Working Al Fresco: The outdoor office concept

The great outdoors is becoming an option for office workers as four walls disappear for those who want fresh air and sky to feed performance, collaboration and wellness. Providing wired and wireless power to make this possible takes some planning and creativity.

A prime example of the outdoor office concept is at biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, headquartered in Foster City, Calif., south of San Francisco. It features fully developed open-air office spaces. The firm is working with HDR Inc., a global architectural design firm based in Omaha, Neb.

Could Gilead’s embrace of outdoor offices broadly catch on with other firms? Leah Bauer, interior design director for HDR, thinks it might.

“For companies, an outdoor office is way to maximize their real estate,” Bauer said. “I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have many days of good, temperate weather. An outdoor space equipped for office activities can be a year-round option. It also gives employees that connection to nature.”

Bauer has spoken about the outdoor office at major conferences. She sees the topic gaining traction.

“I think a lot of companies are looking at this concept,” she said. “We certainly are, particularly through our work with Gilead. People want to have other options in their work settings, get out of their indoor boxes. It’s good for productivity and mental health. With Gilead, we are looking at outdoor office spaces that can be applied at all their sites, even in regions where climate is not always conducible. Some people just prefer the outdoors.”

Different considerations

Not every employee is a fan of working outdoors. HDR and Gilead continue to tweak their outdoor office concept. It represents one part of a major corporate campus modernization effort. Certainly, an open office design takes on differing challenges when “open” is the great outdoors.

“Noise is different outside,” Bauer said. “At Gilead’s Foster City headquarters, you might hear birds tweeting, ducks quacking, the wind rustling through the trees. You might hear the highway in the distance. That can be calming to some, distracting to others. We continue to explore balancing outdoor ambiance with different meeting needs. Voices can carry outdoors, so you need sound attenuation. Tree canopies might be good locations for some conversation or using man-made canopies.”

Bauer added that being outdoors may not be conducive to every office function.

“You wouldn’t want to hold a confidential meeting outside or a large 20-person meeting around a conference table,” she said. “That would be difficult to hear and difficult to mic. Our current outdoor conference spaces fall under a category we call ‘lightweight gathering spaces,’ designed to accommodate three to six people and sometimes eight. We have done video meetings for up to six persons. For people seeking concentration or private discussion, you might see more use of wireless headphones. We have quiet spaces for individual work. Designing breakers for wind may be needed, too.”

outdoor space

Gilead Sciences’ Foster City, Calif., headquarters is a prime example of the outdoor office concept. Some conference and meeting room spaces are framed by trellises and have solar-powered tables with outlets for laptops and charging ports for phones. Computers and  monitors with antiglare screens are enclosed in vandal- and weatherproof casing. Weatherproof lighting is used throughout the outdoor space.

Gilead’s outdoor office uses weatherproof trellises to frame work areas. Some areas have canopies. Solar panels power tables with outlets for laptops and A/V, and charging ports for phones and other items. Computers and  monitors with antiglare screens are enclosed in vandal- and weatherproof casing. Weatherproof lighting is used throughout the outdoor space.

“We found the outdoor meeting tables with monitors are very popular,” Bauer said. “People also like the lounge-type setting situated like a campfire set up without the fire pit. These attract smaller or one-on-one conversations. Employees now often hold lunch meetings outside. Play is also introduced through table tennis, a putting green and bocce ball courts.”

Making connections

To create an outdoor office, you need a power source, places to connect, and possibly ethernet cable for a thorough Wi-Fi architecture. To drive a large-area wireless installation, you likely need switches, firewalls, network interface controllers, wireless bridges and enterprise-grade access points to make everything function properly.

“At Gilead, we’ve installed point-to-point wireless bridges on the building exteriors to extend our internet network outdoors,” she said. “We also employ Wi-Fi boosters throughout the campus. You do need to consider where you place primary power and communication for effective wireless connectivity, including power boosters that broaden the signal. Figure out the appropriate power solutions, too. As mentioned, we incorporate solar. There are a lot of technologies being rolled out by different vendors to help support the outdoor office space. One example is outdoor monitors that work better in varied temperatures, are better with glare and projecting an image in the daylight.”

An outdoor configuration will likely need to tie into a robust enterprise or business- grade Wi-Fi network. Migrating to cloud controllers could benefit the operation of an outdoor office.

Bauer’s firm conducts weekly evaluations to gauge employee satisfaction with the outdoor office, a part of Gilead’s employee health initiative.

