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'Collaborative Space' Is Still Office's Future — Just Not Where You Work

Open offices have lost their luster, but the principles they embodied — places to interact spontaneously and an abundance of natural light and air — are still key elements of the next generation of offices.

A photo of common space in the massive atrium of Somerset Development's Bell Works office complex in Holmdel, N.J.

Office developers and landlords are focused on finding the right balance between promoting interaction and preserving privacy. Recent lessons learned indicate the place to strike that balance is not at a worker's desk.

“The collaborative environment is more about what the place outside your office door is like, for when you go to get lunch or a cup of coffee,” Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker said. 

In an open office environment, constant background noise can be a distraction and a hindrance to productivity. These spaces can also feel oppressive or invasive when two or more workers wish to have a private conversation, especially in the case of a coworking space where your neighbor is a stranger, or even a competitor.

“People are discovering they need more private meeting space than they realized, and there’s literally a fight for huddle or breakout space, whatever you want to call it,” SJP Properties Executive Vice President Peter Bronsnick said. "This is a problem that’s happening internationally, not just locally.”

Zucker and Bronsnick will be among the panelists discussing the latest adjustments office landlords must make at Bisnow's New Jersey Office & Workplace of the Future event Feb. 20.

Research in the past couple of years has shown that the choice to opt in or out of the energy of surrounding people may be the key to creating that collaborative environment businesses covet. A 2018 Harvard study found that face-to-face interactions actually declined in completely open offices, while the use of email and instant messaging rose.

Somerset's Bell Works complex in Holmdel, New Jersey, has been regarded as one of the most successful expressions of the modern office development. The transformation of the former Bell Labs site has yielded 1.2M SF of office space, about 90% of which is leased, Zucker said. There is also space carved out for a proprietary coworking operation (called CoLab) and some pre-furnished offices for turnkey leases.

Zucker attributes Bell Labs' success to the robust ecosystem of food offerings and public spaces that make the campus a "metroburb," as Somerset has labeled it, with the engaging energy of a city street. 

Skoloff & Wolfe partner David Wolfe, Post Brothers Vice President of Acquisitions Bryan Oos, Kushner Real Estate Group Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Kaplan, Mill Creek Residential Trust head of New Jersey and New York development Russell Tepper and Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC U.S. Director Kevin Miskewicz

“[The appeal is in] having a pedestrian-scale environment outside the front door of your office, meeting people, not just other office workers, but members of the general public,” Zucker said. “The reason cities are so inspiring to work in is because you’re not isolated ... Having a cafeteria is not enough on its own to inspire a collaborative environment; you want to be around life itself.”

Bell Works' sheer size made it possible to bring in retailers and other supportive elements, but most office complexes in New Jersey don't have the scale or proximity to a main street to sustain a restaurant. Most of Kushner Real Estate Group's New Jersey portfolio fits in that category, which forces the company to work harder on its amenity spaces to add vitality.

“For non-office areas, we need to make sure they’re on the forefront of new and modern,” KRE Group Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Kaplan said. “Cafeterias and gyms, we need to make sure they’re best-in-class.”

Though Zucker believes Bell Works demonstrates how preferable retail food offerings are to a cafeteria, traditional suburban office parks are stuck with them. KRE Group solicits input from tenants on what type of food they would like to see, and contracts with food suppliers to keep as variable a menu as possible. The company has also been piloting monthly food truck days to add variety.

Pushing social and collaborative spaces outside the office itself is well and good, but the insides have to change as well. Modern workers have no desire to go back to the drop ceilings, cubicles and natural light-hogging corner offices lampooned by the 1990s movie Office Space

One of Bell Labs' chief advantages for its reinvention as Bell Works was its massive central atrium, giving light and air to the middle of the building and doubling the amount of window space the ring of offices could have. With one continuous floor plate, open office plans emphasize the natural light that can be a precious and scarce resource. But orienting an office to maximize light can cause new logistical issues.

“When you have a center core plate, it’s very hard to design without creating a hallway effect,” Bronsnick said. “When you do all these huddle rooms, how do you avoid a maze in the interior? That’s up to the architect to get creative; we do sacrifice some natural light into areas where [a central location] is advantageous.”

New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Tim Sullivan, Transwestern Managing Director Matt McDonough, SJP Properties Executive Vice President Peter Bronsnick, Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi Real Estate Group co-Chair Mitch Berkey, Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker and Russo Development CEO Ed Russo

Landlords like SJP Properties' most recent attempts to find a middle ground have involved strategic positioning of every workplace element to provide natural light and space where it has the most impact.

“We have a lot of hard wall construction on the interior and workstations on the window line of these assets so teams can collaborate in environments where the lighting is bright and it’s more open,” Bronsnick said. “Apparently it’s a better form of having lines of communication between departments by taking the offices, conference rooms, pantries and pulling them closer to the core of the office, if you will. Then you have the work areas out by the window line.”

Lining the windows with workstations can have a dulling effect on a building's outside image, where observers could look in and see a bunch of people sitting at their desks rather than interacting. It may be an accurate representation of a workday, but it isn't the most appealing image to potential tenants, Bronsnick said.

The hunt for natural light is one of the main reasons so many new construction buildings have floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but those can create their own problems.

“When I go up to see the tenant, all I see are the blinds down so the tenant can avoid the glare,” Bronsnick said.

Perhaps the most valuable resource in maximizing an open feel without suffering the damaging effects of a true open office is ceiling height. Higher ceilings mean more airflow, more space for light to travel and more visibility of the people around you — even if you don't want to talk to them.

“I do think that there’s still a hunger for a community of workers, for people to feel like they’re not working in isolation,” Zucker said. “There’s a lot of glass in offices now, as much for natural light as to see other people.”

Come discuss the nuances of modern office construction with Ralph Zucker, Peter Bronsnick, Jeremy Kaplan and the rest of the panelists at Bisnow's New Jersey Office & Workplace of the Future event Feb. 20.