The trend of shrinking offices has led many creative industry leaders on Madison Avenue to rethink how they approach the structure of work—and even snag a good deal for those looking to expand their footprint.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity in real estate,” says Michael Duda, managing partner at New York agency Bullish, which is actively exploring an expansion this year.
After Bullish’s lease on its Chinatown office expired in July 2020, it took its show on the road and transitioned to a fully remote work schedule while agency leaders pondered their options. They considered keeping most staff remote after the pandemic ends and meeting face-to-face only once per quarter, Duda says, but ultimately the choice was made to slowly transition people back into the office once it’s safe to do so. “The world can’t revolve around Zoom alone,” he adds. “Humans are social creatures.”
At the agency’s new headquarters, which is currently being looked for from Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood up to Union Square, Duda says employees will be expected to come in frequently, though it would be “tone deaf and un-empathetic” to mandate an immediate return to a five-day, in-person workweek. The configuration of Bullish’s future office will consider the needs and concerns of workers, too, with private bathrooms and low-capacity breakout spaces both on its real estate checklist.
Many New York agencies are likely to follow suit, Duda says, though he suspects a handful of creative shops will likely find their post-pandemic footing thousands of miles from Madison Avenue—perhaps in the increasingly popular climes of Austin, Miami and Nashville.
Duda, like Collins and many other creative veterans, recognizes the importance of in-person work. He says Bullish is hoping to lease anywhere from 70% to 100% more office space than it previously had at its 3,000-square-foot HQ—more real estate than the agency likely needs at this point, he concedes—assuming Bullish can find a solid deal.
“Part of it is we’re growing, part of it is the buyer has control,” Duda says of the search for a new office, which he hopes to snap up for at least 20% below the stated asking price.
Mother New York took things in the same direction last August, pulling the trigger on a 15-year lease of a 61,000-square-foot space at the new Roulston House commercial development in Gowanus, Brooklyn—nearly doubling the size of its footprint compared to its former headquarters in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan.
“One of the ways we’re re-imagining the workspace is sort of as a creative workshop and less as an office space,” says Katie Longmyer, managing director at Mother New York.
A new-look office
Starting with a clean slate, which Mother first set in motion before the pandemic, the agency has undertaken the continuous process of examining what office features are most important and how creative employees prefer to work. The creation of a rooftop workspace, a large bar and dining area, and three-sided “stables” that will serve as a type of open-concept breakout room are all on the docket for its new office, which accounts for one of the largest leases signed in Brooklyn last year, Longmyer confirms. “Creative energy takes up a lot of space,” she adds.
While the agency’s New York-based employees continue to work from home, it has created a warehouse-turned-interim office in Brooklyn dubbed “Mother in the Middle” that staff can use for collaborative meetings and a change of scenery. It’ll also allow workers to familiarize themselves with the inter-borough commute ahead of the Gowanus headquarters’ grand opening and let the agency gauge employees’ comfort levels, Longmyer says.
If the pandemic continues to wane, Mother New York will begin transitioning some workers into its new Brooklyn office by “late spring, early summer,” with most staff set to be working in-person sometime in the fourth quarter of this year, she adds.
Agencies seem keen to experiment post-pandemic, and some, including Mother New York and Collins, plan on opening their doors to non-employees once it is safe to do so. “Because we’re going into a new community, we wanted to invite the community into the space,” Longmyer says of the Gowanus creative crowd, fostering a collaborative, mutually symbiotic relationship that could allow the agency to establish itself more firmly in its new home.
There's an emerging notion around a “campus model,” where agencies and agency networks share services and space by partnering closer together without formal financial relationships, according to a new "Future of Work" white paper out of the 4A’s. This could take the form of co-working spaces or could result in a trend of commercial office spaces moving to provide more shared amenities. A campus model can require less total space and can serve as a “home base” from which staff, leadership and clients can meet, collaborate, create and assemble marketing programs, according to the report. These campuses can also allow agencies to provide space to prioritize health and wellness, with areas for meditation, exercise and healthy nutrition. "The features of the office likely shift from foosball tables and full bars," according to the report, "to yoga studios and organic food options."