The sophistication of amenities

Dec 12, 2016

Office amenities are shifting from a focus on whimsy to a focus on meaning, and that adds up to improved productivity and increased profitability.

As someone who designs workplace environments, it’s fascinating to participate in the “amenity one-upmanship” happening at corporations around the world and at tech firms in particular. From ping pong tables and kegerators to massage and nap spaces, amenities are now ubiquitous to the workday experience. They reduce the formality of the office environment and encourage a higher level of socialization and camaraderie, each key contributors to workplace satisfaction. They make culture more tangible and visible, which in a red-hot market plays a strong role in recruitment, retention, and differentiation.

But amenities are also engineered for greater productivity. Keeping people on-site longer (with food and fitness centers), removing mundane hassles (by administering dry cleaning and haircuts), and providing time to explore one’s personal ideas – each perk is embedded with the hope that “found” time will increase returns to the company’s bottom line.

The formula is fairly straightforward: at work, more engagement + less stress = elevated creativity = improved productivity = increased profitability. When companies stay true to themselves and avoid a “copy and paste” approach, the outcome is usually a win-win for both the individual and management. This amenity surge has enabled organizations – through both intention and luck – to better understand and augment work-life integration, and the resulting alchemy has led to transitioning amenities from a focus on whimsy to a focus on meaning. In the quest for the perfect balance, here are other factors being tested in the amenity equation that could soon change the look, feel, and impact of your office:

  • Making the digital physical. In San Francisco, the Autodesk Workshop – a hybrid workshop, laboratory, and office space – offers the intriguing potential to fuse technological progress with the intrinsically human satisfaction of making things. This space encourages employees to design stronger digital design experiences through their learnings with the tactile and the tangible. Even megabank Barclays is getting in on the trend by sponsoring a series of maker spaces throughout Cambridge that it calls “Eagle Labs.”
  • Individuality as brand. I am genuinely moved when friends in less expressive professions share their hidden artistic talents. Most of them do this outside of work, so imagine being able to tap into those skills while still inside the office. The Samsung headquarters in San Jose offers a music room for jamming, recording, learning, or, if you’re like me, just making noise. Graffiti walls in company spaces are growing in popularity as well, where you can remain anonymous or permanently leave your name – until the next person paints over it. Data walls enable the same customization and personalization in a digital context. As Android so aptly puts it, “Be together, not the same.”
  • Team build-ing. The pressure on newly forming teams to excel on a project can lead to either a defining moment or a divisive unravelling. Research shows that teams built with high theory of mind, less interruption, and more women solve more problems with greater creativity. Providing projects that have little to do with business success yet create a heightened theory of mind can yield both short- and long-term gains. ArgoDesign in Austin has been noted for building a Shelby as a side project – not in the garage, not in a back corner, but in the lobby. Using your hands and brains to create something real for fun, before you use your hands and brains to create something real for profit, can be a great way to bring people together.
  • From filling to fulfilling. I remember walking the halls of a tech campus with the person who oversaw food operations, and he noted his frustration with people drooling over the multitude of free snacks. As we walked, we noticed a colleague stuffing his pockets full of the many bite-size foods offered. At the time, this type of experience was completely new in the workplace and therefore somewhat forgivable, but excess snacking was later linked to greediness and weight gain across the industry. Now, many companies like data analytics firm Appeagle still offer snacks but have transitioned to offer healthier options. The smartest companies have shifted strategy completely, with some offering rooftop vineyards and personalized gardens that encourage people to grow, harvest, eat, and share their own food.
  • Complete health. With obesity and other weight-related diseases on the rise, many companies are taking employee health into their own hands. Nearly 30 percent of companies with 5,000 or more employees now have on-site medical clinics, including on Microsoft’s main campus, and this trend is expected to continue. But holistic, preventative measures are being taken as well. Companies are introducing “winter gardens,” as research has shown simply looking at green or open space can improve overall mental health, including a reduction of stress levels and an increase in cognitive performance. Mindfulness, the hot topic of the day, is taken quite seriously by the suitably named Headspace because of its long-term, age-independent benefits.
  • History … again. During the Industrial Revolution, workplaces commonly featured high ceilings, daylight, and fresh air, small consolations during the incredibly long workdays that eventually inspired revolts in the late 1880s. In the 1950s, drop ceilings, artificial daylight, and conditioned air were seen as new amenities – and ironically, these amenities began to extend the workday again. Half a century later we’ve realized that better daylight, fresh air, and shorter workdays are still true amenities. And they’ll remain as such until all have access to such simple staples of good health. Even moving back into urban locales, where diversity of scale and people has always been prevalent, now is considered an amenity – as is the shortened commute that usually comes with the location. This isn’t just more convenient and environmentally-friendly, it’s healthier too, as longer commutes are linked to health problems.
  • What’s next? Will amenity continue to influence “age,” or will age influence “amenity”? Amenity spaces have come full-circle since the personal tech boom of the late 1970s and early ‘80s changed how people viewed work. I hope we don’t lose sight of the risks taken – and benefits uncovered – through the whimsical and eccentric in the workplace, where the initial youthfulness of tech encouraged people to dress more comfortably, to hang out for a beer during the day, and to feel it was okay to take ping pong lessons where everyone could see. These experimental attitudes have questioned the atmosphere of the office building, where many of us will spend more than half our lives. But I also sense companies understand the gravity of taking a position through what they offer their talent pool. Those concerned with employee health and office culture are maturing their work environments through experiences, not moments. And, when done right, the upside is a formula that continues to result in a win-win for all.

Ryan Mullenix is a partner with NBBJ. He can be reached at @ryanjmullenix. This post was originally published by Entrepreneur.

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