Beyond the Millennials

Nicola Woods | 23 July 2019

With different generations wanting different things, workplace design is in a state of flux. OBI’s Nicky Woods looks at who’s driving the market and how things are changing

Workplace design feels like it’s never been so dynamic. There have never been so many possibilities, but there have never been so many challenges either.

The pace of technological change over the last 25 years has led us to a place where people only separated by a few years may think, operate and live their lives very differently – meaning their expectations of a workplace, and the kind of environment that allows them to thrive, can be very different.

There are now a lot of businesses with five “generations” of employees working for them. In that position, you’ve got to provide something that works for the last of the Baby Boomers, big on face-to-face meetings, small on tech; Generation X, still mostly self-contained and disliking micro-management; through to Generation Y and the Millennials, if not the first digital natives then totally tech-savvy; and now Generation Z. All have to be factored into design thinking.

It’s my belief that Generation Z has been the one driving this change in the most noticeable way, as their priorities have subtle differences from their older counterparts. Previously, salary has been out in front as the main priority. Maybe it was the 2008 crash that led to a change from young professionals being led by the “steady salary-mortgage-property ladder” school of thought. Certainly, a more fluid and uncertain job market has played a part. 


Because it is job security and enjoyment of work that are now the primary drivers, meaning that health and wellbeing move up the list of priorities. And while it’s true to some extent that “they’ll adapt to the way we work” holds true, smart employers know only too well the talented people they want will always have options – the war for talent is relentless.


And this is only going to shift again when the next generation comes into the workplace – Generation Alpha. Something I am predicting is how this next generation will be concerned with a company’s carbon/green footprint before they choose to work for them, as they are very passionate about the environment. And due to the talent becoming more and more competitive their demands will be heard. They will look at a company’s core values to make sure they chime with their own. 


With all this in mind, how do businesses create the workspace that works for them?


Making sure that communication is clear is a good starting point. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean following open-plan just because everyone else does. Everyone’s business has a different culture, so design to yours. Do you need collaborative areas? Areas where discretion, or total privacy, are required? Do you express your core values to make your future employees understand the business from day one?


One of the big challenges is around emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, and perceive the emotions of others. Judgment, you might say, ‘being good with people’. It’s not something Gen Z as a grouping is strong at, so how do you help things along?


Spaces for wellbeing, relaxation and recreation can help – meditation spaces are on the rise, with a 25% increase in the US, while game rooms have grown by a fifth. Where possible, outdoor work/recreation spaces are a huge plus. Small companies who can’t fit this into their own space should be looking for a base where they can tap into such shared facilities.


Tackling emotional detachment and adding workplace clarity are the goal, and Google and Apple are among companies that have introduced mindfulness programmes. Workplace design plays a huge part in mindfulness, helping employees be calm and present in the moment – quiet areas, meditation rooms, tech-free zones, introducing biophilic design.


Some cynicism will always remain, but reduced absenteeism and greater productivity are the results for those who’ve bitten the bullet and invested.

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