Creating the workspace for the next generation.
The workplace is undergoing a facelift. Older employees who covet the corner office are giving way to a younger generation who thrive in more interactive work environments, but who also don’t want to be stuck in Dilbert™-like cubicles. This shift poses a challenge to space planners and interior designers who need to rethink the office environment for a new generation.
“The workplace has changed noticeably in the last 20 years, and the old solutions don’t apply to today’s worker,” says Catherine Adams Lee, workplace consultant and founder of NewWorkPlaces.com.
This change is being driven by the youngest generation to enter the workforce, the Millennials. Born after 1980, Millennials are not as interested in the financial success that drove their baby boomer parents and don’t crave the independence valued by their Generation X siblings.
Millennials are prewired to technology 24/7 — theirs is the first generation that has never known a time without computers. They consume information faster than their older colleagues and have high expectations of their employers — and their working environments.
“Employers need to look at their facilities and the rest of their organizational infrastructure to determine whether they support this changing workforce,” Adams Lee adds.
NEW WORK STYLE,
NEW WORK STATION
Innovative companies are realizing the need to adapt to this new Millennial workforce to attract and retain the best and brightest up-and-comers. Companies in emerging, high-tech industries are paving the way by creating work environments that play to the strengths of this new workforce.
Structure Interactive, an interactive communications agency in Grand Rapids, Mich., is just such an example. When three employees purchased the company in 2000, they moved Structure Interactive to downtown Grand Rapids and created a collaborative work environment in an effort to re-energize the company.
“It was a rebirth for us,” says Charles McGrath, Structure Interactive partner/director of creative services. “It helped redefine us as a company.”
Structure Interactive has a blend of older and younger employees, but “no one who works here is a ‘cubicle personality,’” McGrath says. “We have a lot of designers and programmers, none of whom are easy to rein in.”
To better cater to the staff’s personalities and noncubicle work styles, the company knocked down several walls to create a more open environment. Workstations were grouped into pods containing three desks that were separated by low privacy screens that fostered easy communication between team members while also allowing privacy when needed. The privacy screens also brought definition to individual office spaces set among Structure Interactive’s open floor plan.
The new flexible and collaborative space is a big hit among the multigenerational staff, with an additional unintended benefit: The new offices also have turned out to be an effective recruiting tool.
“Our space does a great job of conveying our corporate philosophy to potential recruits,” McGrath says. “We don’t even have to articulate it. Candidates can walk into our dynamic workspace, feel the energy and see exactly how they will be working.”
While not designed specifically to attract and retain younger workers, the offices of Tria Architecture, a three-year-old architectural firm founded by three Generation X partners, echo a similar sentiment. Collaboration played a large part in the design of the open-plan workspace, as the partners are also longtime friends.
“We wanted that camaraderie, the sense of collaboration we feel when we work together, to spill over into the ambiance of our new office space,” says Ron McGrath, (no relation to Charles) partner at Tria Architecture.
The space consists of two pods containing a variety of workstations for the project and administrative/marketing teams which, like Structure Interactive, are separated by a low partition that provides privacy while still enabling project groups to see and talk to one another. A community round table in the center of one pod allows for impromptu meetings and open discussions.
Each of the partners plans to share pods with junior employees who the company aims to soon hire.
“Working alongside younger employees gives us the chance to collaborate with them and act as mentors,” Ron McGrath says. “Everyone is easily accessible to each other to offer help and guidance.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Flexibility is key in today’s workplace. Millennials want to be able to work from the office, home or the corner coffee shop, and don’t want to schedule time in a conference room to collaborate with team members.
“In the past, people adjusted to their working environments and adapted their work styles accordingly,” says Chuck Saylor, founder and president of izzydesign, a furniture design company based in Spring Lake, Mich.
“The new trend in workspace design is about flexibility, where mobility and size of space need to be more in tune with the way people work.”
izzydesign creates workspace furniture for employees whom Saylor calls “campers,” highly skilled, lifestyle-centric workers who, like Millennials, thrive on information sharing and collaboration. Campsite environments promote learning because they allow people of diverse ages and areas of expertise to come together in a casual setting to exchange ideas with an emphasis toward creativity. Saylor feels the camper/Millennial work style is changing the way companies approach workspace design.
Structure Interactive’s employees embody the camper/Millennial work style. To accommodate their mobile and collaborative nature, izzydesign put all of Structure Interactive’s furniture on wheels to allow for easy movement and simple reconfiguration. Many file cabinets double as stools, and the desks and tables have rubber edges — perfect for perching anywhere, at any time.
Many companies are rethinking how to equip their employees to compete in a global, 24/7 economy, and workspaces are a part of the picture. To help employees better contribute to an organization’s productivity and innovation, workspaces need to be functional, flexible and adaptable to meet the emerging workforce’s desire for collaboration, Saylor says. The izzydesign philosophy is that work can easily and economically be personalized through scale, color and materials.
“This shift in workspace design has the potential to bring back energy, added value and a sense of belonging back into the workplace,” Saylor says. “It should be celebrated.”