“Do you want to just go to the bar?” And so ends the “informal work session” started by two millennial creatives with a well-known ad firm when they attempted to have a meeting in the outdoor collaboration space at their downtown office building.
It turns out when the temperature hits 90 degrees with 80% humidity in Minneapolis, a downtown parking ramp with an artificial turf rug and the smell of car exhaust is still just the unwanted, unused top level of a parking ramp.
For the building owner who invested in the space, it’s not working as the intended live-work-play third workplace for results-driven millennials who are focused on achieving a new balance of production and collaboration. You can’t recreate the smells, sounds and fresh air of nature when your view is obscured by cement slabs and brick walls. Hopefully, it still checks a box on showings with tenant-prospects.
I’ve written in the past why I believe there’s still a place for well-positioned and well-managed suburban office space in the future, even as we work with the reality of urban migration and the densification of CBDs and adjacent creative districts. An effective use of surrounding outdoor environments can be a major reason why one suburban office building thrives while another flounders, losing tenants to downtown.
Connecting a workplace to the outdoor environment is not a trend; it satisfies a base yearning that workers have felt since the first caveman exchanged a dozen clubs for a wooly mammoth pelt. As a proud UW Badger, I believe famed naturalist and fellow alum John Muir sums up the worker’s connection to nature and its relationship to providing for one’s family best.
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give stength to body and soul."
Smart suburban landlords are heeding this timeless wisdom. Employers are demanding more of their increasingly millennial-driven workforces than ever before. In May of this year, The Washington Post reported that the average work week is now up to 47 hours per week, almost a full extra work day. Further investigation shows that a minimum wage worker has to work 87 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle (the Stranger) and an 80-hour work week in Miami (Miami New Times).
With the increased workload, savvy corporate leadership offers flexibility in the work week in order to attract and retain talent. An easy escape during the workday to a comfortable outdoor environment on-campus, allowing employees time to recharge or collaborate in a relaxed setting while getting fresh air will aid a healthy and happy corporate culture. Striking that work/life balance while keeping employees on-site is a win for executive decision makers who will benefit from increased productivity.
The Nature Advantage
As an office leasing agent for Colliers International in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I’m responsible for marketing Crescent Ridge II, a 300,000 RSF Class A office property owned by Piedmont Office Realty Trust. In addition to a core suburban market location on busy I-394, just a short 12-minute drive to the Minneapolis CBD, the building enjoys a competitive advantage with an immediately adjacent Minnetonka city-owned nature preserve. The wetlands area with surrounding run/walk/bike trails is easily missed by the thousands of commuters traveling down I-394 to downtown, but is a treasured amenity of the tenants who enjoy a quick outdoor workout during the noon hour or a water view from their office.
Seth Redfield, property manager for Piedmont, summarizes the relationship with the preserve: “This past year we made a significant investment in our cafeteria and the upgrade was favorably received by tenants. As the weather turned sunny these past few weeks, it’s been remarkable how many tenants have gravitated toward the cafeteria’s outdoor patio overlooking the preserve. We’re in the process of examining how to better leverage our natural surroundings: whether it be with another augmented patio area off our lobby for informal gatherings and tenant socials or better connectivity to the nature trail for the runners and bikers.”
In support of a nature-nurture philosophy, the University of Minnesota, Taking Charge of your Health and Wellbeing online newsletter states, “Nature reduces our anger, fear, and depression and increases our positive mood and psychological wellbeing. This not only increases our happiness, it makes us feel better physically. Time in nature also brings us out of ourselves and our narrow concerns and connects us to a larger world where we find beauty and interest. Thus the environment is connected not only to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health, but to purpose and community.”
In addition to providing a needed escape “where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul” during a busy work week, an outdoor space can provide the necessary hip and progressive factor to differentiate a suburban building from its competition. Faced with significant vacancy in a stagnant sub-market, owner Felton Properties updated an underutilized courtyard space at Braemar Office Park in suburban Edina, MN.
The renovation added a new outdoor patio, fire pit, lawn games area and putting green. Following the renovation, came 40,000 SF of new leases in 2016, in a southwest suburban market showing over 200,000 SF of negative absorption for the year according to Colliers research. Braemar’s courtyard proves in part that an outdoor space done well can be an impetus for new leasing and a differentiator for companies seeking space to attract talent.
Jeff Borlaug, Managing Director at Felton Properties says of the updated courtyard: “We really wanted to activate that outdoor area by bringing in people to collaborate or relax in the space. As an owner, we know you have to create that live-work-play experience in the suburbs so that tenants and their employees want to be there. It’s all about the tenant experience and providing that opportunity to jump away from the desk at 4:00, grab a shot of espresso at the café, putt around the green or play a game of corn hole. An executive may never use that putting green but if they can tell a recruit that ‘we have a putting green at our office,’ that can be a differentiating amenity that stands out with a potential employee.”
Connecting to outdoor space in a manner that will provide a meaningful amenity for suburban office tenants does not come without a cost to building ownership. That said, when done well, it can provide the differentiating factor needed to attract tenants and a return on investment equal to, or better than, interior renovations.
The prioritization of resources allocated to outdoor space as part of commercial development is as age-old an issue as a worker’s desire for connectivity to nature. For inspiration, we can turn back to our friend John Muir and the battle to devote prime real estate to outdoor space in the most urban of work locations.
"The making of far-famed New York Central park was opposed by even good men, with misguided pluck, perseverance, and ingenuity, but straight right won its way, and now that park is appreciated. So we confidently believe it will be with out great national parks and forest reservations."
Even the most conservative of New York commercial developers would be challenged to minimize the positive impact on real estate, the city’s economy and the New York worker’s sustained well-being that the establishment of those 778 acres of park space - in lieu of development - has produced over the past 160 years.
With the demand for increased productivity and performance resulting in a longer work week, the habitat of the modern worker can easily be defined as the built environment. Spending upwards of 90 percent of our time within the confined walls of office buildings, we have no outlet for our innate need for connections to nature, essential to our health and wellbeing.
Today’s suburban office owners would be well-served in the fight against urban migration to heed the words of Mr. Muir and strategically devote resources to improving their property’s connectivity to nature.