McDonald's Wows with Its 500,000-Square-Foot West Loop Office Space, MHQ

By Lisa Skolnik | March 21, 2019 | Home & Real Estate

With smart, stylish and sustainable design, McDonald’s new West Loop headquarters sets a new standard in workforce luxury.

An exuberant graphic adds artistic significance and oomph to a hallway outside the headquarters' two-story work cafe. (Photo by Garrett Rowland/courtesy McDonald's)

“What becomes a legend most?” In the mink industry, a new brand name—Blackglama— and its related ad campaign from 1968 to 2017 gave fresh luster and cachet to a fusty product. McDonald’s, arguably the world’s most iconic restaurant company, is banking on a new corporate headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop— officially anointed MHQ—to anchor an equally formative transformation.

CEO Steve Easterbrook literally said as much when the company moved from its staid, 34-acre suburban campus to a 500,000-square-foot mid-rise designed to house all its corporate “parts” last year. More than a mere building, MHQ is “symbolic of our journey to transform our brand and become more closely connected with our customers,” Easterbrook noted at the building’s ribbon cutting. Equally telling to this mission is MHQ’s location: The West Loop has the highest concentration of millennial residents— and presumably millennial talent—in the U.S., a recent RENTCafé study noted.

Ironically, the move is a homecoming of sorts; until its 1971 move to Oakbrook, McDonald’s was headquartered in a high-rise at Wacker and State. But can a single building, albeit an international corporate headquarters, carry enough weight to regild the golden arches?

With its smart, industrial-style design by the architecture firm Gensler, which pays homage to the warehouses that historically dominated the area; a range of innovative features under one roof, from the world’s flagship Hamburger University to a street-level next-generation restaurant with a rotating menu of international items; and savvy, understated but undeniably chic interior design that anticipates and accommodates staffers’ every want, need and whim, it has a good start.

“We’d been out in the suburbs for over 40 years, in five different buildings with no collaboration between the areas,” Joseph Endress, McDonald’s VP of workplace solutions, explains. “So we wanted our new headquarters to be worker-friendly, foster collaboration, stimulate innovation, attract fresh talent and transform the company’s culture.” The ability for McDonald’s to listen, learn and engage with customers is also important, Easterbrook said at the MHQ opening last year.

With everything under one proverbial roof—from a ground-level restaurant that generates customer data with global items, changing menus and more to Hamburger University for grooming future leaders—the new location will ostensibly allow McDonald’s to do all of the above. More significantly, it will redefine workforce luxury thanks to its bright, airy and shrewd interior design, executed by Chicago’s IA Interior Architects and San Francisco’s Studio O+A.

“McDonald’s considers themselves simple, straightforward and unpretentious, and true luxury—and beauty—is based on simplicity. They wanted pieces and spaces that are the right proportion and not over-thought. Our design brief was all about creating simple moments that make [workers] smile,” IA Design Director Neil Schneider explains.

Central to making workers smile are lots of bold murals, funky light fixtures and bespoke artworks scattered throughout the building, including a whole wall of custom wood and glass cases brimming with the company’s collection of Happy Meal toys. But MHQ’s “work neighborhoods,” developed to foster collaboration, illustrate the concepts Schneider holds dear.

Each department has its own “’hood,” and rather than offices there are streamlined workstations (with desks that can be raised to a standing position), and all sorts of task tables and seating to offer workers options. The pieces are perky, often colorful, always comfortable, and easy to move if need be, features that are pleasing to workers even if they don’t incite outright smiles.

A five-story interior staircase lets employees interact and get a little workout during their workday. (Photo by Garrett Rowland/courtesy McDonald's)

Like the next-generation restaurants, this is luxury for a new generation that values utility, versatility and effortless ease. It’s made possible by these sleek, multifunctional furnishings that reference midcentury modernism but, in fact, are contemporary. They come from Teknion and Studio TK, award-winning furniture companies known for their innovative, sustainable and smartly designed offerings.

More options to please workers come from communal spaces, huddle rooms, privacy booths and glass-enclosed quiet rooms of varying sizes in every neighborhood. All serve as surprisingly accommodating “homes” to employees, who pick where they work by their tasks at hand. Strategically placed lockers are scattered about for cumbersome files and personal belongings since there are no dedicated desks.

Complementing the work neighborhoods are a state-of-the-art, 700-person conference center and three smile-inducing amenities: a work cafe where seating, gathering, snacking and relaxing alternatives abound; several outdoor terraces; and an admirably equipped fitness center, complete with indoor/outdoor spin and yoga studios thanks to all those terraces. On the upper floors (there are nine in all), fundamental to all these attributes are the stunning, gritty-cool city views.

Thanks to its employee-centric interior design, which clearly redefines our notions of workplace luxury, MHQ is an ode to reinvention and rebirth. It’s also sure to foster collaboration, stimulate innovation and attract fresh talent. How it will impact McDonald’s culture is yet to be seen, but we’re betting it will be northward bound.

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