“Gilead management is very pleased with the outdoor office as are the employees, so much so that it’s been expanded to 15 sites on campus,” she said.

The office untethered

Since the coronavirus pandemic sent workers home in March, the “office” is anywhere.

Mordor Intelligence, a business management consultancy in Hyderabad, India, recently released “Global Outdoor Wi-Fi Market (2020-2025).” In it, authors studied and forecast the growth in Wi-Fi networks as deployed in outdoor applications. They see an accelerating market as building blocks form and wireless connectivity improves.

For example, Cisco estimates that, by 2022, almost 59% of data traffic will be Wi-Fi, which itself will cover 51% of all internet protocol (IP) traffic. Study authors at the San Jose, Calif.-based IT, networking and cybersecurity company feel this growth would extend Wi-Fi capability outside (e.g., campuses, parks and urban areas), furthering outdoor demand. The increased bandwidth and lower latency capability of the new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) will only help.

Cisco anticipates Wi-Fi 6 as the preferred wireless access technology for enterprises and enterprise Wi-Fi networks until 5G is mainstream. Accompanying Wi-Fi 6 are newly developed access points, including the weatherproof (EWS850AP) designed for the robust use of outdoor wireless. Think stadiums, smart city applications (cameras, meters, sensors) and so forth.

Todd Heiser, co-managing director and principal of Gensler, the global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm, shared his firm’s involvement in designing outdoor spaces for urban and suburban corporate offices. Like Gilead, he finds creating a an outdoor work space is typically one element of a firm’s broader effort to engage employees. He sees it as another amenity that can foster a productive, healthy environment.

willis tower

A transformative renovation of the Willis Tower in Chicago will include a 30,000-square-foot garden retreat with wireless connectivity.

“As we handle projects across the globe, outdoor amenities are in demand,” Heiser said. “We have installed fitness and walking trails, outdoor dining, and collaborative meeting spaces. For example, we are working on a transformative renovation of the Willis Tower in Chicago that is both neighborhood-tailored with dining and shopping but designed for worker connection and collaboration. One space includes a 30,000-square-foot garden retreat with wireless connectivity located on the 3rd floor roof of the 110-story Willis Tower. Improved wireless power now gives us the ability to create these new opportunities for outdoor spaces. Connectivity for laptops, tablets, cell phones and headphones make the outdoors an additional or optional space to work.”

Gensler is also at work developing a 3.5-acre rooftop space as part of a major redevelopment of the former Old Chicago Post Office building. This $800 million renovation represents more than 2.5-­million-square-feet of multiuse office and event space. The “Meadow” will be a wireless-connected park. This urban rooftop will serve, like the Willis garden, as a retreat and collaborative workspace for office tenants. It will also feature a full running track, basketball court and be used for events.

“These are both important spaces for office workers, but are also projects that create new amenities and spaces in our city,” Heiser said. “They are built as long-term investments.”

The importance of sunlight on human health and its gained importance in building design is another driver in adding outdoor work spaces. Providing a variety of locations is another. Gensler’s research and workplace performance index revealed how employers like to give their employees choice.

aerial roof

The Meadow, a 3.5-acre rooftop outdoor space, is part of a major redevelopment of the former Old Chicago Post Office building. It will serve as a retreat and collaborative workspace for office tenants. It will also feature a running track and basketball court. 

“So, we are often asked to create different settings for employees for focus or collaboration,’ Heiser said. “In a talent war, these types of amenities are important to existing and prospective employees. A working outdoor space is one such amenity.”

Seasonality plays a role, too, with outdoor office space. Accommodating retractable roofs and heaters aside, outdoor office expectations will be different based on region and climate.

“Working out of Chicago, I see the outdoor office as analogous to owning a convertible,” Heiser said. “You won’t use it year-round, but you will during certain parts of the year. Even warm environments must consider the weather. How do you mitigate for extremely hot days?”

“With our technology-focused Bay Area clients, you might find an outdoor walking trail, outdoor working spaces with internet connectivity all deployed to so workers have options that let them concentrate, take a needed break or refresh throughout the work day. Regardless of what form an ‘outdoor office’ might take, the trend to able to work anyplace is here to stay,” he said.

Finally, as power and wireless evolve, Heiser says he returns again and again to the electrical contractors that support an innovative culture. He and Bauer both appreciate ECs who come to the table with new ideas and information. Powering and connecting an outdoor office is a forward-thinking  idea and an emerging opportunity.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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