The Fortune 500 company Newell Brands this year made the shortest of corporate headquarters relocations, moving about a third of a mile within Sandy Springs. But it was also a giant leap into the millennial generation, a switch from a self-contained suburban campus to a transit-oriented site where hang-out spaces are more common than assigned desks.

Newell Brands’ new headquarters on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Sandy Springs has an open design intended to please the millennial workforce. (Photo John Ruch)

“This new headquarters has a more residential feel to it,” said David Sheehan, a designer at the architecture firm Perkins + Will who was on the Newell headquarters design team. “Generally, this is the way corporate America is going.”

Major corporations are increasingly fleeing massive, remote compounds for glass-walled, urban buildings near public transit. “A number of [corporations] are now saying, ‘We did this whole suburban thing. It’s done,’” said Mark Hinshaw, a principal at the Seattle architecture firm Walker Macy who has written about corporate headquarter moves.

A major national example is General Electric’s recently announced move from suburban Connecticut to inner-city Boston. It’s also a trend in the once suburban but increasingly urbanized Perimeter Center. Mercedes-Benz USA is moving from New Jersey’s office parks to a Sandy Springs site designed with cubicle-free “collaborative” workspaces and paired with a housing development. State Farm’s new regional headquarters, going up in Dunwoody, will be directly connected to a MARTA station.

These changes to the classic corporate campus model are propelled by the same force behind the push for apartments, mixed-use development and “walkability”: the millennial generation market.

“In my view, all of this is being driven by the millennials,” said Hinshaw. “It’s their taste. It’s their generation. What they want is what they’re getting.

“They don’t want private spaces. They don’t want hierarchical things. They want it to be more democratic—more Bernie Sanders,” he added with a laugh. “They want to live in apartments, live in a neighborhood. And they also don’t want to drive a car.”

A Mercedes-Benz USA illustration of its future headquarters in Sandy Springs, which will be built to encourage collaboration and mingling.

It’s a reversal of the corporate campus trend, which also tracked housing patterns—at the time, white-collar workers fleeing cities for suburbs. One trend-setter was Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s 1957 move to a sprawling, college-like campus only accessible by car.

Hinshaw has written about the dramatic headquarters change at one Fortune 500 company, the timber giant Weyerhaeuser. In 1972, the company built a spectacular HQ with a greenery-covered terraced roof on a gigantic 400-acre campus in suburban Washington state. But this year, Weyerhaeuser is moving to a modest-looking, glass-walled building in downtown Seattle—with only 50 parking spaces.

Hinshaw says that Weyerhaeuser’s move typifies the trend. It’s mostly about millennials, but also about being closer to academic centers, responding to today’s more diverse workforce and moving away from “fortress-like” buildings to one reflecting new goals like environmental sustainability.

“There was a good, long era…where [corporations] wanted iconic, bold, striking buildings set against the landscape…the counterpart to European royalty who wanted castles and piazzas,” Hinshaw said. Today, he said, companies are more inclined “to blend into the area and not be a literal target…I think that’s also a deliberate move to integrate their workforce with general society.”

Newell Brands—home of many household products, from Rubbermaid to Sharpie—had to react rapidly to these trends only 10 years after its last headquarters redesign, said Sheehan, who worked on both projects.

It was previously located on secluded, leafy Glenlake Parkway in a building with each floor devoted to one of the company’s major sub-brands. Now it’s on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, Perimeter Center’s main drag, with an open design inspired more by Starbucks than cubicles, and living rooms rather than board rooms.

“In the previous headquarters, we had designed a fitness center there [and] a full-service cafeteria…and that was all designed to keep people in the building and on campus,” said Sheehan. In the new building, workers are expected to walk or take the nearby MARTA to local restaurants and a gym, though the company still provides a shower and locker room.

Inside, desks haven’t vanished, but “part of the workforce doesn’t really have an assigned desk per se,” Sheehan said. Spots considered workspaces include “huddle rooms,” lounges, a café with a fireplace, and a terrace and roof deck for outdoor gatherings.

Of course, the millennial generation, too, will pass, and its stereotyped preferences aren’t really suited for every worker or company, Sheehan and Hinshaw said. There are risks in being too trendy, Hinshaw said, but the bigger risk right now lies in not giving the millennial workforce what it wants.

“If they don’t get it, they’re not going to work for [the company],” he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.