November 4, 2014

Chicago Designers Say Offices Feel Increasingly Like Home


At a recent roundtable discussion of about 30 Chicago designers and architects, the talk turned not to fees or millennials but to office culture and live-work balance. The lively group spent most of its time discussing how office design was being driven by the merging of life-work time, with the two increasingly having little to no separation in today’s daily life.   

As Jim Prendergast, design director at Gensler in Chicago, said to the nods and laughter of others in the room, “It’s no longer work and life. It’s become one thing. Life is just life.”

Invited by Interior Design to participate at the discussion, which was held at Soho House Chicago during the magazine’s One Night Only Chicago networking event, the designers and architects also spent time talking about how workspace is becoming more authentic and real. “We are spending an increased amount of time finding out what makes a company distinctive. We have to discover what is the culture and the values,’’ said one designer, who talked about the space needing to reflect a company’s culture in an authentic way.

“I get super worried about these clients who say they want their space to be ‘cool’, but it doesn’t fit with the company, “ continued the designer. “It’s just not authentic.”

The client’s words may not match the reality of the company, agreed another designer. “When they [executives] say the company has an ‘open-door’ policy, how true is that?” asked one designer. “We can come up with design solutions, but the culture the client describes has to be embraced by everyone at that company to make it successful.”

As home life and office life increasingly merge, the office is also becoming more like a home, with amenities and a feel-good atmosphere that is a must to attract top talent. “It seems they are looking at the environment more than they are looking at the salary or benefits plan,” said one designer of new hires who ask more about the firm’s space and amenities than about the firm itself. Added another designer: “These aren’t amenities anymore… these are expected. The question is what more can we give them?”

It’s not just the lifestyle amenities that are part of attracting top talent. Everyone from young to old, the group agreed, is looking for cutting edge technology. Employees are looking at new or advanced technology as the norm. Being able to talk to outside offices, design and comment, send large image files and more—employees expect these and more at anytime without logging in, without having to download a program and within one tap of the screen or keyboard.

Yet, not everyone can be cutting edge with technology or design. Most of the group agreed that their job also included being what one called “Truth Consultants,” getting clients to see the reality of budget, space restrictions or even a corporate culture that may not embrace or benefit from a huge change.

“Every e-commerce company we’ve worked with in the last three years, when asked who do you want to be, they all say Google,’ said Gensler’s Prendergast. “And that’s just impossible.”

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