Working in an office building is a familiar experience for millions of people.  Aside from degree to which your office space uses design to improve your work day, the common spaces of the building probably provide minimal support at best. Typically sterile ground floor lobbies are offset by the grandeur (or lack thereof) of elevator cabs, and, at best, a minimal mix of uses support a social buzz (or murmur). 

In short, the typical office building does little to improve the experience of its users to support today's highly competitive world of work.  But this is changing.   As the expectations of workers are driving organizations to re-think their tenant space, office buildings will need to become more dynamic an experiential to remain attractive, competitive and marketable to today's top tier companies.

Talent scarcity and the shift toward employee influence

There's a common recognition in developed economies that the age of focusing on productivity alone has passed us.  What began as an Industrial Revolution-driven focus on orderly work quantifiable by production quotas gave rise to the last century's - and still today's - mainstream office building model.  Architecturally, it's one of perhaps the simplest typologies of buildings - public space near the ground floor, usually spartan and focused on controlling access to tenant floors and a warm shell of expansive, repetitive, open floor plates.  From an ownership and development standpoint, the simplicity of the office building makes the calculus around capital investment easier and the major factor in that math is efficiency.  

Today, the world of work looks different.  There are many reasons: generational shifts, urbanization, technology and mobility...the list of factors goes on, but amid them, one particular phenomenon is significantly impacting work environments - low unemployment and talent scarcity.  According to ManpowerGroup's 2016/2017 Talent Shortage Survey, 46% of U.S. employers are having difficulty filling jobs, globally the statistic is 40% (2016/2017 US Talent Shortage Survey, ManpowerGroup). 

As established firms and start-ups compete for the same limited pool of talent, organizations are investing more in the experience they create for staff.  Even companies with a track record of emphasizing workplace environment as a tool for recruitment and retention are evolving their approach to remain competitive.  Our recent work in Boulder, Colorado, with a well-known leader in tech pushed beyond the organization's hallmark of food and fun in offices to include a significant focus on occupant health with biophilic design, a bike and ski shop, and fitness and meditation amenities.  The aim was to create an environment that supported staff lifestyles in rather than a workplace that also contained perks for amusement or convenience. 

In a sense, due to the talent scarcity, the employee, has now leapfrogged into the position of being the most important entity behind the success of an office building.

This gets us back to the office building.  While the building type evolved to serve the capital investors with tenants in long-term leases to provide stable income with minimal care and feeding, now the focus must to shift to serve the building's end users that tenants are so focused in attracting.

In a sense, due to the talent scarcity, the employee, has now leapfrogged into the position of being the most important entity behind the success of an office building.  Lisa Picard, CEO of Office Equity, refers to this as the B-to-B nature of office real estate becoming a B-to-C model where 'C', the customer, are the people inhabiting the building on a daily basis.  As a result, the faceless office building must now respond to the very human needs of the actual people going to work in it.  It's no longer just a core and shell building, it's a work-place. 

Warm bodies aren't enough and neither is a basic core and shell

Leading organizations throughout the economy are emphasizing collaboration, mobility and variety in their work settings.  CoreNet Global's 2017 list of best practices for highly agile companies lists, shorter, more flexible lease terms, flexible work programs, and incorporation of co-working type short-term workspaces and top factors for organizational success.  

Add organizational agility to rising employee expectations around integrating work into their lifestyle and the variety and structure of office space begins to exceed what it typically achievable with a tenant improvement budget.  For office building owners to competitively attract the best tenants, they must begin to think of how to shoulder some of these amenities.  Office buildings will need to start to treat occupants like hotels treat guests. 

If an office building presents common amenities that 1.) attract tenants and 2.) create a symbiotic relationship between tenant needs and office building infrastructure, it potentially creates a mutually beneficial advancement of the building type. 

To do so, building owners will need to get more creative about how amenities are provided and serviced and this will have an impact on the structure of tenant leases.  Thsi will have a cascading effect on capital markets investors as the shift in office buildings leads to a more complex ecosystem of uses.  However, if an office building presents common amenities that 1.) attract tenants and 2.) create a symbiotic relationship between tenant needs and office building infrastructure, it potentially creates a mutually beneficial advancement of the building type.  Building owners get better and more committed tenants and have more tools to keep tenants happy and tenants can leverage the spaces beyond their office suite to the benefit of recruitment and retention. 

Amenitizing the City

If we see this trend of office buildings becoming spaces that directly support their end users emerge, the potential exists for a greater sense of community to flourish within their walls.  It also presents the exciting possibility of an increased mix of uses within these building types that can have a much broader impact on the urban life of the city around them.

As downtowns strive to become 24-hour communities, diversity of uses is a critical factor.  An office building that only houses people from 8-5 and meets the street with an empty lobby isn't participating in the surrounding urban life actively despite it's potentially central location.  On the other hand, a work-place that supports its tenants with vibrant common uses like food and beverage, health and well-being, or common conference spaces could introduce new hubs of activities and potential urban life improvements as well.  This seems to be a win-win on many levels and should be part of the conversation for any new or soon to be revitalized office property.

Learning from long-term users

For a glimpse of what this looks like, we can already see this playing out in the public sector with long-term users of government buildings.  Facilities we've recently designed for Fort Collins Ultilities in Fort Collins, Colorado and for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) both emphasized the need to attract the next generation of talent to their organizations and each project emphasized the need for supporting employee culture and work styles as long-term strategies to achieve this. 


Fort Collins UAB

In Fort Collins at the Utilities Administration Building, the facility emphasizes the organization's culture of sustainability through it's LEED v4 Platinum design focused around occupant comfort using daylight and a high performance envelope.  It also introduces a variety of size and styles of meeting spaces to support flexible working and the project incorporated a small, previously vacant historic structure on site as a food and beverage amenity operated by a private local coffee shop.


CDOT Headquarters

in Denver was located specifically in a site adjacent to multiple alternative transit options - bus, lightrail, and bike paths.  Supporting and building team culture across the organization is facilitated through social hub spaces designed on each floor of the building and wellness programs are supported by an on-site fitness facility.  Outside the building a sculpted landscape plaza features outdoor spaces for work or retreat as well as space for food trucks or large group gatherings.