The New Corporate Campus

Drew Patton recently sat down with Nancy Egan to share his observations on the new corporate campus. The conversation presents an insightful look at how workplaces are evolving to meet the needs of global corporations and their changing workforce.


In Brief

Drew Patton explores the trends that are changing the goals and shape of the new corporate campuses:

  • The integration of the latest technology into workplace strategies to support the need for speed and discovery 
  • The development of true campus environments, special places that represent the values of the corporation and their commitment to their employees
  • The investment in work-life balance amenities that support the needs of employees beyond the immediate work to be done. Wellness centers, sports, access to healthy food, childcare — all contribute to an increased exchange of ideas and a stronger sense of community
  • The creation of a variety of workplace settings to accommodate different modes of work from focused, heads-down effort to structured and unstructured, collaborative work among teams

Patton sees three realms of work that a really well designed campus amplifies: the urban vibe, the collegiate atmosphere and the walk in the woods.Providing a place for all three — the dynamism of the urban, the scale and collegiality of the campus and the nurturing, restorative benefits of nature — is at the heart of the new corporate campus model. 

Location, Talent and Competitive Advantage

Nancy Egan: Decades back the sprawling suburban campus was the corporate office solution. I am thinking about classic campuses like Connecticut General outside of Hartford and the Texaco campus in Rye, NY. Then there seemed to be a shift toward a different real estate model that relied on leasing in developer space. Now PDR is working on a number of major corporate campuses. What has corporations rethinking the campus?

Drew Patton: Let’s start with how many employees will be on campus. As companies try to get large groups of employees to work together, they look for a commitment and investment in their campus. If you have 50, 100, even 200 people, being a tenant in a landlord building is the most economical, the most flexible solution. But, once there are thousands of employees and a 20, 30, 40, 50-year investment is the goal, you make different decisions about location.

Companies move to a campus because there is an abundance of affordable land and that allows them to reserve land for the future. For over 50 years, and it persists today, companies addressed the issue of how to get the workplace closer to people's homes. Many employees find affordable housing in suburban locations. Then, the further out you go from the city center, the greater the impact a company can have on the infrastructure development and that provides competitive advantage. Companies want better infrastructure or better talent or both.

Companies don't build every day. If it's every 50 years, they want to build something that will last as far into the future as possible. In a boom time they need a thousand or more engineers and a place to put them. Or, they have a long-term vision. Big ideas for the 50-year plan need to focus on a demographic that is in middle school today. What will they want and expect, as opposed to current employees who are getting ready to retire?


New Technologies and an Old Familiar Feeling

NE: So corporations are back on campus; how are the new campuses different? How are they anticipating the next generations of workers as they build now?

DP: Today companies are looking for two things that are different from campuses of the past. One is a new idea; the other is an older idea. 

The new idea is integrating new technologies in new workplace strategies. Companies are integrating the technologies they need to work faster and deeper into their companies, work processes and workers. A new work setting is an opportunity to start over on office designs that help them accelerate the integration of technology. 

The older idea is quite simple. Recall walking across your college campus quad and the feeling you got — that you were in a historic place because of all the people who have come before you, but you were also filled with optimism about the future, about what you could contribute. That spirit and sense of belonging is the emerging idea behind the new campuses. Not that the campus is a new idea, but for a long time the subliminal message was “you’re at work, you have a job, you have a process, you get paid well, go to work.” Now it’s: “Are you inspired to do great work? Is this a better place for you to work than our competition?”

These are not brand new ideas, yet trying to create a special place that represents the values of the company in a big gesture, not just on a piece of paper, are the corporate commitments that have employees excited. 

Investing in Work-Life Balance

NE: What are some of the features of these new campuses that send the positive “you are a valued employee” message? What is being done to generate a sense of community and excitement? 

