarding, training, and retention pathways? How does your team feel about flexibility and potential mandates? What is your team worried about? What are they excited about? What elements do they want to preserve? What do they want to leave behind?

Answering these questions requires repeated opportunities for colleagues to convene, discuss, and share feedback. These conversations take time to design and conduct, but pay dividends in enrolling staff, building enthusiasm, and improving policy and space use. They also serve as a starting point for comprehensive communication planning, which you’ll need to draw on throughout the transition.

Ultimately, adjusting a workplace model and workspace design is not about minimizing change, but about reducing uncertainty during change.

Central to an organization’s success is creating opportunity for reflection and conversation between employees at all levels, establishing transparency about what is changing and why, communicating regularly and reliably about the big ideas and the small details, and steering your community toward a future that you’ve envisioned together.

Visit our Workplace Change page on The Clearing’s website to learn more or reach out to schedule a conversation with me or another member of our workplace team. I can be reached at