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The Suburban Office Park May Be Down But Doesn't Have to Be

Aleksandr Zamuruiev Alamy Stock Photo.jpg

Image: Aleksandr Zamuruiev - Alamy Stock Photo
It's cheesy to admit, but some of my excitement around my first non-lifeguard job was because I got to work in an office park. At age twenty, I took a part-time job as a technical writer for a software company in our university's start-up incubator; and I was soon scheduled to spend three afternoons a week documenting developers' weekly output in FoxPro.
The office park created an atmosphere dedicated to productivity—an open office layout to facilitate communication within and shaded tables for breaks without. I didn't bring work home with me; the minute I saw the boxwood hedges flanking the sidewalk outside our low-slung black glass building, my brain switched from work mode to student mode.
Everything about the office seemed exotic then: I wasn’t required to clean the bathrooms! (At every pool I worked out, keeping the wet floors clean of toilet paper clumps was a job requirement.) We had free coffee and cold water. And I had a cubicle all to myself. After two years of doing my schoolwork in university labs or the college paper newsroom, having a quiet, dedicated workspace was intoxicating.
A dozen years later, when I returned to working at another office park, I wasn’t so thrilled. I had spent the intervening years working in downtown Washington, D.C., or downtown San Francisco, and the culture shock of the office park was real. In lieu of the public-transit commute, which bolstered my reading habit and helped me get in my 10,000 daily steps, I had to drive in rush-hour traffic. There was no way to take a walk out to the pond in our park—it was there to look at—and any decent lunch place required a twenty-minute drive each way.
My disenchantment with the office park was not unique. Reporting for the New York Times, Emily Badger wrote in "Lonely Last Days in the Suburban Office Park:"
“Suburban offices built between the 1960s and 1980s were already struggling before the pandemic, with their aging mechanical systems and the changing tastes of millennials … A younger generation wants more urban offices, real estate developers say, or at least suburban offices that feel more urban, with sidewalks and somewhere different to eat lunch every day.”
Simply getting in a casual 10,000 daily steps and knowing I had the option to get my favorite pasta Portofino salad (even if I chose to brown-bag it most of the time) made me feel a sense of well-being I lacked in that car-commute-office-park situation. I left that job the minute I found a great opportunity in the city. Within weeks, everything felt better.
Employee wellbeing has been at the heart of the coverage around what is driving the transformational changes in today's varied workplaces. There's an abundance of research detailing how traditional office culture was not contributing to employee wellbeing if you were queer, nonwhite, or a working parent. There's also an abundance of research indicating that employees are now more adamant about prioritizing their work-life balance and maintaining control over their time.
It makes sense to examine how physical spaces contribute to that sense of well-being. My colleague Ryan Daily's talked about the steps office furniture makers are taking in recognition of how the interior office space can change to accommodate workforces that don't want to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. But why stop with the interior configurations?
The best that office parks have to offer workers is a dedicated working environment and free parking. Start by selling that in coworking set-ups. Then focus on what could improve wellbeing. Why not take advantage of the parking lots in office parks to bring a variety of restaurants to the tenants in an arrangement with food truck services like Off the Grid? See about opening up a gym in what used to be an office space? Make the office park a little less focused on the office angle and more focused on what makes parks so appealing—easy access to respite in an otherwise busy place.
The shifting fortunes of suburban office parks the New York Times documented is a great spatial metaphor for the overall workplace transformation. In the past 20 years, prime working-age American adults (ages 25-44, according to Pew Research) have been increasingly residing in core urban counties over the suburban ones; if the prime working-age adults are moving to suburbia, Pew Research reported, it was mostly the counties immediately outside large metro areas. Clearly, the allure of ample parking and pastoral isolation in office parks wasn't enough to prompt the under-50 workforce to move out to the 'burbs.
That lack of interest has been reflected in the state of the suburban office park. According to commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), 57 percent of suburban office space nationwide is functionally obsolete, and vacancy rates for these offices outpace those of urban office space.
There’s still a lot of old-school value in what office parks represent—the dedicated workspaces and the park-like spaces acknowledging the human need for refreshment between tasks. But there's also an exciting opportunity to ask what new employee needs can be met if these office parks are reimagined for a workforce that isn't shy about centering the need for wellbeing.
Enterprise Connect chair Eric Krapf recently talked to JLL global head of growth and business development Dan Kirschner and reported:
“The company’s most recent Workforce Preferences Barometer study showed that quality of life/work-life balance is now the most important consideration for employees, surpassing salary, which ranked number-one pre-pandemic. The second-most important factor is now: “Working in a company that supports my health and well-being,” which jumped from fourth place pre-pandemic to second as of April 2022. Salary now comes in third.”
The growing market in employee experience platforms shows that companies know employee wellbeing is vital to workplace productivity and company workforce management. It's prompted a whole new segment of office and enterprise software in the employee experience platform. Now it's time to see how facilities managers and commercial real estate companies do to extend employee experience into the physical world.