Office development is back in Charlotte, and the new breed of Class A office space is decked out with high-end amenities and other touches meant to keep workers – especially tech-savvy millennials – happy at their desks.
Out: Suburban office parks, drab cubicle farms and bullpens surrounded by big offices hogging all the light.
In: Lots of natural light, flexible floor plans, totally open floors, mixed-use developments, cafes with local food, and even bowling alleys.
Developers are pitching the snazzier new offices as a way for companies to save money through energy efficiency, hire talented workers and increase productivity.
“We wanted to look at the workplaces of the 21st century. ... Having a seat and a desk and a computer might be a model of the past,” said Brian Leary, Crescent Communities president of mixed-use and commercial development.
Crescent is soliciting tenants for Tryon Place, its planned tower at Stonewall and South Tryon streets. The office buildings’ aesthetic and millennial appeal is a major selling point, with Crescent emphasizing its open floors with no columns, floor-to-ceiling windows and energy efficiency as features meant to both boost productivity and lure workers.
“We think it’s a bottom-line story that holds water with investors,” said Leary.
An analysis by CMD Group shows office construction activity has come back strongly in the wake of the recession. New office construction starts for private sector offices in Charlotte totaled $138 million in 2014, up from an average of about $36 million during the preceding four years. And much of that is around uptown and close-in districts, rich in nearby amenities and close to transit.
“It’s hard to see how that’s going to change at least for the next decade,” said CMD chief economist Alex Carrick. “The trend here is toward the mixed-use, live-work projects.”
High-visibility office projects have popped up across the city. Uptown, a 25-story office tower at 300 South Tryon St. is underway, and Portman Holdings is planning to start a 19-story tower at 615 South College in June. Tryon Place, Crescent Communities’ 27-story project, is expected to kick off later this year. And Lincoln Harris is building twin 10-story office towers in SouthPark.
Travis Garland, a Portman executive in charge of marketing and leasing 615 South College, said companies are back in growth mode and looking for more office space after pausing during the recession. Technology and demographics both play a role in the kind of space they’re looking for.
With more mobile technology than ever, there’s less need for many workers to be tethered to their desks. That means fewer fixed desks, more temporary workstations and less square footage per employee. That’s important, because companies can lease less square footage for the same number of employees. Garland gives this example: “This essentially allows a hypothetical company to move from 100,000 square feet at Class B office rates to 70,000 square feet of Class A office rates without affecting their bottom line.”
And with millennials – roughly those born after 1980 – set to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 according to the Brookings Institution, companies are increasingly catering to what they think millennials want.
Portman’s building at 615 South College will be connected to a light rail station and adjacent to a planned Whole Foods at another Crescent development – both selling points in its marketing materials. Garland said such neighborhood amenities are a major draw for urban development.
“That’s one of the reasons why urban office space, globally speaking, has generally outperformed suburban,” said Garland. “Millennials want the urban feel.”
Indian Land-based technology and marketing firm Red Ventures might offer a preview of what the office of the future is more likely to look like. About three-fourths of the company’s employees are millennials, a window into what most companies can expect in a decade. Red Ventures has many of the headline-grabbing perks that people are used to hearing about at Google: Basketball courts, a bowling alley, a beer garden and locally-sourced cafes offering discounted food.
But Hallie Kilmer, vice president of human capital, said the thinking behind the office goes deeper than flashy amenities. There are only four true enclosed offices in the complex, and they have glass walls. The rest is a mix of open spaces, nooks, couches, outdoor areas and beanbags to work, and conference rooms for two to 150 people. The whole campus has wireless Internet access, to allow people to relocate. None of the workstations are fixed, and the electrical system is arranged so they can – and do – move regularly, Kilmer said.
“It’s very important for us to rearrange work the way work is organized,” she said. While the whole setup might sound like it’s geared to attract young workers, the environment is useful to attract workers of all ages, Kilmer said. And it’s good for the company’s bottom line, she said.
“The broader purpose behind all that is really to promote productivity and a healthy work lifestyle,” said Kilmer. An employee can take a break in the afternoon, play some basketball and come back to work – maybe even staying later – without leaving Red Ventures. She said those amenities are key to recruiting workers.
“You see eyes get bigger,” when people hear about the perks, Kilmer said.