When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, tech companies were among the first to successfully adapt to working remotely at scale. Having quickly deployed tools and strategies to keep workers connected and productive, many of the major players in tech leaned into the new work-from-anywhere paradigm, announcing that their flexible or fully remote working arrangements would continue indefinitely.
The rest of the world followed suit, primarily out of necessity as social distancing and lockdown orders became the new normal. But as the beginning of the end of the pandemic starts to emerge, companies of all sizes may soon follow tech again — back to the office and maybe even to a reimagined corporate campus.
Building at Scale
Silicon Valley is known for popularizing a workplace culture that prioritizes the needs and desires of its workers as a means for keeping them focused on work. While in the past decade this has meant sprawling corporate campuses with private transportation systems and catered breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the tech industry’s target demographic for talent has shifted — and so has its corporate footprint.
While the biggest of big tech has successfully drawn up-and-coming talent to suburban locations, there is a generational shift among knowledge workers that prioritizes a dynamic urban environment with a short commute via public transit as opposed to a rush-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic. While many predicted the death of cities in the wake of COVID-19, tech companies have spent the past 18 months signing record-breaking leases in urban areas of all sizes, from coast to coast. But they haven’t abandoned their corporate campuses either.
The next generation of Silicon Valley campus caters to this emerging preference, prioritizing developments that tear down the walled-off complexes of the past. A handful of tech developments are moving toward mixed-use mini-cities that encompass affordable and market-rate housing, high-end hotels, retail outlets, and public use parks in addition to traditional, and non-traditional, office space. They are deliberately designed to mimic the vibrancy of city living, where offices are integrated with the “always-on” ambiance of the surrounding environment.
While few companies have the scale to build their own company town, this integrated approach is likely to influence other corporate office spaces, from location to on-site amenities. For developers, that means a renewed focus on mixed-use developments and the zoning issues that accompany them.
A handful of tech developments are moving toward mixed-use mini-cities.
For instance, in Austin, where major tech developments have stretched the capacity of the city’s housing stock and transportation readiness, a large mixed-use development called River Park ran into zoning hurdles related to the number of affordable housing units, overall environmental impact, and concerns about gentrifying one of the last few affordable areas within easy distance to downtown. While the project will move forward with roughly 10 percent of its 4,000 plus multifamily units set aside for affordable housing, it serves as an example of the complex factors that can trip up or stop a development that encompasses housing, office, commercial, medical, and public space.
Peeking Behind the Tech Curtain
Diversity in corporate developments doesn’t stop at the front door. Workspaces themselves are changing. While many think of tech companies as pioneers of perfecting the algorithm and working from the cloud, today’s industry leaders are also embracing hardware — from manufacturing their own chips, to rolling out consumer products like phones and tablets, smart thermometers, and home security systems.
These lines of business demand sophisticated lab and manufacturing space with proximity to distribution centers — requirements similar to those of the life sciences sector, one of tech’s chief rivals in the war for talent. Building hardware isn’t a work-from-home task; tech campuses need benchworking spaces equipped for designing and manufacturing physical prototypes and products.
While most companies won’t suddenly pivot to these kinds of scientific inquiries, they may find their employees need different kinds of accommodations than they had before: larger meeting rooms, for instance, or more private offices as opposed to wide-open space. The only constant in the years to come is likely to be a need to stay flexible to meet the next evolution of office space as the demands of work evolve.
Diversity in corporate developments doesn’t stop at the front door.
We’re already seeing companies embrace smart ways to plan for dedensification and potentially the reverse trend at some future point, creating office plans for normal office density and ongoing COVID distancing. By overlaying office plans and creating hookups for power and connectivity for all scenarios now, these companies have spent a little more today but will potentially save thousands in the years to come as their office becomes near-endlessly reconfigurable.
Today’s Challenges Build on the Past
Meeting the many needs of the new world of work presents considerable challenges to developers, beginning with site selection. Despite a global competition for top talent, tech companies want to build in locations that attract the best of the best, particularly where there is a critical mass of recent university graduates and other prospective employees.
Another component of a thriving tech company is creative, enticing amenities. Large tech companies famously boast master kitchens stocked with gourmet coffee, organic produce, and craft beer, as well as offering other perks like sun-drenched outdoor space, yoga classes, gym facilities, and more. Staying competitive in the amenities race requires keeping a finger on the pulse of employees’ expectations and coming up with fresh ideas that make them want to spend more time at work.
For instance, companies that didn’t offer such tech-inspired amenities before are incorporating those experiences into their return-to-office plans, making executives more accessible through coffee “office hours,” for instance, and taking advantage of courtyard space to host a summer concert series. And, in a campus setting, the possibilities are unconstrained compared with more traditional leased space.
Staying competitive in the amenities race requires keeping a finger on the pulse of employees’ expectations.
Last but not least, these mixed-use campuses must strike the optimal balance between accessibility to public transit and availability of parking. Even at the most eco-conscious, urban-minded firms, some employees still want to drive to work; and visitors who arrive by car will always need a place to park. How much space to devote to parking, and where to put it, remains a challenge each developer must approach thoughtfully and strategically with an eye toward the company’s future needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of work: one where 9 to 5 is a suggestion, not a mandate; where productivity is possible in a wide variety of settings; and where workers need to spread out and feel connected all at once. For tech industry leaders, a fresh take on the corporate campus offers the flexibility to keep workers engaged and inspired as they navigate a cautious — and hopeful — post-COVID reality. And once it hits the tech industry, it’s bound to impact everyone else.