The New Corporate Campus

Drew Patton, chairman and chief business strategist at PDR, takes a look at the evolving corporate campus and shares ideas for creating one that adapts to changing needs.

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Image courtesy of PDR.

The corporate office landscape has continuously evolved to meet market demands and enable companies to compete for work, real estate, and talent. Decades ago, the sprawling suburban campus was the corporate office solution — think classic campuses like Connecticut General outside of Hartford and the Texaco campus in Rye, N.Y. Years later, corporations began to gravitate toward a real estate model that relied on leasing developer-owned space. Today, a new corporate real estate model, influenced by the combined history of corporate campuses and leased office space, has emerged to better meet the needs of global corporations and their changing workforce.

As companies centralize their employees, we are seeing a renewed commitment to real estate ownership and investment in campuses. If a company employs 50, 100, or even 200 employees, leasing space in a landlord-owned building will likely provide the most economical, flexible solution. However, companies that are looking to centralize thousands of employees and make a 20- 30- 40- 50-year real estate investment will make different decisions about property location and ownership.

Image courtesy of PDR.
Image courtesy of PDR.

Suburban campuses appeal to corporations for three key reasons. First, the abundance of affordable land in suburban locations allows them to buy it up, develop some of it, and reserve the rest for future needs. Second, suburban campuses provide easy access to nearby, affordable housing for employees. This proximity enables companies to locate the workplace closer to employees’ homes, a priority that has existed for over 50 years. Finally, developing a campus in a suburban location provides a company with the ability to significantly impact the development of surrounding infrastructure, resulting in a competitive advantage.

Companies do not build every day. If they build every 50 years, they want to invest in something that will last as far into the future as possible. This objective requires that they consider flexible workplace design that will adapt to changing business needs and support a new generation of workers. Big ideas for the 50-year plan need to focus on a demographic that is in middle school today. What will the new generation want and expect from its workplace? How will that compare with the values of current employees preparing to retire?

New technologies and an old familiar feeling

Now that corporations are back on campus, they are looking for two things that were not available in the corporate campuses of the past. One is a new idea, the other is an older one.

The new idea involves integrating new technologies with new workplace strategies. A new work setting provides the opportunity for a fresh start with office designs that help them accelerate the integration of technology. The older idea is quite simple. Recall the feeling you had while walking across your college campus quad — the knowledge that you stood in a historic place defined by the legacy of those who came before you and the sense of optimism about the future because of what you could contribute. That spirit and sense of belonging are the emerging ideas behind new campuses.

On the old corporate campus, the subliminal message was, “You’re at work, you have a job, you have a process, you get paid, go to work.” Now the message is, “Are you inspired to do great work? Is this a better place for you to work than our competition provides?”

Investing in work-life balance

There are a number of features on these new campuses that show employees they are valued. Companies are exploring work-life balance issues whether they office downtown, on a small campus, or on a big campus. They want their employees to be healthy, so they not only provide food, but a wide variety of higher quality food. Many campuses offer employees a wellness center or gym — a place for employees to improve their personal health. Large companies can even support sports teams. Playing on a team is far more meaningful than working out alone. There is power in social interaction and the bonds that are formed create a strong sense of community. I believe that is what companies are trying to build: a culture of engaged minds and the exchange of big ideas. These are the goals of the best.

Image courtesy of PDR.
Image courtesy of PDR.

Take childcare, for example. The secret behind daycare is when a young family with a child has the convenience and comfort of quality on-site daycare, they are more inclined to develop a sense of loyalty to the company and commit to staying in that location for five years until the child starts school. After staying for five years until the child goes to school, they are more likely to stay longer. Amenities are not just for employees and their families, they are actually an investment in a commitment from both sides. This mutual commitment is the reason we are seeing increased childcare options today.

Work, workers, and workplace settings

I have discussed the campus setting and amenities, but the workplace is changing as well. Corporations are shifting to a variety of work settings based on the different ways employees complete their daily work activities. Some companies say that they are moving to all closed offices; what they really mean is they plan to have their employees do their focused work in a closed room. Very few people do focused, heads-down, task-oriented work all day. Almost everyone is looking for balance between focused work and collaborative work.

