A new concept has emerged in the ongoing struggle to get more workers back to the office in person—Envy Offices. We’ll discuss the concept and evaluate whether it has a chance of succeeding at boosting office occupancy rates, which have plateaued at 50% for some time now.
Envy Offices are an approach to designing and furnishing commercial workplaces in an eye-catching way that engenders a feeling of comfort and homeyness. The intent is to not only compete with the home office but to lure workers to the office by creating spaces that workers want to be in, work in, and show off.
According to the New York Times, it’s when “companies try to combine the comforts of a living room with the glamour of a vacation.” Characteristics include colorful walls, upholstered furniture, and carefully curated coffee tables. Envy Offices may also have extremely accommodating policies like being pet-friendly. Leveraging today’s online culture, the design and overall aesthetic of Envy Offices should entice workers to fill social media feeds with photos of their workplace.
What kinds of companies have adopted the Envy Office concept? The main example in the New York Times article was an alternative cereal startup that redesigned its offices right before a return-to-office push. Other companies mentioned were large multinational firms: Marriott, Barclays, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft. The architectural firm that led the redesigns at the larger companies, Gensler, listed greenery and soft seating as focus areas.
Some specific design features delivered to their clients included banquettes, library nooks, and trees growing in lobbies. Gensler’s survey of 14,000 global workers in 2022 revealed a high level of office redesign activity over the past few years--40% of workers said their employers redesigned offices during the pandemic. Although not all of the redesigns followed the Envy Office approach, the desire by companies to change the workplace aesthetic in response to the pandemic and its aftereffects is clear.
If you’re reading the above features and characteristics of Envy Offices and they sound familiar, that’s because they are. There are many similarities with the Tech Campus model adopted by behemoths like Google and Facebook, where nap pods, massage chairs, gaming rooms, and climbing walls were incorporated into the office design so that programmers never wanted to leave the office. These, paired with perks like free snacks and in-office happy hours, created a social atmosphere that was hard to turn down by going home at 5 pm. Envy Offices take the same general concept—get people to spend more time in the office—but instead of bars and restaurants after work hours being the alternative to compete against, the competition is now the home office during work hours.
Pros and Cons
What are the pros and cons of the Envy Office?
Besides pushing workers to spend more time in the office, uplifting and comfortable design features help in employee retention and recruitment. Younger workers, in particular, are more open to socialization at work and place a higher value on a mix of experiences in the workplace. This is not surprising as younger workers are usually not yet established in their career (or their home office space setups). The pandemic set them back more so than mid to late-career workers.
But not everyone is sold on how an office looks. Some employees lament that visuals may just be a distraction to mask the inconvenience of space-conserving arrangements like hot desks and other non-assigned workspaces. Relatedly, some just miss the ability to customize and personalize their office or cubicle.
Finally, for some, especially introverts, all the activity and pizazz of the Envy Office runs diametrically opposed to how they prefer to work and be productive. For these employees, regardless of how the office is designed, going into the office will never beat the convenience and quiet of the home office.
Questions to be Addressed
For Envy Offices to succeed, I believe employers need to answer three questions:
- Will they appeal to more employees besides younger workers? Not everyone is an extrovert or misses socializing at work. Older workers already have established networks and proven track records, and many have family demands that benefit from scheduling flexibility. It will take clear hybrid (in-office and at-home) policies in addition to office design to get most workers back in the office on a consistent basis.
- Will they actually get workers in the office every day? It only takes one in-office visit to get those awesome pics for Instagram. Envy offices could be a great experience for those who come into the office sparingly (the 1:4 or 2:3 days in-office vs. at-home model), but it still might not get them in daily. The design of the office and available perks have to be so alluring that most workers feel better in the office than at home. This sounds hard to achieve since working from home is so engrained now.
- Are they more than just another gimmick? The history of office design is replete with many trends—cubicles were in, then individual offices staged a comeback, and now open offices allow space savings when paired with hybrid scheduling. Envy Offices could be another fad that won’t stand the test of time if the redesign costs don’t bring employees back to the office. Instead of relying on just design and the power of social media, employers may want to focus on some of the underlying incentives.
While Envy Offices are an interesting approach, the idea is not new. Large tech firms have employed aspects of the idea in their offices for decades, as have small startups and other design-centric firms. Nevertheless, it should appeal to a subset of younger workers whose home offices leave much to be desired in terms of comfort and aesthetics.
For mid to late-career employees, the Envy Office won’t compare to the home office, no matter how their employer redesigns the office or how many perks are offered. There’s too much convenience and flexibility when working remotely. I see the Envy Office as a fad that will eventually fall out of favor as the costs of design and furnishings add up and the numbers of workers coming into the office don’t.
For example, a coworker’s daughter graduated from college and started work in 2022. Her work was completely remote until 2023, when the company required all employees to report to work three days a week. The company completely redesigned its offices and offered happy hours, free food and beverages, office theme days, standing desks, wellness areas, customizable workstations, and “resi-mercial” furnishings.
She went to the office several times and had fun while posting pictures on Instagram. After a few weeks, employees stopped coming to the office. The work is still getting done without the commute.
The company is making another push to get people back in 2024. I suspect that the same trend will happen. The pandemic let the remote-working cat out of the bag, and it is really hard to put it back in.
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