The Envy Office: Can Instagrammable Design Lure Young Workers Back?


Housed inside the “blueberry muffin” conference room with walls awash in shades of calming blues equivalent to those employed in infant room decor, one would find an oblong red table garnished with mock violet potted succulents at its centre.

With a quick stride, there lays the “fruity” conference room. Its walls are colored in an impressive “razzle dazzle” red, harbouring vintage chairs with upholstery in standout yellow pineapple printed fabric. A stone’s throw away, you’d come across the “maple waffle” room reserved for grave meetings with investors and its walls wrapped in a muted brown shade.

Welcome to Magic Spoon, a cereal brand’s office which is structured to mimic the vibes of cereal boxes by its architectural design. With about 50 of its staff called back to operate from the office at least two days a week since last year, Magic Spoon has redesigned its SoHo setup around their employee’s return-to-work movement.

As Magic Spoon co-founder, Greg Sewitz puts it, “One of our core company values is ‘Be a Froot Loop in a world of Cheerios,’ and we wanted our office to represent that.”

The Magic Spoon office design is emblematic of what many aspiring start-ups, tech firms, and financially robust employers are adopting in response to increased competition in recruiting young talent. This is christened the Envy Office approach – attempting to strike a balance between the eases of a home environment and the allure of a holiday. The magnetic allure of these workspaces lies in their bright wall paints, cozy furniture, carefully selected coffee table books proving to be quite the bait in attracting employees and luring them to partake in social media photo sessions.

As per Jordan Goldstein, co-managing principal at Gensler, a global architecture powerhouse, the design inspiration draws from domestic spaces, the hospitality industry, and platforms like Pinterest. Gensler’s touch can be spotted in Marriott’s latest headquarters featuring banquette seating, library recesses, and a tree sprouting in the centre of the lobby. Other notable works by Gensler include offices for Barclays, Pinterest, and LinkedIn following a similar design pattern.

Nevertheless, the welter of faux plants, accent walls, and chic dog beds seem like a clever diversion from the inconvenience of compact working styles like hot-desks where workers do not get individual workstations.

Before the uptick in remote work culture, the architects behind Magic Spoon’s office design, Laetitia Gorra and Sarah Needleman, worked on the design for women’s social club, the Wing, which was known for its millennial pink-hued interior stuffed with throw pillows and color-coordinated bookshelves. The duo extended their expertise by setting up design firm Roarke in 2020 that guides executives in determining the appearance of an office space in these unprecedented times when employees are unconvinced about the necessity of a physical office.

As Ms. Gorra stated, the key selling point that they offer is about employee retention and as per her words, “We emanate from working on our sofas in yoga pants. What can we do to make your employees want to get back to the office?”

Corresponding with changes in work-culture norms, the design of workplaces change as per these dynamics. A global survey by Gensler of around 14,000 employees conducted last year indicated that approximately 40% of the employees polled responded that their workplaces went under a redesign during the pandemic.

As media historian and “The Filing Cabinet,” author Craig Robertson puts it, “If you’re looking at the history of the office, you’re looking at the history of changing attitudes toward what constitutes work, who workers should be. The design of an office is shaped by dominant social values.”

Just like previous shifts in workplace aesthetics eco-systems, each managerial wave tries to tackle the imminent task of convincing employees to spend greater amounts of their time at offices.

Going back more than 50 years, the cubicle was the newest office trend.

As the economy flourished post World War II and women started to join the workforce, the nation’s white-collar workforce was overflowing. Management “scientists” like Frederick Winslow Taylor, renowned for his zeal for efficiency, recommended companies treat soft work like factory work. This led to the adoption of the Action Office model: modular office furniture that morphed into cubicles to accommodate people in close quarters.

According to Nikil Saval, an office historian, cubicle farms served as hierarchal reminders, with individuals higher in the ranks granted larger spaces.

In the words of Sheila Liming, an associate professor at Champlain College and author of the design history book “Office,” working in a cubicle farm gave an impression of being replicable. As you sat within such a setup, you felt surrounded by hundreds of other employees just like yourself.

Cubicle farms were not the ideal proponents of creative out-of-the-box concepts that tech companies craved for in the late 1990s. The tech startups desired their employees to break free from their impersonal cubicles and develop a sense of ownership over their work and endless growth potential.

This idea for stimulating creativity gave rise to the new phase of office design: the tech utopia. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist who conducted a prolonged research of Silicon Valley tech firms, identified some distinguishing physical elements that give their offices a unique appeal. Accompaniments like complimentary snacks (like potato chips, dried mango or peanut-butter cups) and occasionally alcoholic beverages (frosé, beer). The environment also provided facilities for relaxation like massage chairs and napping pods.

Chen noticed one such company that used part of its design budget to give its office a grunge look. They splurged on detailing its bricks and pipes, sending the signal to employees to adopt a start-up mentality and work beyond office hours.

