Philip Otto – The Worker as Consumer

Avison Young

April 22, 2024

For hybrid workers, the office of the near future is built around experience

Think about the last time you bought something.

The availability of online and physical store locations meant you had options, and ultimately selected a product based on a variety of preferences: buying what you value, from where you like, how you like, and at the correct price point.

The current renaissance of the office draws similarities, as today’s hybrid workers with choice look for the experience that feels right to them.

We crave the office environment that will work best for us

Stanford professor Nick Bloom recently shared findings from a study on in-person vs work from home preferences and the findings brought forward some interesting discoveries.

Notably, when considering what is best for their mental health and well-being (as seen in the chart above), more than 50% of survey respondents said they wanted more time in the office than at home. It begs the follow-up question: why? What do people get from the office that draws them in?

For many, it’s likely a unique kind of experience.

And if the experience is critically important, we could consider insights from a sector that has seen its own journey into all things experiential: retail.

Experiential retail concepts the office could learn from to create more engaging spaces

We know that the workplace has taken many cues from other sectors, like the world of hospitality, for example, to make things more inviting and sociable and, more recently, from home integrating residential comfort into the workday with success.

As we think about the next level of design around individual experience in response to in-office, hybrid and work from home trends, experiential retail could offer some interesting examples.

Here are a few possibilities for how offices can work to put the employee and experience at the center of office design:

Recognize that your people have options

Whether it’s a physical retail store or the office, those that choose to walk through the door want to experience what they cannot get elsewhere.

Offices that feel empty or lifeless will not attract in-person workers. Employees want a certain level of vibrancy that makes them feel like they belong in a space that was built just for them, somewhere they can truly shine and develop professionally. They want engaging space. As KTGY Executive Design Director and retail design expert Philip Otto recently shared, “…you have to start with people. You must think about how they live, and then think about the place and space. The rate of change is faster than ever — there’s more information and trends are moving faster. On the other hand, what doesn’t change is the driver of all that is human nature and the five senses. And you can make some very dependable decisions by looking at human nature. That is the terra firma in a world of change.”

It’s using those senses to drive experiential design that attracts and keeps people interested.

Consider the various personalities and learning styles of your workforce, know their needs, and make sure that the office feels like a workplace that brings it all together in a community-based ecosystem that is value-add.

When delivered well, offices enhance connection within teams and establish greater alignment with the broader company brand by making sure:

  1. needs are met for peak performance, productivity, and collaboration, and
  2. there is some level of experience that helps people look up from their desk and know they aren’t just anywhere; they are somewhere special.

All the better if it’s such an enjoyable place to work, that they can’t wait to tell their friends and professional peers all about it.

In retail, Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a metric used to measure brand engagement like this. It’s a measure of likelihood that others may recommend a product or business to their family, friends, or peers, and can be a solid indicator of needed customer service improvements.

As new preferences challenge existing structures and drive adaption, we could consider a similar net promoter metric for the office too. Rather than viewing success as the number of people in chairs, think about who might champion and celebrate your office with others.

Who might recommend it as an ideal place to work? And if they wouldn’t, why not?

Leverage alternative space options to explore new opportunities.

Finding the best approach to enhance spaces might take some creativity and a little flexibility.

Consider pop-ups or food trucks in the retail world. Food trucks and pop-ups are often small extensions and testing grounds of a bigger brand, offering a unique experience to see what resonates before bringing concepts to a bigger activation.

What could your office you do with a small section of underutilized space to test out ways to increase connection and conversation around your brand? Could you test a new product concept, create a thought-provoking experience that encourages better connection and collaboration? Or simply test out a new office configuration before bringing it large-scale? The possibilities are endless.

Adapt needs based on traffic.

As any retailer will tell you, there’s a level of uncertainty around who and how many people might walk through the door each day. Similarly, the hybrid world brings forward uncertainty over which colleagues will be in any given day.

Noticeable patterns are also emerging around when hybrid workers are choosing to make the commute, leading to peaks and valleys of traffic that present their own set of unique consideration sets. This is especially true as preferences change over time and peaks start to look less like mid-week mountains and more like hills, as seen in the recent numbers shared below.

Your space should be ready to adapt, able to adjust based on need. This means ready to operate at full scale when everyone is on-site with ability to still showcase value on the off days.

Consider one of the retail’s biggest examples of this: the sports stadium.

Plan for your game day as well as the secondary events your space can host. Think about the zones your workspace could use to provide each service well and find your unique brand of adaptability.

Consider if you can tap into special amenities like unique conferencing spaces, rooftops, outdoor space or gaming areas to make peak traffic days even more special, or perhaps make lower traffic days more enticing.

Case study: Barnes & Noble empowers local teams to succeed in their own way

In 2019, U.S. bookseller Barnes & Noble became privately held and owned by investment management firm Elliott Management after a period of struggling sales and store closures.

Rather than see it as a time of inevitable end for the stores, Elliott put the future of Barnes & Noble in the hands of James Daunt, a British businessman and lover of books credited with leading U.K. bookseller Waterstones to great success as the “the man who saved Waterstones.”

His approach? To make the bookstores feel more curated and independent, less corporate, and built around local communities served.

Daunt told team leads they were in charge and accountable for individual store success, but that they should reach results in the way that felt best to them by:

  • Leading with a deep focus on community and trusting individual store teams to know what sells best to their unique communities of book buyers.
  • Removing pay for prime marketing locations out of the hands of the big publishing houses and into those of the store owners to decide which books to place where.
  • Less focus on strict guidelines for how booksellers need to sell, pivoting to results that prove they are getting the job done well.

The result?

Current headlines talk of a resurgence, rescue, and true hero’s journey for the chain, bringing them from back the brink of disaster. Barnes & Noble ended last year with 10 more stores than the year prior and Daunt has set a goal of 50 new store openings for 2024, “a number that would represent the highest number of store openings [for the chain] in 15 years,” according to Publisher’s Weekly.

What can office occupiers take from this? The best way forward may be off the traditional path. Let your teams lead the way. They will likely hold the critical knowledge and insights needed to help determine what should be in and what should be out moving forward. Then measure their success by the real business outcomes and not their ability to adhere to a corporate mandate.  Just like Barnes & Noble, trust and accountability can co-exist and with outcomes that defy expectations.

What does this mean for commercial real estate?

A retailer would never base their location, design, or products provided in their store solely on the beliefs of a few internal corporate stakeholders. They use market research, consumer demand data, location analysis, and similar input to create a data-driven, experience-rich environment that draws the customer in the door. Workplaces can learn from that approach to build spaces that are rooted in intelligence concerning the worker and the experience they want to consume.

How can existing space be enhanced to deliver this fresh perspective, adapt to meet new needs, and test to see what resonates best for your workforce?

For now, let’s start with deep understanding of the workers. Approach the worker as a consumer craving an experience they must have as part of their days, and see how that might inform what the office of tomorrow could become.

Retail isn’t dead – it is in a period of reinvention, and the same applies to the office. The secret to improving the current state of affairs lies in the same place: data-driven insights and creative solutions that lead to more memorable experiences and increased occupancy and vibrancy.