I’m a hard-core Gen Xer. The year I was born falls right in the middle of the “sandwich generation” between the Baby Boomers and their babies. I know that it drives me crazy when people make gross generalizations about Gen Xers – probably because I’m a Gen Xer and want to break the mold. So, when I saw this CNN article about Gen Yers transforming office life, I couldn’t help but reach out to a few of them around HOK to ask for their reactions. What I found was a fascinating range of opinions…
Consultant, Washington, DC
I blame Mark Zuckerberg for making workplace solitude passé. For better or for worse, companies like Facebook and Google have helped Generation Y develop a new version of the American Dream—one that glorifies collaborative, innovative entrepreneurship, with the added expectation of full-time fun and flexibility. We want to make a million dollars while working from a Starbucks, in our sweat pants, with our friends, on our own time. I can see why the Baby Boomers are worried.
When considering the future of the workplace, however, we need to keep in mind the width of the spectrum that exists between the “traditional” workplace model and the no-rules, no-walls Googles of the world. The key to successful workplace design will likely be taking the best elements from each and focusing on flexibility, functionality and another element that Baby Boomers may find comfort in: research.
Those who tout the social office as the be-all-end-all of increasing creativity and improving the business are either ignoring or unaware of a large body of research suggesting the opposite. We know that employees of all ages have trouble working in an environment dominated by distraction and interruption. It’s important that our offices encourage casual, friendly interaction, but equally important to provide people with a place into which they can retreat.
It is possible to create an office that promotes creativity and collaboration without the presence of yoga mats and foosball tables in the middle of major circulation paths. The research of environmental psychologists tells us that human behavior can be manipulated through subtle spatial intervention, and that the design of a space has the power to increase workplace interaction even more effectively than an Xbox in the break room.
What we cannot do is consider the spatial preferences of Baby Boomers and Generation Y as mutually exclusive. Seamlessly integrating these preferences to create a space with high functionality for both user groups is the new design challenge. Diversity of space may be the key to diversity of thought, and perhaps, with diversity of employees at its peak, now is the best time to encourage that conversation.
I happen to be both a borderline Leo/Virgo and borderline Gen X/Y, so I live in a state of constant conflict on what is expected and appropriate in life. I live in a gray area. However, being a trained professional designer allows me to set aside feelings and weigh them with a balance of quantitative and qualitative analysis.
As with all stereotypes, I think stereotyping the generations is a mistake and is insulting to both Gen Y as well as the other four generations in the workforce.
Generation Y isn’t necessarily dictating the pace of change in the office environments as so much as just the growing rate of change in business processes, expectations, technology and the re-evaluation of norms in the ever-evolving economy of ideas, information and products.
Fashion and dress code are similar conversations that happen to be much more loosely defined for businesses and harder to resolve for generational differences. The office is much more than status and fashion. It’s more of a qualitative conversation.
The workplace trend that touches on all of the points above is that “choice” is becoming the new “office.” The balance of how work is done is becoming less important than what work is being done. Choice and flexibility are defined by the task at hand and employees are effectively measured by the task, so the conversation is much more about performance. That’s why most high-performing offices have fewer dedicated offices and less dedicated everything!
This helps to build confidence and freedom for creative problem solving and becomes less about the have and have-nots.
Contrary to what you might think, the one thing that Generation Y does really crave is leadership positions. This generation is defined by clear visions for work that is personally fulfilling. They like to work for meaning.
It’s hard to argue with the Generation Y diagnosis. As a Gen Yer, I absolutely prefer flexibility and work-life balance, so I would rather have enabling technology. Having a variety of work environments that address my work style is key for me to be as effective, productive and happy as possible.
Most effective place for me to collaborate and innovate with colleagues? In an area with lots of pin-up space and horizontal surfaces to lay things out.
Best place to meet my financial clients? In a very formal meeting room.
Best place to write reports? At home.
I am a typical Generation Y worker, but wouldn’t everyone benefit from an office environment that supported their work style?
What happens after Gen Y? Will the next group of enthusiastic young workers share the same ideals as this generation? History tells us they will not, though they will be adaptable.
To some extent, work styles and office culture are indoctrinated from our first day of work. We arrive and adapt as necessary and then this becomes our norm. If the office environment changes, we adapt again. Boomers and Generation Xers may not be comfortable without the structured environment in which they have spent most of their careers. Yet this does not mean that they would not find flexibility and variety in their workspace helpful. They may just need guidance.