Think about high-performance work. First you focus, and then you look up — look out the window for some relief, to gain perspective, to jog your memory. Then you look back down. A coffee break works the same way. You are working hard, focused, and you get up and walk around. On a campus, employees have increased options and flexibility for high performance work. They can look out and see the trees (a major benefit), and then focus back on the task at hand. A walk to the coffee bar and casual interaction with colleagues can inspire a new idea or solution to a problem. At lunchtime, employees have the potential to encounter a thousand colleagues, creating an even bigger perspective on work and each person’s role in the workplace.

Image courtesy of PDR.
Image courtesy of PDR.

Some companies encourage increased flexibility for high performance work by investing in a workplace environment that promotes activity-based working. In these environments, employees are encouraged to select the space that best supports the type of work they are currently pursuing. If they need quiet for concentrated work, they work in a private room. If they need easy access to colleagues in an effort to complete their work, they work in an open workspace. Activity-based workplaces also offer a variety of specialized work areas for group collaboration, quiet work, and phone calls.

When employees are encouraged to work in the space that best supports their daily tasks, they are more productive, engaged, and innovative. They are also more likely to encounter colleagues from other departments and workgroups as they move around throughout the workday. Today’s corporate campus provides employees with choice. They are free to ask themselves, “Where do I want to work today? What do I need to accomplish?”

Even in a downtown high-rise there are options for variety in work settings. I work 500 feet above the ground in a downtown high-rise overlooking other high-rises, but that does not prevent me from having a connection to the larger community. I walk down to lunch and enter a larger community space where residents from several buildings gather for food and shopping. Outside, I can walk through a downtown park and let my mind settle. When I come back, my work is more focused, accurate and creative.

The three realms of work

There are three realms of work that a well-designed campus amplifies: the urban vibe, the collegiate atmosphere, and the walk in the woods. The urban vibe can be understood as the energy and the urgency of working in an urban setting in close proximity to colleagues. A lot of people have to get their work done today or in the next 10 minutes. A sense of urgency is achieved with density; even if you can see the trees and the skyline or walk outside, you are located nearby your peers. The urban vibe is the highest impact realm of work for researchers and companies with long-term goals in mind.

Image courtesy of PDR.
Image courtesy of PDR.

The second realm is the collegiate atmosphere: a walkable, pedestrian-friendly campus. Today’s leading corporate campuses have their employees park their cars outside the campus. The campus is pedestrian-oriented — inside or outside, elevated or on the ground, and builds the sense of a college. The collegiate atmosphere is also achieved using scale: 90 feet across from building to building, with buildings six and seven stories tall so that employees can identify the person they see across the way. Visibility is key to the collegiate scale — all views are short enough that you can actually identify someone walking toward you.

The third realm is the walk in the woods: truly, woods to walk in, a soccer field, or a swimming pool. Outdoor spaces nurture the authentic roots of a company and support the people. All of this is not about the architecture: it’s about the people who work in the architecture.

Collisions, engagement, satisfaction, and success

The new corporate campus environment addresses so many more aspects of employee engagement for a reason: organizations all want to move faster. Today’s companies recognize that the dynamics that accelerate decisions, achieve innovation, or generate ideas hinge on collaboration between groups.

Today’s corporate campus is designed to encourage connections and cooperation – what we call collisions. Collisions integrate people in new and unexpected ways, and the new campus workplace supports spontaneous collisions by providing visual and physical proximity. The goal is to create a greater volume of cross-organizational engagement and increase the speed of exchanging ideas.

Image courtesy of PDR.
Image courtesy of PDR.

A campus environment that enables collisions results in increased levels of engagement and improved workplace satisfaction. Studies have shown that three things make work meaningful: significant challenge, peer respect and personal reward. In the last few years, we have designed over 20,000 seats for a variety of organizations, and this phenomenon has proven to be true time and time again.

Imagine your workday as an employee on a new corporate campus. You go to your workspace, an open studio with about 50 people that are part of your unit or team, and as you look across the studio, you can see everyone — working, collaborating and problem solving. The workplace provides a variety of supportive options depending on your work needs. You feel a sense of belonging.

When you need a break, you walk to the cafe or coffee shop. The new workplace may offer fewer places for your coffee break, but they are well worth the walk because you know you will encounter so many of your colleagues — maybe even hundreds of them. The same is true when you work out at the wellness center, eat in the cafeteria, or even just walk across the commons. You are part of something important, you see people who can help you do your job better, faster, and who will spark something in you. And not just a handful of people, either. Potentially thousands.

A day on a corporate campus is filled with positive collisions that fuel cooperation and collaboration, moving you and your organization beyond good ideas toward real innovation.

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