Can commercial buildings have a strong culture?
What makes people so attached to their shared spaces? Whether it’s an office, a college dorm, or a neighborhood, it’s not so much the physical characteristics; not the color of the walls, the style of the chairs, or even the super-cool biophilic design touches. It isn’t even the location in and of itself. The thing that connects people to these places is culture: the relationships, bonds, and in-jokes that arise from sharing a space with other people for much of every week. Of course, property managers can’t do much to spread in-jokes amongst their tenants. However, there are a number of other very valid ways to build a strong culture in a commercial building.
It’s very likely that there is no scientific way to build a strong building culture. At the end of the day, your efforts as an owner should be as more of a facilitator than a direct influencer.
Concentrate on setting the stage for relationships and culture to develop, not trying to insert yourself in some artificial way like Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott in The Office.
Build spaces that emphasize community
If building community is about setting the stage for your tenants to do the rest, making sure that the physical space is appropriate for social activity needs to be the number one priority. In recent years, designers and workplace planners have attempted to do this by using open office layouts. It makes sense: doing away with the typical cubicle-heavy layout of many offices should help build collaboration and community, right?
The reality is that this is usually not the outcome. Open office layouts make workers want to look busy rather than actually getting more done, negatively impact productivity and focus since they offer no noise control, and don’t even promote collaboration.
No matter what the layout of your office is, it’s important to allow your tenants the opportunity to congregate and socialize naturally. Their own workspaces will undoubtedly have break rooms or other areas for R&R, but as the landlord, you have opportunities as well. If your building has common areas such as food courts or gym spaces, try to tailor them towards group uses and not solitary ones. Think about equipping gyms with activities and group classes instead of rows of cardio machines. Even free weights can be more useful for groups than weight machines, since they allow for spotters. Instead of open office layouts within tenant premises, equip lobbies with shared tables and chairs instead of the typical sea of empty, un-activated space.
Events can achieve this goal, as well, by getting people into a single space together. Holiday parties or mixers are always an option, but more creative group activities like cooking lessons can be even more surprising and engaging.
Read the article How will COVID-19 affect the future of communities?
"Good branding can be effective, but unless it is Apple-level successful, perhaps strong branding opens buildings up to more bad than good."
What about branding?
Branding in offices has been in the public eye lately, particularly due to the scrutiny surrounding WeWork - a company with an image that permeates all aspects of its marketing and physical space. Branding can be a useful tool to help frame the narrative of a building, but it needs to fulfill one main requirement. In order to be effective, branding needs to be authentic. This has become a bigger and bigger issue within business branding, but it’s just as critical for the branding of spaces, as well. Good branding can be effective, but unless it is Apple-level successful, perhaps strong branding opens buildings up to more bad than good.
Emphasize the unique
In the place of branding, consider highlighting the unique parts of your building. Is your space in a building with distinctive features, or dare I say, quirks? Perhaps your building is older, and has retro-style design touches or features. Maybe you are in a new building with a really special amenity, like a neighborhood discount club. Or maybe your building isn’t that special, but the area is noteworthy thanks to the presence of an excellent downtown or green open space. In any case, it’s this sort of differentiator that makes buildings really stand out from the crowd.
At the end of the day, capitalizing on uniqueness is a matter of creativity above anything else. In a way, the whole process of building culture at your building is, as well. The modern office environment isn’t always captivating or exciting, but with the right forethought and touches of creativity, you can build a strong sense of place for your office, whether it is new or old.