Style or Comfort?

For Strong Offices, Cool Isn't Everything

Remote work is here to stay. For those workers who have tasted the forbidden fruit in particular, it seems that going back to the office grind all day, every day is unthinkable. But offices aren’t going anywhere either. Lots of leasing activity has pushed investment in office assets high, very high for where we are in the cycle. 

So if offices aren’t going anywhere, how do they stand out and remain attractive? One answer is through excellent aesthetic design and great perks. Just look at the numerous lists of “coolest offices” released every year. The mechanisms used to attain such a laudable title vary, from inspiring architecture to games like ping pong or Xbox to an actual IndyCar sitting in the office. On the other hand, offices can try to produce a quality of experience that surpasses the one you’d get working out of your home. Better wi-fi, free food, more space to focus on getting work done…useful things.

Now, it goes without saying that there’s a lot of overlap in these two categories. And to dig a little deeper, even that first category is really just trying to provide things you wouldn’t have at your house…like an IndyCar. The one category focuses on cool while the other focuses on practical. There probably isn’t a conscious realization of any emphasis on one category or the other, but it’s both fair and useful to keep the difference in mind as observers. 

How should owners prioritize their efforts in these two areas? Offices won’t stand out because of their fiber connection or quiet desk areas. On the other hand, a structure designed by some high-profile architect, with beautiful green walls and a race car, will absolutely turn some heads. But how much of that really keeps people coming in day after day? Ignore, for now, the fact that most employees are still required to be in their seats in the office during the workday. For those that aren’t required to be there (a direction we are probably increasingly heading in), is that beautiful design or that race car really going to keep people from just working in their underpants on the couch with a bag of Cheetos? On day 500? Maybe not. 

What’s more, all of this emphasis on amazing architectural and interior design actually has some downsides. The building in which I took architecture classes at the University of Arizona was beautiful, with enormous windows that bathed the studio spaces in light. But like most enormous windows in Arizona, they also contributed to the building’s high energy cost

In a similar vein, some of those “practical” features can be stymied by high design. According to James Perry, Managing Partner with acoustic design firm Cerami, “Noise reduction can often compete with other goals on the project. For instance, bringing more daylight into a space necessitates the use of glass partitions. Glass partitions lead to challenges regarding privacy or reverberation (sound bouncing in the room and becoming too live), so we need to address that as well. A popular aesthetic is exposed structure which can lead to challenges with the HVAC systems noise which would otherwise be reduced by a ceiling. Exposed structure can also create challenges with reverberation if not acoustically treated. In those situations, it’s necessary to carefully analyze all of the competing elements to create a strategy that meets all of the goals.”

For office owners, it’s important to make an honest self-assessment. Do they have the financial resources to amenitize and design an office that is so cool and so breathtaking that it keeps workers coming in? Or on the other hand, should they stick with providing improvements that make being in the office easier and more comfortable than staying at home? Providing a space that nails the basics, and that provides a place to get work done without the distractions of the kids, the dog, and World of Warcraft Classic, is a very valid approach. It’s an approach that gets lost when all we focus on is the “cool” offices with their high design and Indy cars.

It may not always have to be a choice between the two approaches. James added that, “One of Cerami’s recent projects involved acoustical design for the expansion at the Museum of Modern Art. We wrapped the surround of the signature Blade Stair with beautiful wood veneer paneling with micro-perforations to absorb noise from traffic throughout the stair, achieving both the acoustic and aesthetic goals for the project.” But if that level of design and engineering isn’t in your budget, a tough choice might have to get made. Before making that choice, owners should pause and consider whether they’re designing for the brochure, or for the occupants.

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