Outdoor workspaces could be a solution to rising real estate costs and the next frontier of wellness in the workplace, experts say.
Along the length of downtown Chicago’s Merchandise Mart this month, NeoCon organizers set up a temporary outdoor office and lounge space to demonstrate the experience cubicle dwellers could have if they charged up their laptop batteries and grabbed a seat outside.
The area, produced by design and architecture firm Gensler Chicago and furnished with products from Holland-based Haworth Inc., incorporated elements of a traditional indoor conference room, cafe and lounge area connected under a series of open-sided tents that offered a city breeze and views of the Chicago River.
“The initial idea behind this was creating different opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors, whether that was to work, to rest, to relax (or) to collaborate with one another,” John Scott, senior workplace design strategist at Haworth, told MiBiz.
The display at NeoCon is part of a much larger trend to encourage more workspaces to embrace biophilic design, which seeks to connect people with nature. Experts say the effect of these designs can leave humans feeling less stressed, resulting in increased concentration, improved memory, greater creativity and productivity, and reduced mental fatigue.
Although bringing the outdoors in has been part of popular design for decades, having been pioneered by architecture giants including Frank Loyd Wright, the shifting of indoor elements to the outside is a newer trend, according to Scott.
“We’re familiar with biomimicry and that’s trying to bring the outdoors in and all the benefits that we as humans get from that,” he said. “Now, as technology increases and improves, it allows us to work further and further away from the home base.”
With the outdoor display at NeoCon, the companies wanted to inspire people to think differently about how to use their overall real estate footprint.
“It’s trying to help people understand that work does not have to happen inside of four walls,” Scott said.
Transforming “dead zones” like rooftops, lawns and adjacent outdoor spaces into places where people can work may actually take less investment than companies realize, said Kirt Martin, chief creative officer at Kalamazoo-based Landscape Forms Inc.
“Oftentimes, they’re the least expensive spaces to invest in,” Martin told MiBiz. “If you did a side-by-side comparison between indoor square footage and outdoor square footage, it’s night and day different. The stack-up of a building cost is ridiculous compared to these beautiful and fun outdoor spaces.”
The outdoor office trend is catching on especially among tech companies. Last year, Amazon.com Inc. opened “spheres” for its employees on its Seattle campus. The structures, which are constructed of glass domes filled with tens of thousands of plants, serve as spaces for employees to work and lounge. As well, social media giant Facebook built a 9-acre rooftop garden at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., while Microsoft employees use technologically-enabled outdoor treehouses in Redmond, Wash.
While West Coast companies have been early adopters of the trend, businesses in Michigan are jumping on board as well — even in the face of inherent challenges that come with Midwest weather patterns and climate, Martin said.
“Every region of the country has its weak spot in terms of the best possible weather,” he said.
Contrary to popular thinking, in the rare parts of the country where the weather is pleasant all year long, people actually venture outside less, according to Martin.
“In Michigan, when summer does arrive, we’re using (outdoor space) really well,” he said. “Our usage rates are essentially the same as North Carolina, where it’s nice a lot. It’s really interesting how it balances out.”
The vast majority of workers would like to spend more time outside, according to a 2018 survey by Freeport, Maine-based retailer L.L.Bean. The survey found that 87 percent of indoor workers say they enjoy the outdoors, yet 75 percent of that group rarely or never take time to work outside.
This human desire is already reflected in the way people choose to spend their time away from the office, according to Martin.
“If you think it’s hot air or hogwash, just tell me where your next vacation’s going to be,” he said. “I bet that you won’t say, ‘I’m going to go two weeks indoors somewhere.”’
Furthermore, doctors are now prescribing park time to combat the side effects of daily screen use, which may lead to increased anxiety levels and social isolation.
However, to make the outdoors a place where workers can be productive, employers must provide certain amenities and think through challenges unique to the outdoors, according to Martin. A strong Wi-Fi connection and access to power are must-haves for the modern space. Then, companies and workers can deal with challenges like heating, cooling and glare.
Landscape Forms designed its Upfit product as an architectural solution to many common outdoor challenges. The modular structure connects to power for lighting and charging and holds up to the weather more effectively than a temporary tent or canopy.
“We have these structure systems that do what those tents do and more, and are architecturally sophisticated solutions,” he said. “The tents are temporary. They scream, ‘I’m not permanent. I’m here for an event.’”
Even so, Martin acknowledged temporary solutions — like the display at NeoCon — can be an “on-ramp” to more permanent amenities.
“Most of the time, people just don’t have the ability to see the value,” he said. “So, if you go in and get a permit to change the space for a few weeks and then take it down, what happens is people see the energy, the popularity and the usage of those spaces. It’s almost like they have to learn it to believe it, and when you do that, you can really transform space.”