As hybrid work models prevail post-pandemic, focus shifts to flex and outdoor workspaces 

Shane Connell of The Connell Company shares lessons from West Coast tech & Collegiate campuses inform the evolution of suburban corporate offices on the East Coast.

the park aerial
An aerial view of The Park in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. (Photo Credit: The Park)

Work will never be the same. The American workforce, however, will emerge from these dark days more potent than ever.

Why do I know this?

Because over the past two years, I’ve seen how resilient we are. Together, we will find a balance that allows us to thrive in our personal and professional lives. We will discover new avenues — and reinvent old ones — by which to succeed, express our passions, and adapt to the changing world.

How has work changed?

For the U.S. office market, the pandemic had a particularly devastating effect.

According to JLL, in Q4 2021, gross leasing activity rose by 9.2% over the quarter to 44.6 million square feet, bringing annual activity to 156.9 million square feet. However, despite the increase, this is still 29.7% below the pre-pandemic quarterly average.

While this doesn’t totally describe the negative impact the pandemic has had on office buildings — nor on workers — it is an apt barometer by which to measure its severity. But that sea change was already underway before the pandemic, and frankly, it has been for years. The coronavirus merely exacerbated the pressures of this change and accelerated its rate.

Now, businesses find themselves on the vanguard of the search for alternative workplace models to serve the post-pandemic world and entice employees to return. Whether that workspace is a pop-up ice cream shop or a 3-million-square-foot corporate campus doesn’t matter much. What matters is that our future placemaking must do a better job of serving our human needs so that when the unexpected happens, as it inevitably will, we’re all more prepared.

outdoor workspaces the park water feature
The Grove at The Park, with its cascading waterfall, is a beloved spot to relax. In the summer, The Grove is host to the town’s summer concert series, a local favorite. (Photo Credit: The Park)

Learning from Silicon Valley

When I assess the companies that were best-positioned to take decisive action to better their workforce, it was tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Salesforce that stood out.

Historically, many West Coast tech giants have led the charge by providing world-class amenities to keep employees engaged and excited. Google, for example, offers free, world-class food options and shuttles that help employees minimize the stress of commuting.

Ironically, in the Age of COVID-19, they were also among the first to tell their employees they could work from anywhere indefinitely.

Why would they do that?

Because long ago, Google realized that to become one of the biggest companies in the world, they’d need to hire the best talent and attract the best talent — in 2022, it’s not a free lunch that will win the day, it’s safety, security, and trust.

They were best prepared because built into their DNA is a compulsion to innovate. As Twitter’s human resources chief Jennifer Christie told the Washington Post in October 2020, “The future of work is offering employees more optionality.” Flexibility, according to Christie, is the “fourth industrial revolution.” The real takeaway from Big Tech’s approach here should be a person-centered philosophy of work.

For many in the Tri-state region, the apex of office space and work community has been New York City, which functions as a continually shifting amenity in and of itself. But, again, times are changing, and the appeal of a lengthy commute to a densely packed city has waned – a global study from the Future Forum Pulse shows that 76% of employees want flexibility where they work and prefer not to return to the office full-time.

That leaves a massive opportunity for companies to provide hospitality-level amenities that let employees work freely in offices, shared spaces, or outdoors without interruption of connectivity;  implement in-house healthcare to assuage fears around returning to the office; incorporate technology and sustain a level of interconnectedness that affords opportunities for social interaction.

outdoor workspaces the park summer
Tenants at The Park have access to a bike share program through the campus’s mobile app. The Classic Plus model bikes, a premiere hassle-free bicycle, can be found among seven bike racks on site. (Photo Credit: The Park)

Why emphasize the outdoors?

To fulfill well-documented psychological needs, offices have a long history of adding more nature around the workplace. But now that the pandemic has made the issue one of existential importance, outdoor spaces are receiving renewed attention.

So, the East Coast’s maddening descent into inclement [climate][elements] isn’t an excuse to scurry indoors: Prepare and take advantage of the widely available products that help mitigate weather issues, such as the hard-to-nab heat lamps often seen in outdoor dining situations and the louvered, adjustable canopies installed at The Park in Berkeley Heights, to which one can make on-the-fly adjustments to protect those underneath.

And outdoor spaces can be as connected as boardrooms. Look at colleges and universities as an example of what future generations of workers might want. There are great examples of these institutions investing in extending WiFi coverage across swaths of outdoor spaces to meet student expectations. If corporate offices can do the same and extend WiFi capabilities and provide power for charging devices, employees will have the ability to enjoy outdoor work sessions or meetings at their leisure.

Taking additional cues from the collegiate approach, we should aim to create a connected campus that offers shared indoor/outdoor dining spaces at every building (perhaps even food trucks), walking and biking trails near different restaurant concepts, public parks, and even apartments.

Outdoor spaces are also better for encouraging people to be active. Over two-thirds of adults do not meet the CDC’s physical activity guidelines. Simple changes, such as providing access to bike share programs, hosting fitness classes outdoors, or making walking trails accessible can help inspire people to be more active, and as a result – according to recent studies – happier.

the park dog park
A dog park will be added to The Park for tenants and visitors alike to enjoy time with their pets. (Photo Credit: The Park)

Your workplace, your community

We’ve learned so much about ourselves and what we tend to take for granted during this pandemic. Near the top of the list for many people I’ve spoken to: Community matters.

The void created by forced isolation during the pandemic has thrown into contrast the value of being connected to a sense of place, community, and shared interests and desires. Just as urban planners worldwide have begun to reimagine how cities serve their citizens in the post-pandemic world, so should workplaces of the future. Whether it means connecting employees to local-to-the-office community events, or streamlining communication through a campus-focused mobile app, people want a “connected office”, where they feel part of a larger work community, as opposed to being constrained to four walls.

And while folks have grown accustomed to the office in their laptops, we also realize that “ad hoc sharing of knowledge, ideas and skills, which is commonplace in most offices, is very hard to replicate on digital communication platforms, such as Zoom.”

The workplaces of the future will allow employees to work from home when they need to drill down on intense work, collaborate with peers on a lush green quad to brainstorm on creative assignments, and find dedicated space to engineer solutions to problems I can’t even imagine.

They’ll do this not by shoehorning themselves into dangerously limiting offices but by embracing progressive spaces that account for the ways that work has begun to change and take new shapes across the globe.

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The five pillars of work

The work-from-anywhere lifestyle is here to stay. However, a preponderance of workers still crave the connections that only an office can provide and will undoubtedly return. Others still don’t like working from home at all and will seek safe alternatives for their WFH prisons — whether at coworking spaces and social clubs like Round Table Studios, or more traditional workplaces.

It’s important to embrace these challenges as an opportunity to find solutions that enable you to continue pursuing your mission. Instead of delaying projects or cutting back on services, consider reinvesting and focusing on the five pillars: design, community, health and wellness, food, and culture. Some examples include incorporating virtual and onsite healthcare from Eden Health, concierge fitness, gourmet dining options, and flexible workspaces that include fully powered and online-enabled outdoor workstations.

As companies like Hikma Pharmaceutical, HP, and Samsung return to work at The Park, they’ve discovered these amenities and services can make their employees happier, healthier, and more satisfied than ever. In a world where hybrid workplaces are becoming the new normal, it is important to be committed to offering a tech-enabled, wellness-focused alternative that enables each employee and visitor to work how they want, from wherever they want, powered by a tenant-focused mobile app.

While work will certainly never be the same, we can and must come together to emerge from these dark days stronger than ever.

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