Tracey Ingram (TI): As workers become less tethered to their desks, HQs are now competing with everything from cafés and co-working spots to the home, meaning companies have to do more to attract their employees back to physical spaces. Until recently, it was all about creating fun, colourful, attractive workplaces – and everybody seemed to do so, often without questioning whether it fitted their brand or not. As such, the work scape became homogenized. Now, many companies are reassessing what their offices should be and thinking about what benefits they can offer to outweigh the convenience of working from home.
Youri Sawerschel (YS): What outcomes have you noticed so far in terms of physical workspaces?
TI: Some companies are offering great hospitality options, while others are turning their attention to wellbeing. Working from home isn’t the healthiest option for everyone – particularly those lacking the right tools for the job – so new offices are considering elements like circadian lighting, adaptable workspaces, areas for socializing and downtime, and workout facilities. Some are even building wellbeing into the design itself: Adidas and Nike have just completed new spaces in Oregon whose interiors actively encourage employees to move around, which of course ties in with their brands. What do you think offices can do from a branding perspective to maintain their relevance?
YS: We often say that employees are brand ambassadors, which makes the office the embassy. An embassy’s role goes beyond being a workspace – it’s a place to convince, negotiate, attract and so on. When it comes to attracting employees, companies need to ask themselves: What’s the role of our embassy? Once you clarify that, you can build a space that corresponds to the role you want to have and build up your services to match your position. One basic but concrete example is that a place that wants to foster connection might incorporate a strong F&B concept. Or a place that wants to adapt and to build relationships with suppliers could focus on modularity and having space for organizing events. We spend eight hours a day in an office so it’s a big part of our identity – the image we have, or want to have, of ourselves. The office decor is only a small part of it.
TI: That also aligns with what we’re seeing in terms of offices looking beyond their walls. There’s the rewilding movement, with firms such as Heatherwick Studios and MVRDV delivering plans for offices that bring back greenery to concrete city centres. And so-called ‘porous offices’ – a counterpoint to the prevalence of closed office towers – consider how they can engage with the local community, perhaps via hospitality or event facilities that are open to the public. So far, porous offices seem to be more of an idea than a reality, though, with the exception of a few ground-floor cafés. There’s a friction between opening up to all and protecting a company’s intellectual property.
YS: Yes, there’s the legal perspective – how you protect trade secrets – but there’s also an identity perspective. Because if anybody can come in, you no longer have a strong sense of community – communities rely on having insiders and outsiders. I think it’s about finding a balance, and some co-working spaces do this well. Station F in Paris, for instance, has one or two cafés that are open to the public on the street level, so you get the feeling you’re at Station F, but the actual entrances are accessed with swipe cards. It’s a bit like a hotel with public and private spaces – the lobby is open to all to come and have a drink but the rooms are not. I think workplaces have to think across at least two, if not three, different levels to create a sense of community and belonging. One level is open to the public, the next is open to all resident companies, and the third is a private space for each resident company – or even for a specific department within that company.
“We often say that employees are brand ambassadors, which makes the office the embassy. An embassy’s role goes beyond being a workspace – it’s a place to convince, negotiate, attract and so on.”
TI: I agree. We’ve mainly been talking about offices in central city locations but, considering remote working and widening urban sprawls, have you noticed a recent change in where businesses are locating their HQs?
YI: It’s funny, when you said ‘where’ I immediately thought, are we talking physical or digital? We need to look at both aspects and consider brand indicators across each. Even Slack channels, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are places where employees come together. I’m sure you’ve had the whole Zoom versus Teams discussion. It reminds me a bit of deciding which restaurant to go to for lunch with your colleagues – do we go to Zoom pizza or Microsoft sushi? Everyone has their own preference for whatever reason.
A couple of companies have announced they now have an HQ in the metaverse – J.P. Morgan just launched a lounge on Decentraland, for instance, and of course, there’s Facebook’s big rebranding. I do think we’re quite far away from every co-worker having a headset and logging into the metaverse, though – if it ever happens.
TI: Indeed, the metaverse idea may not be there yet, but I don’t think we can ignore its potential. A while ago I spoke with design studio Space Popular, who do a lot with VR. They said we shouldn’t just think about headsets because the hardware will rapidly change. What about when VR ‘hardware’ is almost imperceptible? As thin as a piece of fabric? Virtual media are becoming more spatial, meaning our environments will eventually be overlaid by digital content. Space Popular explored these ideas in their Venn Room project, which looks at how new devices will allow a virtual visitor to bring aspects of their environment into that of the visitee to create a shared virtual hybrid home. I also recently talked to the global head of design and build at Spotify, who said they’re looking into what digital means for their offices. It will mean something, but it’s too soon to predict its exact impact. For now, they can imagine that their spaces and meetings will become a blend of virtual and reality.
YS: It will certainly be interesting to see how that evolves, especially as we’ll likely see more and more distributed office setups. You might have a mothership somewhere that’s supported by satellite units, which could be anything from a branch office in another part of town or another city to a co-working desk to your living room at home. Even when working at home alone, you can signify your brand with a virtual background.
“What about when VR ‘hardware’ is almost imperceptible? As thin as a piece of fabric? Virtual media are becoming more spatial, meaning our environments will eventually be overlaid by digital content. ”
TI: Yes, the hub-and-spoke model. As you said, the HQ is the hub, and the spokes can be anything from a co-working spot to your home to a digital platform. We’re also seeing some companies push these spokes further out, setting up workplaces in rural areas to cater to those outside cities. And co-working is as distributed as you can get, of course, allowing digital nomads to access different locations around the globe. Even if co-working spaces aren’t extremely central, they still have to be extremely accessible. I think we’ll see more crop up near or in travel hubs like train stations – or even in EV charging stations.
YS: Speaking of co-working, We-Work’s all-access passes already hint at a future iteration of the office as a service rather than a place. To take things further, imagine a subscription-style model that gains employees not only entry to a company’s different headquarters but to certain co-working spaces, too, as well as discounts at specific cafés. Currently there are companies that offer co-working, others that have meeting rooms and another that lets you compare the price of meeting rooms. I think one step after this is to be able to pick the type of place you want but also the services you want to have with it, like gym classes or dry cleaning. This will affect branding as well. When you ask yourself which brands you’re loyal to, are you talking about providers or aggregators? Is it that restaurant, or Uber Eats? This means that branding isn’t completely differentiated because these separate parties rely on each other for their value. No one has managed to own this office-as-a-service space just yet, but it will be a bit of a winner-takes-all situation, just as there are only a few delivery apps or hotel booking sites that can really make it.
YS: I do think workspace pricing will evolve – like software pricing, it could be built up more granularly. You also mentioned that offices will need to be used by different groups of people. I think that as the market matures, offices will need to go more niche by focusing on a particular audience with shared interests. We’ve seen start-ups for women entrepreneurs and co-working for tech start-ups. We were brought in to brand a huge campus in Lausanne, for example, a shared office plus co-working for all the actors in the economy of trust. We proposed to call it Square One, because everything starts with trust, and brought in specific people that would connect with that idea.
Ultimately, offices are one piece of the working-lifestyle puzzle. You need to think about where, as in physical versus digital; what services and advantages you offer; who you meet or work with; and how you do it – frequency and access etcetera. All these dimensions need to be balanced to get to something that matches the way people want to work and the way companies have started to operate, especially after Covid.