/The New Office Comes Designed to Please

The New Office Comes Designed to Please


When

American Airlines Group Inc.


AAL 2.69%

polled its corporate staff on what they wanted in new office space, workers responded with a priority familiar to anyone who has flown recently: more legroom.

Design firm

Herman Miller Inc.


MLHR 1.31%

created special desks that allow for more room to spread out at American’s new Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters, which employees fully moved into last month.

There are no private offices, but more than 1,000 meeting spaces, said

Jonathan Pierce,

American’s director of culture and change. A lap pool and cricket pitch are planned, and outdoor meeting areas are wired so PowerPoint presentations can be beamed on large weatherproof monitors. Piped-in white noise helps tamp down auditory distractions inside the open office.

“It’s like wearing a pair of Bose headphones,” he said.

The U.S. job market has been on a hot streak and keeping workers happy at the office is one of the most important facets of retaining talent, recruiters and management experts say. More companies are taking employee complaints seriously, often spending millions on gleaming offices that incorporate their ideas, and no detail seems too small in some employers’ quest to please.

A McDonald’s app lets employees regulate office temperatures.


Photo:

McDonald’s

When

McDonald’s Corp.

opened its new Chicago headquarters last year, it rolled out a workplace app with a temperature feature so employees could designate by mobile phone if they were too hot or too cold. The feature shows workers their floor plan and location in it, along with three prompts: “warm my space,” “cool my space” or “I’m comfy.”

Based on someone’s selection, the app will trigger what are initially slight temperature modifications in the heating and air-conditioning system. People adopted the app en masse, said

Sheri Malec,

senior director of workplace solutions at McDonald’s.

“When people are uncomfortable, they’re not as productive,” she said.

Before

Expedia Group Inc.

opened the first phases of its $900 million Seattle campus on the banks of Elliott Bay last month, the travel company built a small office in the city to test lighting design, furniture choices and an open office plan. The research informed the new headquarters, which embraces an increasingly popular design approach known as biophilia, which aims to bring workers in closer contact to the outdoors, said

Mark Nagle,

the company’s vice president of global real estate.

Large sliding-glass doors open to the outside when the weather cooperates, turning an indoor corridor in the new building into a breezy seating area. Public hike-and-bike trails line the perimeter of the 40-acre campus, where the company will have as many as 20 Wi-Fi access points hidden in fiberglass rocks so employees can work on a large lawn or near one of the company’s fire pits.

Expedia’s research uncovered that office workers overwhelmingly wanted more natural light and views. The company incorporated a grass-roofed conference space called the prow that resembles a ship and includes a wall of windows directly overlooking the water.

“These are simple human needs that we haven’t been great at in the workplace,” Mr. Nagle said.

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Nature is in, but assigned seating is out.

Archana Singh,

Expedia’s chief people officer, said employees had dedicated desks at the old office. In the new space, workers are assigned what are known as neighborhoods and generally take a seat wherever one is available. They can store their belongings in nearby lockers.

Open offices are a popular choice for many companies because they pack in more people per square foot. Ms. Singh said Expedia communicated about the new communal arrangement for months in advance of the move to get employees prepared; if someone insists on having the same desk each day, they can talk to their manager or colleagues and will get it, she said.

A common work area at Expedia’s new Seattle headquarters, where assigned seating for employees is largely out.


Photo:

David Ryder for The Wall Street Journal

Beyond the glimmering steel and fancy amenities, real-estate development can be surprisingly fraught. Fancier amenities don’t distract from the fact that many workers’ dedicated personal spaces continue to shrink inside open offices. Issues as diverse as tax breaks and increased traffic for local residents spark controversy.

Amazon.

com Inc.’s new buildings in Seattle, which opened last year, renewed debate about what a corporation’s social responsibility should be with regard to gentrification, housing prices and homelessness in its community.

Design decisions also are often loaded with subtext and nods to power. For example, how many square feet companies devote to a certain division can signal where they think the market is going.

The Modern Office

A look at what’s inside the newest generation of American offices.

Outdoor meeting spaces are wired so presentations can be beamed on weather-proof monitors

White noise is piped in through the ceiling to prevent distraction

Some meeting rooms include a ‘no screen’ policy; cellphones should be left at the door

Open-office concepts allow companies to densely seat employees and save on real-estate costs

A corridor with sliding floor-to-

ceiling windows that open to nature

Public hiking and biking trails crisscross the office campus

Wifi-

equipped fiberglass rocks allow employees to work outdoors (and near a fire pit)

Apps, like one used at McDonald’s headquarters, let workers adjust the temperature in any space

Differences in square footage can show that a company may be focusing more on certain departments

Outdoor meeting spaces are wired so presentations can be beamed on weather-proof monitors

Some meeting rooms include a ‘no screen’ policy; cellphones should be left at the door

White noise is piped in through the ceiling to prevent distraction

Open-office concepts allow companies to densely seat employees and save on real-estate costs

A corridor with sliding floor-to-ceiling windows that open to nature

Differences in square footage can show that a company may be focusing more on certain departments

Public hiking and biking trails crisscross the office campus

Apps, like one used at McDonald’s headquarters, let workers adjust the temperature in any space

Wifi-equipped fiberglass rocks allow employees to work outdoors (and near a fire pit)

Outdoor meeting spaces are wired so presentations can be beamed on weather-proof monitors

Some meeting rooms include a ‘no screen’ policy; cellphones should be left at the door

White noise is piped in through the ceiling to prevent distraction

Open-office concepts allow companies to densely seat employees and save on real-estate costs

A corridor with sliding floor-to-ceiling windows that open to nature

Differences in square footage can show that a company may be focusing more on certain departments

Public hiking and biking trails crisscross the office campus

Apps, like one used at McDonald’s headquarters, let workers adjust the temperature in any space

Wifi-equipped fiberglass rocks allow employees to work outdoors (and near a fire pit)

Outdoor meeting spaces are wired so presentations can be beamed on weather-proof monitors

A corridor with sliding floor-to-ceiling windows that open to nature

White noise is piped in through the ceiling to prevent distraction

Apps, like one used at McDonald’s headquarters, let workers adjust the temperature in any space

In Bentonville, Ark.,

Walmart Inc.

started demolition this summer on a new 350-acre campus designed to house as many as 17,000 employees, some of whom are watching to see which parts of the retail company appear to get priority. The company said its intention is to cultivate a work lifestyle that is far different than its current home office, a former warehouse with few windows and scarce parking at peak work hours, with other employees scattered around town in separate buildings.

When completed, Walmart’s campus will feature more than 10 buildings, with walking paths around 15 acres of lakes, as well as an on-site child-care center, a gym and a hotel.

Most companies aren’t backtracking from the open-office concept, which allows them to densely seat employees and save on real-estate costs. But employers are finding other ways to try to satisfy demands for privacy and concentration, said

David Galullo,

chief executive of Rapt Studio, a design firm.

An artist’s rendering depicts Walmart’s new corporate campus, now under construction in Bentonville, Ark.


Photo:

Walmart/Reuters

“We’re designing more library spaces where there’s more ritual around quiet time,” he said.

Rapt recently created an office where the conference-room door has built-in slots for everybody to deposit their cellphones before stepping inside, so attendees can focus better.

Other clients are asking that some conference rooms be screen-free to combat “that feeling multitasking might be somehow eating us from the inside out,” Mr. Galullo said.

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com and Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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