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Offices of the Future Welcome the Outside Community

It’s no secret that today’s workplaces have changed dramatically from the somber network of sequestered cubicles. If the COVID-19 pandemic proved anything, it’s that most of us can work from anywhere, so coming into the office is no longer mandatory for many roles. Now offices are looking for ways to help employees connect and play as well as work. Owners and operators are looking to foster that sense of connection not just to increase employee engagement and retention but also to elevate their assets from a run-of-the-mill building to a desirable destination. In doing so, office planners are realizing that it truly takes a community to activate a space, meaning that offices of the future will be just as welcoming to the public as they are to the people who work in the building.

Blackstone Properties set this example with their massive investment into reinventing Chicago’s Willis Tower. Blackstone poured over $500 million into a street-to-sky transformation of the Tower, turning it into an attraction chock-full of amenities, many of which were to entice the public into the space and not just to lure office workers from their couches. Five stories of the Tower comprise retail, dining, and entertainment options (including a 1-acre public park) for passersby. It was a massive overhaul from the tower’s previous reputation as a looming beacon of corporate power. Now, Willis Tower is just as iconic as it’s former glory, but with a welcoming feel that keeps workers engaged. When Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot snipped the ribbon at Tower’s grand re-opening, she made a point to add that Blackstone’s efforts to turn the Tower into a friendly giant “created a blueprint for other landlords to follow on how to create offices where people will be drawn back to work.”

With owners and operators still trying to claw their workers back to bring their occupancy levels up, offices need to be viewed as a community destination. Offices aren’t just for work anymore, so they need to provide a reason for employees to show up and for occupiers to stick around. But the trend of creating offices that provide space for community interaction isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan trend for landlords to get a leg up in the current competition. Fostering a sense of community for the public and the occupier has already set the foundation for the future of offices.

The hospitality footprint

Office lobbies have not been traditionally very welcoming to the public, and while there are obvious security concerns that owners and occupiers have to contend with, that also means that office buildings have rarely offered any enrichment to the surrounding neighborhood. For years, the central focus of an office’s lobby wasn’t geared towards any of the activity-based spaces, it was the security desk.

If the prevailing office design highlighted a building’s ability to keep people out, suffice to say it wasn’t providing much of a welcoming first impression. Liz Espín Stern, Partner, and Head of Global Mobility & Migration practice at Mayer Brown LLP,  a Chicago-based law firm, told Gensler that offices have to send a statement that companies value the person inhabiting the space. “Hospitality is the same way. If I’m deciding what hotel to go to when I’m on vacation, it’s going to make the difference what the feel of it is,” she said. For Stern, that feeling can be boiled down to one question: “Does it welcome me?”

With the pandemic driving the need for offices to lure back workers in every which way possible, office lobbies are beginning to understand the same principle. During a panel discussion at the WRLDCTY real estate conference, Ethan Kent, the Executive Director of PlacemakingX, a global architecture and planning network, pointed out that offices of the future are integrated into the public space. “Exciting workplaces are those that don’t turn their back on the local community,” he said. Well-designed hotel lobbies celebrate the history and culture of the surrounding neighborhood. It makes guests feel at home and promotes longer stays. For offices, that translates to faster lease signages with tenants locked in for a longer period of time. 

The office of the future takes a tenant-first approach, and what office owners have come to understand from the hospitality industry is that the advantages of an office and its amenities are ineffective unless the building itself inspires a deep connection between people and place. Even though building owners can feel uneasy about the risk of making their office lobbies more welcoming to the public, the pandemic-induced shift in office design has prompted many to realize that those concerns can simply be reduced with the correct safety measures. Having staff members tasked with keeping an eye on the area is the greatest method to prevent any unwanted lingering. This would merely be a further extension of the duties that many organizations already have added office managers to in order to bring a sense of hospitality to their workplaces. Office landlords are beginning to warm to the idea that workplaces can accommodate the public with proper signage, established decorum, and routine supervision, just as hotels already do. 

Experiential amenities have taken over

Reimagining the office as an integrated oasis that welcomes both employees and visitors has prompted office planners to realize that being with other people is an amenity in and of itself. But again, that amenity is only realized if the office fosters a tangible connection to the area in which it’s built. 

Modern offices are now being constructed to promote serendipity and collaboration. The post-pandemic office frequently includes a variety of built-in amenities, including café-style sections, lounge areas with comfortable seating for collaboration, outdoor spaces wherever possible, flexible, adaptive spaces like hot desks, and designated private areas for when employees need quiet and concentration. These environments, which appeal to both introverts and extroverts, encourage possibilities for social engagement that naturally generate fresh insights and mental renewal. 

Even if you were to remove the emphasis on experience and place, offices are starting to look like community centers anyway, as employee health and wellness become more of a major priority. According to JLL’s 2022 Regenerative Workplace Report, 1 in 3 employees do not have access to any health or well-being in the office, so the demand is there, and office developers are responding to it. Office architects are seeing an influx of requests to design spaces that put a stronger emphasis on health and wellness amenities, just as community centers have always done for the public. 

Offices are now being positioned as purpose-driven environments for people who will physically be present in the space, setting the stage for a continuum of experiences. Today’s offices are clamoring to demonstrate how wonderful it is to work together, which is the very ethos of a community center. As offices are redesigned and built to suit this ethos, the line between work and play gets blurred. The pandemic has shown that offices need to be as welcoming and comforting as the home, but with energized real estate that cultivates a sense of community that people can’t access at home.

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