Office buildings have never really felt the pressure of needing to be memorable. If people wanted to work for a company, there was no question that they had to go to the office. The daily stint at the office was merely a check on an employee’s to-do list. But once the day’s work was done, the office had served its purpose, and employees would turn on their heels and hustle to commute home before rush hour. Offices tried to make people stay longer with kegs, ping pong tables, and stocked fridges. To some extent, they worked, but these tactics haven’t aged well. It’s hard to compete with the convenience of someone’s couch.
Today, millions of square feet in cities across the country are underutilized, even if occupancy rates tell a different story. If amenities can’t lure corporate workers back to the office, it’s time to offer them something to do other than work at the office. Speaking of, why should all this square footage only benefit those who work 9-to-5 and probably don’t live in the same zip code as the building?
Office buildings, whether in urban cores or suburban markets, don’t typically contribute to the community outside the building itself. They don’t welcome the community inside the lobby doors. That’s why office building lobbies are designed around a security desk instead of a more welcoming first impression to the general public.
Landlords need to start thinking beyond their tenants to create buildings that serve more than one function for people who aren’t just going there to work during the week. Foot traffic in urban cores on the weekends is recovering to pre-pandemic levels faster than foot traffic during the weekdays, according to the analytics company Springboard. So people are willing to brave the commute, but they don’t want to do it simply to sit in their office.
If asset managers are looking for ways to redefine an office building, Tom Larance, Head of Experience Management at JLL, suggested that they look to retail centers for a playbook. “Retail centers like Brookfield Place in New York and Ala Moana in Hawaii have been there for years, but people keep coming back because those properties have become destinations. They are places where people want to be. The programming, access to retail, entertainment, food, and beverage make people repeat customers,” he explained.
Suppose office buildings are going to invest in adding these experiences. In that case, they should be available to anyone who walks through the door, turning business districts that served one purpose into neighborhoods. The infrastructure to make this happen already exists in our cities today, but it’s just too separated.
“In most central business districts, the foundations needed to create a dense, mixed-use environment already exist. Parks, retail, affordable residential communities, and ample job opportunities all point toward attracting and retaining downtown visitors and residents. However, in many cities, the urban core has evolved into a series of distinct districts of building types — office, residential, retail, and hospitality are available, but not necessarily convenient to one another,” explained Dean Strombom, Principal at Gensler.
Larance is taking his background in hospitality and helping office buildings expand to be more than just workplaces. One of his projects is a Miami building that opens up its plaza level to the community with a two-year pop-up of new entertainment, food and beverage options, and comfortable gathering spaces. All design, vendor, and space activation choices will represent the neighborhood’s culture, drawing people into the experience who walk by the building every day without ever going inside it.
“There’s nothing generic about this project. That authenticity is going to make this building a new destination where people may not have gone there otherwise. And for tenants, the goal is to make them want to stay and hang out, not just go right up to their office,” added Larance.
Another building getting it right from top to bottom is 167 Green Street, a 675,000-square-foot office tower in Chicago’s Fulton Market. More than 30,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor anchors the building in the community with outdoor spots to relax, eat and work. The top floor and roof are filled with an indoor basketball court, community rooftop gardens, and more outdoor spaces. These spaces are available to rent whether you’re a tenant or not, but they are also available for the community to use. Last summer, a neighborhood basketball league for kids was invited to use the space to host its clinic, with top-name athletic brands donating supplies and gear.
The building doesn’t do this in a vacuum, either. Fulton Market is known as a “15-minute neighborhood,” meaning that nearly everything a person needs is less than a mile away: housing, jobs, public transportation, grocery stores, schools, the pharmacy, restaurants, and retail.
People are seeking this sense of community, both in where they live and work. They want to share different moments during the workday, whether those moments are with their coworker at a lounge, with their family in an outdoor space, or even with the barista on-site. People rarely say they are “going to work” with a smile, but the actual buildings they’re commuting to can plan a big role in changing that perception.