Office N Illinois

Attracting and retaining talent—in the suburbs

Alliant Credit Union's employee lounge

Urban office spaces aren't the only ones that can be cool. The authors of this column explain how owners and architects are working together to pump energy into suburban office buildings.

Guest post by Steve Wright, AIA and Roger Heerema, AIAWright Heerema Architects

Office life in the suburbs is rapidly evolving as building owners transform their buildings to cater to the new way of working preferred by today’s workforce. New lounges are offering spaces for employees to collaborate and socialize, while fitness centers and healthy food offerings are helping to meet employees’ health and wellness needs under one roof.

Many building owners have realized that Millennials and other professionals love their suburban lives (and shorter commutes)—they just want well-designed buildings with amenities on-par with their counterparts in the city. These building owners, whether investors or corporations, know that investing in the suburbs remains a strong long-term proposition.

A 2016 report by PwC and the Urban Land Institute found absorption rates in Chicago’s suburban offices are improving, while vacancies have slowly but measurably declined. Moreover, the report pointed to ULI data finding that a larger number of millennials would prefer to live in the suburbs than currently do. This supports general logic that as members of the cohort move into their child-rearing years, they are likely to seek bigger homes and better schools in the suburbs.

How to attract and retain talent—in a suburban workplace 

As office deals in the suburbs pick up, building owners will find that new amenities and impactful design elements can help bring more energy and buzz to their buildings, which pays off in the long term. For owners and investors, repositioning projects increases returns on a building when the new features help attract and retain tenants. And for businesses, employee recruitment, engagement and retention increases when the design of the workplace effectively meets their needs.

Modern amenities add value to headquarters and multi-tenant buildings alike

Over the last decade, the tech industry upped the ante when it comes to office perks, with lavish amenities like gourmet cafeterias and massage rooms. Many downtown office buildings followed suit, adding high-tech conference facilities, fitness centers and lounges to help boost employee engagement. For example, the new tenant lounge at 222 South Riverside Plaza, located above Union Station, features a game room and golf simulator. And now we see this trend picking up in the suburbs.

One of the biggest suburban office deals of 2016 came in June, when Retail Properties of America, Inc. announced that Paylocity would take over 309,000 square feet of space at its Zurich Towers office building. To help lock in the 15-year agreement, RPA engaged Wright Heerema early in the process to design multiple building improvements, including a fully renovated atrium and lobby, state-of-the-art fitness center, new recreational amenities and modern conference and dining facilities.

When our teams design a suburban headquarters renovation, the plans almost always include new social spaces that bring people together organically. In-office lounges and bars build buzz and encourage employees to network outside of their everyday working relationships. These are features that originated in urban areas, and now are becoming more common in suburban office environments.

More subtle renovations can also make a big impact. Building owners and tenants alike are beginning to cater to the new style of working preferred by Millennials, who enjoy the opportunity to get out of the cocoon of their cubicle and work in a variety of spaces depending on the type of project they are focused on that day.

For instance, when Alliant Credit Union sought to redesign their offices in Rolling Meadows, they decided to knock down walls and transform their pantry area into a bright and airy lounge that brings employees together organically. A variety of seating areas provide spaces for employees to socialize and collaborate, and get a change of scenery from their desks.

Similarly, landlords are taking an active role in building out common spaces for tenants that go beyond lobbies and restrooms, helping to make their buildings more competitive and attract tenants. In multi-tenant buildings, Wi-Fi lounges offer a perk for building tenants and extend the available workspace, providing opportunities for employees to work in different venues and network with other people in the building. Many owners are also adding more robust conference centers and videoconference facilities, which tenants can use for a fraction of the cost that they would incur to add such amenities to their own individual space.

Fresh design wakes up sleepy office parks 

While new lounges and other amenities can go a long way in attracting tenants and increasing employee engagement, they may be overlooked if the building itself looks like it hasn’t changed since 1987. In the suburbs, the design of the building exterior and common spaces is more critical than in downtown buildings, where the general buzz of city life lends energy to offices.

In Oakbrook, Wright Heerema partnered with Golub & Company to reinvigorate a 289,000-square-foot complex now branded Oakbrook 22. On top of new amenities, the renovation helped to refresh the building with a re-imagined lobby, landscaping upgrades and a new entry arrival experience. The investment has paid off—new leases and renewals have helped to push up occupancy, and Michael Jordan’s restaurant has signed on to take over the new dining area.

Suburban locations also offer an advantage most downtown buildings cannot—the opportunity to extend the office outdoors. Oakbrook 22 took advantage of its land to add a new amenity space with seating in a green area. Bright canopies and thoughtful landscaping bring energy to the patio, giving office workers a place to take a break from the daily grind.

The project proved it is possible to be cool in the burbs. While some corporations will find a downtown building better suits the needs of their workforce, other companies will find they can still effectively recruit employees and keep them happy in the suburbs.

Modern design and amenities can add energy and cater to the working style of today’s employees. In the suburbs, where the onus is on the building to build energy and buzz, these improvements can be even more impactful.

Steve Wright and Roger Heerema are principals with Chicago architecture firm Wright Heerema Architects.