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Rob Hutcheson of EDSA explores how to create welcoming outdoor environments that play off the traditional indoor office space.

As companies contemplate coaxing employees back to the office this fall, they may want to forego ‘out of the box’ temptations and consider ‘out of the building’ accessibility to the great outdoors instead. After all, having discovered the appeal of working remotely as well as the benefits – to body and psyche – of spending time amid nature, employees are going to want to retain the flexible access to the outdoor spaces that they experienced working elsewhere during the heat of the pandemic and the excruciatingly slow crawl back to normal.

Indeed, according to a recent piece in Commercial Property Executive: “Landlords, developers, architects and property managers are now observing and analyzing the way office users engage with the landscape” with an aiming to, as the managing director of one real estate investment company noted, “‘meet emerging employee needs around workplace optionality and wellness.’”

That means the creation of spaces from terraces to patios, rooftops to plazas that are not only Wi-Fi equipped, but also designed with amenities and landscape elements to create welcoming outdoor environments that play off the traditional indoor office space are the ideal. Fortunately, contemporary landscape design techniques and still-evolving technologies offer a myriad of possibilities for organizations to transform exterior spaces into places for employees to take a break and socialize as well as be productive through the workday.

Creating Comfortable Microclimates

Comfort is essential outdoors – there’s no air conditioning or humidity control in the open air, after all – so consideration of local climate conditions is key to the transformation of exterior spaces for employees. From water features to new building materials, landscape architects have many tools to tame unavoidable environmental elements including the blazing sun and the blowing wind.

Sometimes the best first step is to leave things as they are. At the Lake Mary Office Park in Central Florida, for instance, the design of new outdoor settings for building tenants began with landscape architects looking at ways to shield people from the humid-subtropical climate of the region. Each of the office park’s five buildings is surrounded by foliage including mature oak trees, towering palms, and neatly trimmed hedges that create buffers between the building facades and adjacent parking lots and roadways. The oak trees, in particular, proved quite important to maintain, with their sturdy 18- to 20-inch caliper trunks and lengthy branches supporting 40-foot canopies providing impressive shade to not only cool the ground beneath, but also limit possible glare that can make working on a laptop or texting outdoors a hassle. The design of the outdoor area, which included 50 feet of opportunity space, was approached thoughtfully to protect the roots of the oaks. Crushed granite was used instead of heat-generating paving to lend softness underfoot and a hedgerow of hearty Podocarpus between the courtyard and the parking lot create a monolithic buffer so people can feel removed from cars in the nearby parking lot.

In another more historic example, PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, New York forever changed the persona of corporate campuses by nestling a major building complex into the natural landscape. The supporting planting palette not only includes native shrubs and grasses, but materials from different geographies and biomes along with a sculpture garden and dedicated walking paths. The designers added trees to the grounds, complete with placards designating their names and origins, while existing greenhouses were maintained to grow annuals used on the property.

For more traditional urban environments, Brickell World Plaza in Miami, Florida shines as a smaller scale green oasis and park-like experience in the heart of downtown. Nearly 40,000 square feet of landscape is anchored by preserved large Oaks, Poinciana and Gumbo Limbos trees. These natural shading structures filter street noise and produce a multi-functional urban ecosystem that offer respite for nearby employees.

Maximizing Technology

Outdoor spaces that are designed to accommodate employees must be optimized for productivity as well as relaxation – from attending ‘al fresco’ group meetings to making personal calls before heading back to one’s desk. Though manufacturers of site furnishings have a ways to go to meet every technological need, they’re making progress, creating smart outdoor furnishings that are comfortable, durable and tech-ready for convenience essentials to our plugged-in age.

Manufacturers like Landscape Forms are creating the weather- and corrosion-resistant furnishings integrated with tech features that are needed for the next evolution of outdoor settings. From tables integrated with solar panels to provide power for laptops and smartphones to wired power poles with USB capabilities, these are the furnishings designers are looking for to make it possible for people to hold meetings wherever they feel most comfortable on/off an office campus. Solar panel powered furnishings also contribute to the sustainability and efficiency of a commercial building, which is an increasing focus for offices across the world.

Encouraging a Positive Work/Life Balance

With memories of the pandemic lockdown still fresh, creating a positive work-life balance for employees is tremendously important. If prognosticators are correct and there really is no going back to traditional workdays in the office, interior amenities won’t be enough anymore. Expanding those amenities outdoors, however, may very well be.

At the Lake Mary Office Park, tenants had long enjoyed a suite of interior amenities including a grab-n-go café and a complimentary fitness center in each building. When analyzing possible upgrades to the property, the owners looked inward before realizing that renovating those amenities alone wouldn’t satisfy employees that had gotten used to working remotely from home.

Instead, the owner’s focus shifted beyond the walls to providing experiential outdoor environments that encourage people to come back to work and enjoy themselves while they’re there. This included a bocce ball court as well as all-weather tables and chairs for an outdoor seating area adjacent to the café. A ground-level, elevation change between a building and public roadway allowed for the creation of an amphitheater-like setting for meetings and events, as well as a dedicated area for food trucks to offer dining possibilities.

The KPMG Lakehouse in Orlando, Florida is another great example of a company dedicated to creating campuses that balance work and leisure. The training and team development facility serves as a professional innovation hub for the firm’s US-based employees and partners. But active recreation spaces, miles of walking, cycling and running paths, outdoor classrooms and other holistic gathering spaces also maximize the visitors’ experience with an engaging environment for both heart and mind.

Although everyone would like to get back to life pre-COVID, it can’t be ignored that work life is forever changed by the adaptations and flexibility offices have had to undergo. The exteriors of office buildings can no longer be unnoticed, nondescript space. To truly create the best environment possible for employees, every inch of the landscape must be carefully considered while still working with the natural surroundings for an environmentally-conscious design that enhances the workplace experience.