222 Second Street Office Tower, San Francisco. Photo by Connie Zhou.
222 Second Street Office Tower, San Francisco. Photo by Connie Zhou.

Amenities at the Edge: Where the Workplace Meets the Street

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be heading back into the central business districts in our cities, frequenting many of the downtown restaurants, shops, and offices that have sat largely vacant during the pandemic. At this moment, we have a fantastic opportunity to reimagine the ground floor of our cities — reinventing these sidewalk-facing storefronts as multi-use destinations that serve the community, not just single-use spaces that cater solely to the daytime workforce.

And who better to participate in these reimagining efforts than the companies whose workplaces occupy the towers that soar above us as we walk down the street? Given our current — and lasting — focus on equity and opportunity, this is an opportune time to program these pedestrian-facing spaces in a way that connects workplace with community, harnessing our financial and human capital to enhance the urban experience for all.

In thinking about how these spaces might be programmed, we can approach this challenge in two operational ways: 1) an “inside-out” approach, which extends the workplace out to the street and 2) an “outside-in” approach, which brings the community in.

The “Inside Out” approach

The “Inside Out” approach involves designing spaces that extend company culture from the workplace to the street — workplace amenities to be enjoyed by the community. These solutions can be both physical and virtual and would be initiated by a company with possible buy-in from community stakeholders. They could take the following forms:

1. The Storefront.

What happens when you bring a company’s culture down to the city sidewalk? You get the Storefront, a space designed to be the interface between public and private, between employees and the community at large. Sounds obvious, but these spaces are becoming increasingly sophisticated, acting as coworking spaces, membership experience centers, and semi-enclosed parks. By creating a public-facing space that’s contiguous with the workplace, you begin to dismantle the physical barriers between the office and the city, mitigating the “fortress effect” of workplaces that detach themselves from the city activity below.

2. The Pop-Up.

Like the Storefront, the Pop-Up is a public-private interface at the street level, but not necessarily contiguous with the workplace, and not as overtly branded. These spaces contain “look-and-feel” elements from the primary workplace and might even be in service of workplace operations. For example, a company could roll out an open-to-the-public restaurant whose design references elements of the workplace, but whose kitchen also remotely services culinary operations at the main office.

3. The Experience.

A totally virtual approach, using AR and VR to bridge between office environments and stakeholder communities. Physical spaces are digitized, “gamified,” and made available to the community. These virtual spaces become forums for user exploration and participation, and even provide opportunities to elicit feedback for the design of future physical spaces.

The “Outside In” Approach

The “Outside In” approach tackles the displacement of small businesses and communities by designing spaces and programs that literally bring people and local organizations into the building. These types of solutions are more collaborative, involving partnerships between organizations and communities. These partnerships could be brokered by either party or, in some cases, by a designer who brings them both to the table. “Outside In” approaches might help to mitigate the effects of market displacements — especially the displacement of creative communities. They could take the following forms:

1. The Residency.

Primarily geared towards visual artists and graphic designers, residencies connect companies with local artists, bringing them in to create installations that evoke delight and enhance the workplace environment. Sometimes, these programs are initiated internally and are implemented solely within a single company. Alternatively, these programs can be initiated by outside partners — including architects — to connect artists with a range of clients.

2. The Event Space.

Similar to the Residency, but designed to bring speakers, performers, and other creatives in. These spaces enable connection between employees and neighborhood communities, with opportunities for reaching even larger audiences through streamed content. Participation can happen both in-person and virtually. For example, a lecture by a well-known author could be attended in-person by employees and community members, and would simultaneously be broadcast to anyone in the community who would like to attend — and participate — remotely. It’s not a revolutionary idea; in fact, we’ve been doing this for decades. However, now’s the time to be incredibly intentional about this kind of programming, to craft spaces that showcase and celebrate this kind of connectivity.

3. The Community Center.

The Community Center is interchangeably an “Outside In” and “Inside Out” approach. It’s a multipurpose space built to support a variety of community and cultural activities, often for groups who have been most significantly impacted by the expanded footprint of companies in cities. Its design is optimized for flexibility, allowing for the fluid rotation of classes, exhibits, and retail. It can host career fairs, adult education programs, and even provide childcare services.

By approaching the design of these public-private spaces in thoughtful, dynamic ways, companies can shift public perceptions of their internal operations and affect change at a scale much larger than the spaces themselves. In so doing, they’ll lay the groundwork for vibrant street-level experiences that persist well after the workforce has left the office for the evening.

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Brian Stromquist
Brian co-leads Gensler’s Technology workplace practice, where he works with tech companies at all scales to create spaces of purpose and delight. With a background in architecture and literature, he brings a mix of design strategy and storytelling to clients like Instagram, Postmates, PlayStation, SoFi, and Brex. Brian is based in San Francisco. Contact him at .