DP: Downtown or on a small campus or a big campus, there are work-life balance issues that all companies are going to explore. They want their employees to be healthy — period. So they not only provide food, but a wide variety of higher quality food. A place to workout is a very nice amenity — a place to get your personal health in a better state. When you’re over a thousand people, you can support sport teams. Playing on teams is far more meaningful than working out alone. There is power in social interaction and the bonds that are formed to create a strong sense of community. In terms of what companies are trying to build — a culture of engaged minds and the exchange of big ideas — they’re the goals of the best.

Childcare — the secret behind childcare is when a young family with a child has the convenience and comfort of quality on-site childcare, they are more inclined to develop a sense of loyalty to the company and commit to stay in that location for five years. Well, once they've stayed for five years until the child goes to school, they are more likely to stay longer. It’s not just the amenities for families — it’s actually an investment in a commitment from both sides. That’s why you’re seeing more childcare options now.

Work, Workers and Workplace Settings

NE: We've talked about the campus setting and amenities, what about the workplace itself? What’s changing there? There always seems to be a story about open or shared space versus private offices. What are you seeing and designing? 

DP: Corporations are shifting to a variety of work settings. Some say that they are moving to all closed offices; what they really mean is they’re going to have their employees do their focused work in a closed room. But, very few people do focused, heads-down, task-oriented work all day. Almost everyone is looking for balance between focused work and collaborative work. It’s not all one or the other, although that’s the easiest way to talk or write about it. 

If you look at high-performance work, you focus and then you look up. Look out the window for some relief, to gain perspective, to jog your memory. Then you look back down. That’s what a coffee break is. You’re working hard, focused, and you get up and walk around. On a campus, you get to do more things. Look out and see the trees — that’s a benefit. Then focus back down. A walk to the coffee bar and casual interaction with colleagues, can inspire something in you, maybe a solution to a problem you are working on. At lunchtime you have the potential to encounter a thousand colleagues which gives you an even bigger perspective on what your work is all about. 

It’s valuable to always keep in mind the context of your work. If you are always alone in your room, then you might do a really good job of processing the data that’s before you. Exchange and collaboration with colleagues is critical for providing that context.

Even in a downtown high-rise there are options for variety in your work settings. I work 500 feet above the ground in a high-rise downtown looking out on other high-rises. But, that doesn't prevent me from having a connection to the larger community. We walk down to lunch and we go into a larger community space where residents from several buildings gather for food and shopping.

Outside, I can walk through Discovery Green and let my mind settle. When I come back, my work is so much better. That’s why you see big urban campuses with gardens. Even if it’s on the 40th floor, a big indoor garden area will trigger elemental responses to nature. 

Three Realms of Work

NE: What you are describing seems like a complete ecosystem, not just a campus. The environment is addressing so many more aspects of the employee’s engagement with the company than just the job. How you would sum it up? 

Providing a place for all three — the dynamism of the urban, the scale and collegiality of the campus and the nurturing, restorative benefits of nature — is at the heart of the new.Providing a place for all three — the dynamism of the urban, the scale and collegiality of the campus and the nurturing, restorative benefits of nature — is at the heart of the new corporate campus model corporate campus model.

DP: There are three realms of work that a really well designed campus tries to amplify: the urban vibe, the collegiate atmosphere and the walk in the woods. For research or for people who are thinking 50 years ahead, the urban vibe is the energy and the urgency of working in an urban setting close to colleagues, running into a lot of people, looking out the window being able to see people. A lot of people have to get their work done today or in the next ten minutes. You want a sense of urgency and you achieve that with density — even if you can see the trees and the skyline or walk outside.

The second realm is a collegiate atmosphere — a walkable, pedestrian campus. At ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips all cars park outside the campus. On campus, it’s pedestrian-oriented — inside or outside, elevated or on the ground. That builds the sense of a college — of an American academic village. It’s also the scale: ninety feet across from building to building, with buildings 6 and 7 stories tall so that you can identify the person you see across the way. That’s the key to the collegiate scale — no view longer than where I can actually identify someone walking toward me.

The third realm is the walk in the woods. Truly, a soccer field, or woods to walk in or a swimming pool — they nurture the authentic roots of a company. And the people — all of this is  not about the architecture — it’s about the people who work in the architecture.