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The Over-Simplification of Office Design

How homey can an office be? Recent trends in workplace planning are attempting to answer that question by injecting experiential services, like personal training, and design touches from fields as disparate as single-family housing. In part this follows naturally from the noted emphasis amongst millennials on experiences over products; it also probably represents an attempt to amp up the attractiveness of open office workplaces in the wake of some harsh criticism in recent months. 

It’s pretty easy to install high-quality design touches in a workplace. Things like nice modern kitchens and green walls may not be cheap, but the process of getting them into a given space isn’t exactly hard to execute, particularly given the number of companies specializing in workplace strategy and experience. Similarly, bringing in a third-party wellness provider to lead yoga classes is more of an expense than a real effort for management. That ease of implementation certainly must contribute to the emphasis amongst managers on these perks. Open offices themselves, after all, are largely here since they’re cheaper than other office types to set up. 

All of this emphasis on employee experience is no doubt a good thing. Particularly in the context of the cubicle hellscapes that used to represent much of the corporate experience, not many people are likely going to complain about this sort of trend taking off in workplaces around the world. But the emphasis on individual comfort and satisfaction can only go so far. Design and perks, after all, are just part of the office experience. The way teams and individuals are managed also contribute to overall workplace satisfaction, of course, and these things are probably a lot harder to meaningfully change than design or perk packages. 

The risk for managers is that the emphasis on design and amenity packages could cover up fundamentally bad management practices that could harm employee satisfaction or overall team productivity. It isn’t hard to imagine a Stepford Wives-like workplace where the interiors are beautiful and perks are abundant, all to cover up an aggressive, soul-crushing management culture under the surface. 

This also points to an even bigger issue for workplace planners in the future. We keep asking what the ideal office looks like, but it seems like we often miss the question of whether there is more than one answer there. Not every industry is the same, and it stands to reason, then, that not every office should follow the same design trends. Lab design, for instance, matters to a huge variety of businesses in fields like biotech and engineering. These spaces necessarily play by different rules than your run of the mill Dunder Mifflin or tech startup.

On the other hand, this implies an opportunity for commercial landlords. Each individual tenant business may know what its workers want, but outside the scope of its particular industry, awareness is likely limited. This means that corporate space planners might not have the most holistic picture of how to design and equip an office space. In turn, this means that disruptive approaches might be ignored in favor of the same open office/strong design/lots of perks approach that is the inter-industry standard. 

Commercial landlords, on the other hand, probably lease space to a wide range of companies in a huge range of industries. This is the kind of useful, irreplaceable experience that could be leveraged to add either another leasing perk or a value-add service to tenants regardless of their industry. Landlords could consequently position themselves not just as providers of space, but as knowledge leaders capable of helping tenants hone in on the ideal office for their particular needs. 

With that in mind, perhaps the question isn’t really “how homey can an office be?” Perhaps we should instead be asking “how homey should an office be?” The answer, as in so many complex situations, is “it depends.” This is one “it depends,” though, where landlords can weigh in and truly add value.

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