Social distancing may be accelerating interest in the suburban office market now, but ironically, positive social experiences are exactly what helped spark the suburban renaissance in the first place. And with the right amount of TLC and focus on community, Chicago’s suburban office buildings can thrive through the pandemic due to their unique advantages over downtown buildings.
After decades of a lackluster rap, modern suburban buildings and campuses are becoming the new darlings of corporate site selectors for a few reasons. Ample parking and room to stretch one’s legs outside have always been inherent benefits of a suburban location—and are only more valuable in light of COVID-19. But dangling extra space is table stakes for suburban building owners in today’s competition for tenants. Owners winning the most tenants are those who do more than offer attractive office space—they up the ante by creating socially activated communities that today’s brightest and best knowledge workers crave.
A flourishing suburban office building provides a dynamic and engaging setting for a wide variety of workers. It wins prospective tenants over with vibrant, community-minded design from the moment they step into the lobby, as they continue on through the halls, elevators and outdoor spaces and into a workplace that inspires. By creating a setting that brings people together with shared, positive experiences, building owners can achieve a destination workplace in the suburbs.
Establish a socially activated suburban destination workplace
Unlike downtown office buildings, where the neighborhood has typically served up the communal vibe that tenants so often appreciate, the suburban office building is itself the vibe.
Suburban building owners can socially activate their office buildings by creating an ecosystem that caters to tenants’ diverse daily needs right inside the building. Typically, there’s enough room and flexibility to carve out a “third place” location that is neither “home” nor “office,” where employees can get to know each other, share ideas, or simply recharge in the good company of professional peers.
To cultivate community, owners must intentionally promote interaction. Thriving suburban office buildings actively provide a consistent, welcoming and unique experience with memorable first impressions and thoughtful amenities. There are a number of areas where suburban building owners have the opportunity to shape such an experience.
Clean, inviting curb appeal. Residential real estate shoppers aren’t the only ones who care about curb appeal—office workers appreciate places that look fabulous before you step out of the car, too. Updating and/or simply cleaning a facade can go a long way in creating an attractive exterior. Taking advantage of green space with vibrant landscaping can also help make a great first impression.
A fresh and welcoming lobby. The dark, closed-off lobbies of yesteryear no longer impress tenants and visitors with anything but a desire to quickly move along. Today’s tenants prefer lobbies that are bright, inviting and alive. This might mean comfortable seating options that encourage people to take meetings or simply sit down for a cup of coffee. Dynamic lighting installations and pleasing finishes can also help employees and visitors alike feel welcome and comfortable in the space, like the lobby lighting at The Shuman in Naperville, for example.
A lively lounge that doubles as a community hub. A comfortable space for tenants to relax, work or connect with one another can quickly become one of the best-used spaces in a building—provided some services are in place to attract activity, like a café for afternoon pick-me-ups or a bar for happy hour. At President’s Plaza in Rosemont, for instance, the lounge’s coffee bar also serves adult beverages after work hours and ended up extending its hours well past 5 p.m. thanks to increased tenant usage.
A cafeteria with options. An onsite cafeteria with a variety of options can help keep tenants with different dietary habits and needs in the building during the workday—adding to a sense of vibrant community. Comfortable cafeteria seating can also serve as another spot where people can take lunch meetings.
Convenient fitness space. Employees looking to stay fit and maximize their time can realize both goals in an efficient in-building fitness center. Some building owners, like at The Shuman, hire third-party firms to manage fitness rooms, which can help elevate the tenant experience.
A place to play. Tech workers aren’t the only knowledge workers who can benefit from a little boost of fun and creativity in their workday. A game room can bring people together to unwind or take a break to refresh their minds.
Why the suburbs are winning back corporate tenants
It may take some extra work to cultivate community in any office building, but those in the suburbs have some other advantages at this particular time.
A wealth of outdoor space can add to employee well-being. As companies bring employees back to work with social distancing requirements, suburban buildings have an immediate advantage over urban locations because they can more easily offer safe access to the outdoors. In addition to simply enabling people to more easily spread out and socialize in fresh air, quality outdoor space can help tenants support employee wellbeing at a time when both physical and mental health are being taxed.
More space per dollar than downtown. The pandemic has put a premium on square footage while also forcing more companies to reassess their budgets. Right now, many companies are working to bring more people back into the office, which they may be better able to accomplish by leasing more square footage—at cheaper rents than downtown.
Lower roofs mean fewer crowded elevators. Tenants in suburban office buildings often needn’t rely so much on elevators as they do in city center buildings—a perk, given new public health concerns over small, enclosed spaces.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the future holds for the suburban workplace, but no matter what, many more employees will return to the office eventually. As they do, they’ll be most empowered by suburban workplace destinations that show their companies value them not just as employees, but as humans.
About the authors
Stephen Wright, AIA, LEED AP is the Founder and Managing Principal of Wright Heerema Architects. He has over 40 years of experience designing corporate and investment office properties across the United States and as Principal-in-Charge, he provides leadership to the WHA team and takes an active role in upfront strategic discussions. He believes that client relationships should continue even after the project is complete, and continues to maintain a working relationship with the firm’s first client from 1996.
Cary Chandler, LEED AP BD+C, is Project Manager, Associate at Wright Heerema Architects. His desire to work with creative people on challenging projects has continued through his career as an architect and project manager and is evident through his involvement in a wide variety of projects. He has worked with clients across several market sectors including corporate, science & technology, mixed-use and higher education, and is experienced in all phases of commercial projects from schematic design through construction administration.