The office environment needs to allow everyone to work effectively. “One size fits all” is an idea of the past. Changes in the workplace that only address generational shifts are short-sighted. The workplace must evolve to address the changing needs of companies, the introduction of new technology and the desire to run successful businesses.
I am a Gen Y, ‘80s kid who has worked as an interior designer and workplace consultant at four architecture/design firms in the UK since graduating in 2006. I have always worked in open plan, and in all but one of the firms, members of senior management have sat only a couple of workstations along from me. This is all I have ever known in the workplace.
Furniture and space types have changed, but not dramatically, over the last six years in the British architectural profession. In my opinion, it is managers’ attitudes toward ways of working that have experienced the most significant shift.
My first role as an interior designer was spent mostly at my (open plan) workstation, collaborating with my nearby team and occasionally attending scheduled meetings in designated rooms. Positions after that came with laptops, smartphones, desk sharing, lots of informal collaboration in various places and the very welcomed opportunity to work outside the office. I have discussed this with fellow GenYers, and the consensus is that this freedom, a tangible sign of trust, is the ultimate status symbol.
I did a short stint at a company where I sat in shared, cube-style space with my back to my team and had a desktop computer only. My day consisted mostly of being at my desk in a tightly planned space. That’s unless I was scheduled to be in a meeting room on a different floor of the building, as there were a minimal number of informal meeting settings and working away from one’s desk was not yet part of the company’s culture. Senior management worked in offices and I had very little interaction with them. I felt isolated and confined. This limitation affected me to the point where I felt like I had taken a step back in my career, regardless of my work assignments.
There are two keys to successfully evolving the workplace. The first is to offer users physical flexibility and tailor the space to suit the various needs of the four generations who will be working side-by-side for the first time in history. The second is for all to embrace the rise in communication in all its emerging forms and use it to build on the trust and freedom that comes with it.
I am lucky to be at a point where I can experience as much collaboration or quiet time as I need to work effectively, whether this is working on a presentation with a colleague at my workstation, catching up with someone from another team in the buzzing breakout area or participating in a conference call with Dubai from my balcony at home in North London. Now THAT’s engaging.
As a Gen Yer, I think it all started when our parents – intentionally or not – “programmed” us to be off the charts, active, engaged and multi-functioning individuals. When they were fully occupied as busy workers trying to climb the corporate ladder or maybe starting new businesses from the ground up so that they could provide us with better lives, there was usually no other option but to keep us occupied.
Is there a Gen Y out there who did not partake in at least one of the following activities or something similar?
- after-school tutoring
- sports practices
- video games
- theater/music performances
- summer camps
Such activities molded Gen Y into goal- and task-oriented, collaborative, fast-learning, visual and practical individuals. This is a generation that sees monotonous activities as boring and hierarchal environments as unnecessary. To us, work is an activity. In our minds, it shouldn’t matter to our employers how we work and where we work, as long as we continue to produce excellent work and exceed expectations.
For us, now is the time for social work. Gen Y has grown in the workforce, and we have different work ethics, interaction skills and work styles. Whether it is through the use of social media, technology or social activities, Gen Y is changing the way most businesses function.
In the next decade or so, Gen Y will outnumber other generations and therefore invade the workplaces. To accommodate the needs of this new generation in the workplace and to increase productivity, workplace dynamics need to change.
We all know that change is the only constant. Why not transform the business world to accommodate our needs, increasing productivity and profit margins?
I’m not convinced it’s a generational difference. I realize that the research cited in the article was quite extensive and pointed to a number of generational differences, but I don’t think that Gen Y is the driver.
This may be my bias because of my exposure – US, Bay Area – but I think that the shift in workplace trends, i.e. more “we” vs. “me” space, is a reflection of a more general societal change. People are seeking ways to get and stay connected to establish a sense of community. Since people spend about 35 percent of their days on work activities, this naturally lends itself to the workplace. We establish community by encouraging interaction, finding common interests and communicating frequently. The desire for more “we” space supports the need to have the right locations to allow a community to flourish. I also think that exposure to customization in our non-work lives – when shopping or dining, for example – is so common that our collective expectation for workplace customization is a given. Why shouldn’t I be able to work where and when I want?
As organizations start to introduce these workplace trends, employees of all generations require resources and support to fully embrace these changes and display the intended behaviors. With some guidance as to how and why these changes have taken place, along with permission from senior leadership, there should be a high likelihood of success.