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Analysis

Future workplace? Amazon’s $2.5bn new HQ2 sparks a rethink of office spaces

Amazon’s new office plans sell a workplace dream that’s comfier than working from home.

Jennifer Dunkerley

Fortune 500

Amazon HQ"

Unleash Your PeopleWill others follow?

  • Amazon is spending $2.5billion on HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, which will host over 2,000 employees.
  • More than 70% of workers want flexible options moving forward, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey, while over 65 percent said they would like more in-person time with their colleagues.
  • Amazon saw an 84% profit increase in 2020 amid the pandemic.

Amazon’s futuristic new plans for their $2.5 billion second headquarters (HQ2) could be making many other businesses rethink where and how their workforce want to work when they return.

Early renderings for the tech giant’s HQ2 show a “forest plaza” at the foot of the site’s centerpiece, a 350-foot-tall tower dubbed “The Helix” at the site in Arlington, Virginia. The forest plaza includes public seating areas and pathways enclosed by what it calls “forest rooms” that feature trees, a waterfall and other landscaping. There’s even a dog park.

Amazon HQ2 new office plans
Credit: Amazon.

Despite pandemic setback, many tech companies saw incredible growth in 2020, including Amazon, which saw an 84% profit increase, and Google, which boasts profits $21 higher than in 2019.

But after 18 months of uncertainty working from home and the future of office-work debate ongoing, is investing in innovative office spaces worth it?

Amazon HQ2 new office plans
Credit: Amazon.

NATURAL LIGHT IS KEY

Just a few years ago, the major tech giants seemed to be locked in an arms race to see who could fit more free candy, ping pong tables and modernist architecture into their corporate campuses. This was a major draw for candidates, and who could blame them?

But now it’s clear that office culture will never be the same, how will these now-dated spaces live up? Are employees more eager to swap comfy at-home working for comfy at-work experiences than first thought?

A recent poll of North American office employees found that access to natural light and views of the outdoors are the number one attribute of the workplace environment, outranking stalwarts like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and premium perks, including on-site childcare.

Research by Cornell University Professor Dr. Alan Hedge reinforces the connection of natural light and employee wellbeing. Dr. Hedge’s recent research study found optimization of natural light in an office significantly improves health and wellness among workers.

In fact, this research revealed that workers in daylight office environments reported a 51% drop in the incidence of eyestrain, a 63% drop in the incidence of headaches and a 56% reduction in drowsiness.

The fundamental health benefits of access to natural light are causing some firms to re-imagine their workspace and tout this as a recruiting tool. 

As well as oozing the coveted natural light, Amazon said the new HQ2 plaza will have space for retail shops and will serve as a public gathering place, including for things like “special neighborhood events.”

Amazon HQ2 new office plans

And more interestingly – the updated design plans come as the company says it’s looking to fill 1,900 roles in and around its second headquarters, which already serve 1,600 U.S. employees.

Amazon HQ2 is Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia and is an expansion of the company’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

Amazon HQ2 new office plans
Credit: Amazon.

The tech giant has cited “the importance of of being both part of a community and a supportive corporate citizen” for it’s plans, creating a open green space which employees actually want to travel to and work in, after the ease and comfort of working from home.

Historically, the PenPlace site in Arlington was home to two bodies of water—Roaches Run, a tidal inlet of the Potomac River watershed, and the Alexandria Canal.

In homage to the historic hydrology of the site and local waterways in nearby Rock Creek Park and Great Falls Park, Amazon’s design incorporates water features on a north-to-south axis across the park, interpreting the natural elements of cascades and streams at a human scale.

These include a Headwaters fountain at the north of the site, bringing a cooling microclimate to the Lifted Forest Plaza; a Confluence Fountain water feature at the center of the park adjacent to the Central Green.

The plans are as ambitious as you’d expect from the biggest tech brand on the planet. But other businesses are also following suit and re-thinking their office spaces too for a future-focused workforce now accustomed to working from home.

Amazon HQ2 new office
Credit: Amazon.

FUTURISTIC WORKPLACES

More than 70% of workers want flexible options moving forward, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey, while over 65 percent said they would like more in-person time with their colleagues.

To meet the moment, more than 66% of business leaders report that they are considering a redesign of physical spaces to accommodate hybrid work.

Late last year Pinterest pulled out of a deal to move into nearly 500,000 square feet of office space in San Francisco, paying a reported termination fee of $89.5 million.

Even tech giant Twitter is subleasing 100,000 square feet of its San Francisco office space. 

The decrease in demand for office space is no surprise considering that many tech-first companies were among the first to commit to permanent remote work. Twitter and Facebook have both said that they would move forward with changes that allowed much of their staff to work remote permanently. Others including Dropbox, Zillow, Shopify and many more have followed.

Amazon HQ2 new office
Credit: Amazon.

Yet Google recently announced its plans to spend $7 billion on new office space and data centers. 

At Google this kind of transformation looks a lot like a sci-fi projection of a futuristic workplace, featuring robots programmed to inflate translucent cellophane walls to provide workers more privacy when needed.

Pre-pandemic, organizations designed workspaces only for top executives wanting large windows and corner offices, while lower level employees did not have access to light.

But that old school thinking has gone. Airbnb pushed the limits here by designing its customer call center operation in Portland, Oregon. Rather than windowless work stations commonly found in call centers, the Airbnb Call Center is designed to be an open space with access to natural light and views of the surroundings while replacing desks and phones with long couches, standing desks and wireless technology. 

So perhaps Amazon are onto something.

Amazon said:

“If you’ve visited Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, you may already be acquainted with The Spheres, a special place where employees can work or unwind while immersed in nature.

“The Spheres were inspired by a concept called biophilia—the innate human desire to connect with nature—and a similarly engaging and rejuvenating concept is the basis for our Arlington headquarters: a double helix.

“The natural beauty of a double helix can be seen throughout our world, from the geometry of our own DNA to the elemental form of galaxies, weather patterns, pinecones, and seashells.

“The Helix at our Arlington headquarters will offer a variety of alternative work environments for Amazon employees amidst lush gardens and flourishing trees native to the region.

“A true double helix in shape and structure, this unique building will feature two walkable paths of landscaped terrain that will spiral up the outside of the building, featuring plantings you may find on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

“And because innovative technology often derives from the intersection of art and science, we’ve planned an artist-in-residence program to be hosted within The Helix. Local artists, in collaboration with our employees, will be inspired by the nature within the building as they create their pieces.”

Will the investment pay off? As the future of work accelerates exponentially to innovate in all other areas, changing workplace needs seem to be redesigning to meet the trend.

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