Office envy: companies focus on the experience-driven workplace

As employers take notes from coworking’s rise, hospitality is king

November 29, 2019

“There’s something of an amenities war raging, and I advise my clients to be wary of falling into its trap.”

Ed Nolan, Managing Director, JLL Consulting

As coworking continues to influence how we work, people in traditional offices often wonder, “Where is our kombucha on tap and our lunchtime yoga class?”

Companies are taking note of the experience-driven workplaces offered by space-sharing operators, which have driven 41 percent of occupancy gains in the U.S. office market since the start of 2018.

“In the past, it tended to be only very high-profile, high-margin businesses that were able or wanted to provide their employees with incredible workplace experiences,” said Ben Munn, Managing Director, Flexible Space at JLL. “The big tech firms, typically based on the U.S. West Coast, are renowned for using their environments as tools to recruit, retain, enable, inspire and energize their employees.”

But in recent years, even the most conventional companies are thinking about how to instill some of the valued amenities seen in flexible workspaces into their traditional offices. Unassigned workspaces, stylish gathering areas for quick meetings, catered lunches, cold brew in the cafeteria, concierges, and community managers are all becoming the norm for large corporate workplaces. The goal remains the same—to drive productivity, increase engagement among employees and attract and retain staff—all by applying the type of hospitable, genial atmosphere fostered by coworking operators.

“As a result of this trend, our clients are now thinking differently about workplace design,” said Ed Nolan, Managing Director, JLL Consulting. “Traditionally, a company would use workplace strategy to inform design, ask an architect to create that vision, and then move their occupants in. Now, the conversation is shifting to be as much about the most impactful experiences that are going to be created in the space as the space itself. It’s a big shift.” 

Hospitality: no longer limited to hotels

Large companies have seen the tangible benefits of hospitality-style amenities in their workplaces. Not only are these amenities valued perks that help attract and retain talent in an incredibly tight labor market, but they also make employees more engaged and productive.

As an example: at JLL’s global headquarters in Chicago, a team of concierges support the more than 1500 employees who work there. From ordering and delivering food and beverage services to arranging accommodations to on-call technology support to organizing wellness events, these hospitality-trained concierges provide an employee experience far beyond what one would expect from a real estate company.

“The feedback from this program has been overwhelmingly positive,” Nolan said. “It’s clear that treating employees as they should be treated—like valuable resources—resonates.”

Workplaces used to be functional above all else, which often made them dreary. The new focus on experiences has the opposite impact. It’s about eliminating any sense of drudgery associated with being in an office by stacking the workday with craveable experiences, Nolan said.

“Five years ago, if you’d said ‘hospitality,’ you’d probably be talking about a hotel,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to see that be a common part of the vocabulary for corporate real estate clients, who are really paying attention to the desired experiences to ensure that their spaces are well utilized.”

Making changes

Still, it can be confusing for a company in a traditional setting to segue into a workplace that offers coworking-style hospitality elements. Options are plentiful, but knowing which amenities are the most compelling is a strategy in and of itself.

Nolan counsels against companies flinging money at whatever attraction is trending. Amenities like nap pods may sit unused if they don’t connect to a company’s deeper culture, much like what happened to certain amenities in the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. It’s more important, he said, that companies understand the nuances of their own culture, and the value proposition they make to their employees.

“There’s something of an amenities war raging, and I advise my clients to be wary of falling into its trap,” Nolan said. “Showing off the fitness center to a potential new hire, or what’s going on in food service, proves that you’re heads and tails above the competition. But there are so many different amenity options. Companies need to consider what the most impactful amenities are for their people and examine the choices they can make to best serve their entire employee roster.”

A menu of programming supported by concierge staff—that includes, for example, happy hour barre classes every Tuesday evening for two months—allows companies the flexibility to change offerings to meet employee needs and feedback. The same can’t be said for, say, a static ping-pong table.

“If you too quickly jump at a particular amenity that’s not highly utilized or impactful, you’re spending capital dollars on things that don’t bring you any return,” he said. “There was a time when folks threw a lot of different solutions at this issue, but the culture never improved, because it was a misfit for what was going on at the company. It’s essential to avoid getting caught with a lot of costs as a result of making an uninformed decision.”