Given the social nature of these tech offices from the early 2000s – equipped with frolics, video games, team happy hours – the inference for some workers was that they needn’t leave their office premises for leisure or community engagement.

“The way Google revolutionized the office,” Ms. Liming observes, “was in the idea that workers at Google are always welcome not only to carry out their assigned work but also to spend their leisure time.” The term campus perfectly captures the essence of this concept.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, the allure of working from the coziness of home suddenly outweighed the appeal of a campus office setting. Managers were thereby compelled to rethink their strategy for making their office workspaces a desirable destination.

When Magic Spoon’s staff moved into their newly structured office earlier this year, 26-year-old senior social and community manager Sarah Bourlakas took a snapshot to share on her personal Instagram account with the caption ‘Live from HQ’.

This act of Instagrammability was by no means a coincidental occurrence. Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University, feels that companies are turning to social media aesthetics as a tool for crafting their corporate image in a similar manner as they do with traditional perks like cold brew draughts, or unconventional ones like live Lizzo concerts Google arranges for its employees. The companies now desire the alluring appeal of their office interiors to be broadcasted not only to their employees but also to the world at large via social media. According to Ms. Duffy, this aids in “retaining employees by hyping this fun, enjoyable, hyper-social workplace.”

Hollywood and television have historically served as the major platforms promoting the glitz and glam of office life to younger generations, Ms. Duffy points out. Classic examples like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Mad Men,” “The Internship,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Social Network” spring to mind.

Currently, individuals increasingly resort to social media in romanticizing office life – and TikTok serves as a prime platform for this. Content creators such as “Corporate Natalie” on TikTok take the web by storm, churning out hilarious takes on professional mishaps that several younger individuals, those who began charting their career waters during the pandemic, have yet to experience. Gallup data consistently reveal that over half the workers derive part of their identity from their jobs, based on polling data from 1989 to 2014. Hence, it’s hardly surprising that young individuals feel the urge to showcase on their social media handles what significantly shapes their personal identities. The trendier an office appears, the easier it becomes for workers to project a veneer of a career more thrilling than the monotonous routine that defined the era of cubicle farms as depicted in “Office Space.”

When Sarah Bourlakas decided to capture Magic Spoon’s spruced-up SoHo space on camera, her Instagram followers were visibly besotted.

Ms. Bourlakas revealed, “Numerous people commented, indicating their thrill, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so sick,’ ‘It’s so Magic Spoon coded.'” On a new job now, Sarah Bourlakas recently bid adieu to Magic Spoon.

While exploring some of these new age ‘Envy Offices’ bustling with employees bent over elongated desks with noise-cancelling headphones hugging their ears, the disparity between workers’ aspirations and their actual needs is glaring. The workers are being presented with attractive wall decals and painstakingly selected collection of books, when what they desperately require is privacy.

An approx 10-minute stroll from Magic Spoon would take you to the office of the communications agency M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, another space redesigned by Roarke in 2021. Here, employees are found working at sturdy long, communal wooden tables, encircled by exposed brick and a mini artificial forest. A Keith Haring coffee table book is observed with a single faux grape cluster placed on top.

Maddy Franklin, 27, a senior art director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, gushes about certain aspects of the new office design, like how it accommodates dogs. Notwithstanding, thanks to the hot-desk system, she has no assigned space to keep her belongings.

Also clinching spots with a monitor can be quite a challenge. Ms. Franklin confesses, “I will aim to get to the office a little earlier” when she has a significant project to work on, in order to secure a much sought-after seat.

Robin Clark, a 58-year-old marketing director at a health care nonprofit, often finds herself longing for the pre-open floor plan office era. Upon the complete redesign of her office in 2018, the company tried to make the space more welcoming by incorporating lounge areas featuring couches in vivid colors including orange, teal, and lime. However, the open-plan design led to a constant cacophony in the office – crunching apples, colleagues incessantly sneezing.

While operating from her peaceful home during the pandemic, she realized her desperate need for peace and quiet at her workplace. She admits, “With cubicle walls, you have at least the perception that you have some privacy.”

In a surprising turn of events, other employees find themselves hankering for the bygone cubicle era. One such example is Jerry Gulla, a 56-year-old senior engineering manager. Having embarked on his career journey in 1989 when cubicles were the standard office norm, he confessed his nostalgic attachment to the era as he transitioned to offices with open-floor plans and hot-desk systems. He missed personalizing his desk without having to depend on a design firm.

Mr. Gulla is a seasoned viewer of the TV series “The Expanse,” and he used to display a model ship from the show at his work station. He recalls,”Someone might walk past, see that you are a fan, and you might end up striking a conversation and making a new acquaintance.”

In Mr. Gulla’s view, the aspiration for the perfect office space is uncomplicated; it should be “just a place that’s conducive to getting work done.”

The Envy Office: Can Attractive Design on Instagram Entice Young Workers to Return?