For more than two years, many office workers’ homes have been performing double duty as both residence and office space. It’s been an awkward mash-up for some, with couches becoming desk chairs and kitchen tables topped with computer monitors. For others, it’s been a nice long taste of casual comfort, untethered from the formalities of the conventional office.
Now, as offices begin to reopen and repopulate, some companies are trying to bring that sense of comfort back with them. Instead of going back to the office status quo, some have redesigned their spaces to look more like a home than an office building.
“When we thought about our office we said, first of all, it should feel more like our living room,” says Alexa von Tobel. She’s a cofounder of Inspired Capital, a 10-person New York City-based venture fund that recently rethought its office space. “We got really comfortable just being able to literally be comfortable,” von Tobel says. “You can be on your bed, you can be in your kitchen, you can be at your countertop. Now all of a sudden you have to go back to a cubicle? That just makes no sense.”
As a company that regularly meets with and invests in early-stage companies and entrepreneurs, Inspired Capital wanted to create a space more geared to casual conversations, collaboration, and problem solving than heads-down work and inbox tending. To do so, they hired a residential designer.
Their new 7,000-square-foot office, with interiors by Benjamin Vandiver, now looks like an oversized living room. Design was a high priority for von Tobel and cofounder Penny Pritzker, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce whose billionaire family is behind the Pritzker Architecture Prize. There are several couches, cushy chairs, abundant artwork, and lots of places to park a laptop, cup of coffee, or glass of wine. “I don’t have a desk,” von Tobel says. “I don’t have an office.”
The goal was to create a place where those traditional office features wouldn’t be missed. “Rather than saying, ‘Let’s all sit in a conference room that’s all sterile and white,’ instead let’s sit in the living room and relax and feel physically comfortable,” von Tobel says. “If you’re going to convene, you should convene in a far more elevated manner.”
This thinking was also behind the design of the New York headquarters of real estate brokerage Avenue 8, an expansion from its two California offices. Rather than a 9-to-5 space, the company sought to create more of a clubhouse-style office where real estate agents could come in for casual client meetings or catch up on email between showings, but not feel the need to stick around all day. The company signed the lease on the space in May 2021, and the design was heavily influenced by the pandemic.
“Agents are at their best when they’re not at the desk,” says cofounder Michael Martin. “We were able to have more liberties with making it feel that much more relaxed as an environment.”
“We wanted it to kind of look like a Parisian loft in New York,” says Justin Fichelson, the other cofounder, and also a star of the Bravo real estate show Million Dollar Listing San Francisco. They hired residential architect Billy Cotton to design the space, which features 15-foot tall arching windows, crown moldings, and maple floors that date back to the building’s original construction in the 1890s.
Couches and lounge chairs make up much of the furniture, and most of the space is an open plan. Heavy wooden dining tables take the place of bland conference rooms. But it’s still a place where work can get done.
“Those early efforts of making the office feel less corporate, I think we’ve taken to a much different extreme and made the space feel residential because that is what people have been used to working in,” Martin says. “But even in your home you want to have a work space where you can do real work, so we have a few conference rooms and some library tables that are wired. It still has to be functional.”
High-end real estate and deep-pocketed venture capitalists may be particularly suited to this kind of design. Most office redesigns amid the pandemic are focused on more direct concerns like updating HVAC systems and ensuring more distance between desks. And though tech companies have famously been designing their offices with informal elements like ping pong tables, meditation spaces, and beer on tap, these amenities tended more toward novelty than comfort. Now, elements of home are even finding their way into office buildings for more conventional work.
One example is Penn1, a renovated 57-story mid-century office tower in Midtown Manhattan, where a suite of amenities has been developed to target workers and the building’s many tenant companies as they dip their toes into returning to the office. Vornado, the developer behind the project, calls its amenity package WorkLife, and its 200,000 square feet across three of the building’s floors includes non-traditional work spaces, lounges, and a fitness center. The work areas range from library-style tables for co-working to living-room style space with couches, lounge chairs, and a fireplace; most of these spaces are open to building tenants and non-tenants alike.
Food is a big part of the offering, and a nod to the perhaps too-easily-accessed snack selection many people experienced while working from home. At Penn1, the offerings lean healthier but also higher end. In addition to a restaurant and bar, the project includes a grab-and-go food retailer where workers can buy a sandwich or pick up a weekly community-supported agriculture produce box. David Morton, owner of DMK Restaurants, is behind the food and beverage offerings in the building, and he says the amenities there are “the center of gravity for the property.”
A member of the Morton’s Steakhouse family, he’s hardly new to the restaurant business, but he says the mix of offerings at Penn1, from the variety of workspaces to the food offerings, represent a more home-like evolution of what office buildings can provide.
“The office building amenities, in my opinion, became a little bit of a caricature of itself,” Morton says. He calls Penn1 “an edited, authentic version [that] will become a template for the future for what it means to go to the office.”