By Dan Earles
Principal, Earles Architects and Associates
Chicago’s downtown office market has seen significant changes in recent years, from the influx of companies moving downtown to the ongoing construction boom in Class-A office space. In this environment, many landlords and tenants are continuing to look for creative ways to define their spaces and attract the best office talent.
Among the key trends that will shape the Chicago office market in 2017 are a heightened focus on flexible workplace designs; more balance in open-space planning; and an “amenities race” as building owners compete for tenants. Office tenants also are looking for designs that help bring the outdoors in and create a comfortable, “home-like” setting.
From the tenant perspective, flexible workplace designs have become an important tool for attracting and retaining top talent. This is particularly true for the Millennial workforce, as these workers have come to expect features such as touchdown stations, office-wide Wi-Fi, flexible work hours and multi-function spaces that can be easily converted for various uses. The overarching goal is to create a work environment that draws employees in and helps motivate and engage them.
Many tenants are introducing alternative desk arrangements and work environments that give employees an extra edge in shaping their work flow. Some of these options — such as sit-stand desks, exercise balls used as chairs and flexible stools for alternative seating — add a layer of ergonomics and fitness to the mix.
All these features are not lost on landlords, who are continually searching for ways to differentiate their spaces and spruce up their amenities packages. From revamped common areas with stylish furniture groupings to fitness centers and trendy food service offerings, many landlords are competing in an “amenities race” to draw tenants to their buildings.
This is particularly true in older office buildings that are being repositioned to compete in today’s office leasing environment. Among the novel amenities touted by landlords are sophisticated shoeshine areas, shared conference centers, bicycle storage areas, concierge services and Wi-Fi lounges for touching down outside of the main office space.
Another growing trend is the focus on bringing the outdoors in. Floor plans that keep the office perimeter window line as clear as possible and include glass-front offices help maximize the use of natural light. Many tenants also incorporate plants and living walls to add an authentic natural environment. Furniture with earth-toned upholstery and related patterns and textures help finish off the space. When natural light is at a minimum, television screens, wall coverings and natural murals can help create a sense of openness.
These space trends are taking place amidst the backdrop of collaborative space planning, which continues to shift to meet tenants’ needs. While large, collaborative spaces might work well for creative companies, they can be distracting and noisy for legal, financial services and related firms. The solutions for many companies is a floor plan that balances the need for open work areas with the practical benefits of adding several private spaces for more concentrated work and privacy.
This can be achieved with furniture groupings that define space and create subtle separation, for example. Another option is to include partial walls, including those made of glass, to define areas without closing off too much space. Overall, offices with spaces for different uses are ideal, as this allows employees to have flexibility. These options could include huddle rooms for impromptu meetings and phone rooms.
These trends can be incorporated with an underlying “home-like” feel. After all, workers spend most of their waking hours at work. Why not bridge the gap between work and home with comfy, residential style furniture and flexible places to sit? The space could be designed with pops of color, accent walls, carpeting with subtle pops of color and a variety of patterns and textures.
Refreshment areas, in the form of personalized break rooms and coffee bars/service areas, often near meeting spaces, are also a trend with many tenants. These spaces are convenient for employees, help promote employee bonding and are used near conference and meeting areas to welcome clients.
As office space continues to evolve this year, expect to see more of these trends as companies look to nurture employee relationships, improve productivity and develop a strong collaborative culture.
Dan Earles is principal at the Chicago office of architecture firm Earles Architects and Associates.