Spaces   //   January 23, 2023  ■  5 min read

How companies are expanding their offices to include experience centers

When you step into identity and access management company Okta’s brand new space in New York City’s Flatiron District, you’re welcomed with an immersive experience that is far from a conventional office.

That’s because they’ve put a focus on retail, where Okta’s customers can come in and interact with the technology. However, it’s also still Okta’s only office in the area for their employees to come in for regular working hours.

It’s a part of the rise in companies expanding past a typical office space, to creating one where employees, partners and customers can all come together under one roof. We’ve seen it with Apple and other consumer companies, but now it’s beginning to expand further, according to workplace design experts. It’s taking a step beyond an approach that keeps hospitality in mind, and really brings it to the next level.

“This kind of immersive design is not only on the rise, but it feels very urgent right now,” said Brian Stromquist, Gensler’s global practice area leader for workplace technology. “There is a strong interest in creating a welcome experience that aligns with enthusiastic messaging.”

A New York City case study

Located on the ground level, the Okta space covers more than 6,500 square feet and has a mezzanine level thanks to its 19-foot ceilings. It’s split up into multifunctional spaces for a variety of different uses. There are still high-top desks, soft seating, breakout areas and phone rooms that you’d see in any office today, but where it really gets fun is the other side.

Okta worked with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who is well known for immersive retail locations such as the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, and a leading experience design firm called called HUSH, for an immersive experience.

“That immersive experience tells not only the story of Okta to the folks walking by outside, but also a different story with the same technology from the inside for those who come to see the space,” said Assal Yavari, vp of global workplace and safety at Okta.

The technology to create the space is impressive, including a LiDAR camera that shows the inside movement from outside but without showing the faces of the people (on brand for Okta), QR codes in the windows to learn more, and the ability to change the color of the building depending on different events.

The fancy tech aside, the space is meant for collaboration, both among employees and also others who are visiting or using the space for an event. Okta partners with local groups to rent out for free. And for their own events, gone are the days of needing to find the perfect space to rent because they have one of their own.

“People are saying thank you for creating a space where it’s a destination, a retreat,” said Yavari. “It’s not a typical office space, and instead we are showing the public where the magic is actually happening.”

Privacy concerns

Right now, Okta is by appointment only and has a 75-person occupancy, which means someone just passing by can’t stop in to check out their technology. That’s common for spaces like this right now to ensure they still uphold security.

“It’s its own retail experience, which is what they want, but security is probably the number one item to deal with when taking on this endeavor,” said Scott Spector, principal of architecture and interior design firm Spectorgroup.

That means having checkpoints throughout so that consumers and prospects stay separate from those who are employees.

“You can’t just free flow like we’re going into Apple when there’s people sitting there working on a regular basis,” said Spector. “Security is a major piece of the puzzle.”

Becoming a part of the community

Jeffrey Sharpe, principal director and global lead at design company frog, argues that at the core of this kind of office design is opening it up to the community.

“It’s incumbent upon organizations to figure out what they stand for, who they are and their relationship with the community and customers,” said Sharpe. “It’s asking how we can be a conduit for people to connect, a platform or canvas for organizations that share our values, whatever it is.”

He says it’s an additional opportunity for businesses to lean into their corporate social responsibility. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer put businesses at the top of the list of trustworthy institutions, ahead of nonprofits, government and media. Creating immersive experiences, like the one at Okta, can be an opportunity to build trust between consumers and companies even more.

“It’s about being good citizens and good community partners,” said Sharpe. “How can you use the strengths that you have in your organization and your beliefs and your values and create those opportunities for others around you that might not have those opportunities.”

Although Okta has only just opened their New York City location in December 2022, they plan to partner with local nonprofits for them to use the space. It’s something that Sharpe believes should be replicated by other companies as they create these kinds of spaces.

The future of an immersive workplace

Since Okta announced they were building this space, they have received a number of emails from tech companies who are asking for tips on what to do and where to start.

“Retail commercial space is hurting, and at the same time people want to create a brand and tell a story,” said Yavari. “Internally, employees want a destination.”

Spector said he’s been working closely with another client, who he cannot yet name, since last year to create a space very similar to Okta’s that upholds the same level of experience combined with office. It’s also a ground level location in New York City, this time in a former Anthropology retail store.

“It’s experiential from the outside to draw certain folks in,” said Spector.

But he wants to make it clear – while a company might save on not having to outsource event space and potentially bring in more clients, it’s still a costly endeavor, especially for ground floor space in a large city.

Still, Stromquist said elevating executive briefing centers is a good starting point to get closer to a more unique, vibrant environment.

“It’s a pretty easy thing to program,” said Stromquist. “Any space type where an office operations team can program it, they can ensure that it is more buzzy during the workday. It ends up getting employees excited, while also blending executives and customers with employees.”