Millennials and Office Environments

Millennials generally get a bad rap as a poor generation of office workers: demanding, under performing, and over entitled. That said, I am generally considered one of them (although I am in the oldest of the bracket and can sometimes be considered a young Gen Xer) so I’m often intrigued by Millennials and their treatment.

In a meeting the other week, I met with a gentleman who travels the country and visits different workplace environments as part of his job with the International Facility Management Association (IFMA). He had an interesting comment on it that caught my attention. Of course, like it or not, Millennials are the young talent in the workplace and savvy companies to need to attract and retain that talent.

To paraphrase, he stated that Millennials are looking to have a smaller workstation.

That particular phrasing struck me as counter intuitive. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between the traditional partitioned cubicle workstation (often an 8 ft by 8 ft nominal footprint with worksurfaces on 2 sides and as much storage as can be fit) and the new wave wall-less benching workstation (generally as small as 4-6 ft wide with 1 worksurface and minimal storage). I had been starting to think that the natural solution for most offices was a balance between the two; a need for partitions between users at a visually restrictive height and a smaller space and moderate storage. My colleague’s statement suggested I was being too generous and the Millennials are drawn to employers providing the most modest of spaces; definitely something that runs counter to the assumptions that Millennials are a needy, demanding lot.

I asked for him to further describe the trend he was discussing. He did; what he has been seeing, even in the most traditional of companies is a shift from a focus on individual spaces and towards more collaborative environments. That lounge and meeting and cafeteria spaces and their amenities are of a greater importance to young talent/Millennials and a shift towards more focus on these spaces is more likely to attract and keep this workforce.

The statement also suggests that despite popular opinion to the contrary, that Millennials know there’s no free lunch. That bigger, more lavish café/lounge is offset by a smaller personal space. The other hand in this relationship is work transportability and technology. The young generation knows if they get a small space, but are issued a company laptop, maybe they can do some of their work sitting in that café/lounge (or at home).

This actually dovetails perfectly with my husband’s recent experience moving offices. He just transferred jobs internally with his company and moved to a new office across town. Like me, my husband is the oldest bracket of Millennials and after years in a standard issue cube he was hesitant about his move to a benching system with no walls, no privacy and no space for his personal reference library. A month in and he is happy with his desk. The trade off for cutting edge conference rooms, huddle rooms, free coffee in the break room is all worth it to him and despite his concerns over the noise (a worry prior to the move), I haven’t heard any complaints. Granted, the other part of the trade is a boss that lets him work remotely. As I type in my more standard issue cube, he is working from home today. The flexibility of his ancillary spaces is well worth a small personal space for him.

The trend towards collaborative and more relaxed space has been gaining a groundswell in the last few years and really has taken the commercial environment on. If my colleague’s assessment is anything to go by this is a coming wave and one that will not reverse.

Design Hack

In seeing an article titled How to “Hack” Workplace Design splashed across my inbox, I was immediately intrigued and trepidacious.  As a designer, the thought of someone “hacking” my work is deflating. Generally my colleagues and I do considerable research into a client’s needs and office culture to consider the needs of an end user in our work. We both ask the client what they need in storage, space, size, and technological components and take that into account when designing workspaces. To have someone else “hack” them after all that might suggest we’re unnecessary or missing the mark.

In reading the article I found my assumptions about it were wrong. This was not a criticism of designers, but a panel discussing way to embrace individuality, flexibility and universal design in workplace environments. Providing a space for all the staff is one thing. Providing a space for all staff that gives them the opportunity to tailor the space to their unique needs is another. It goes back to the need for personal space and personalization. This is about energizing new ideas and collaboration with end-users in a way that is flexible and engaging.

It suggests that designers need to look beyond the components of modular cubical systems and stretch the capabilities of these systems to their edge-points and push for further opportunities. It makes me think of Ikea Hackers, a website that shows off folks who take the modular components of Ikea Products and tweaks them for new or ingenious solutions. Some improve on the existing product in its original use. Many take a product and use it for a completely out-of -the-box solution.

How the Office became what it is today

In commercial environments we often grapple with tough questions regarding productivity, technological integration, and (now more than ever) employee satisfaction and well being. Due to the speed of ever-changing technology, the shape of workplace environments are in a constant state of flux. The days of cookie-cutter office solutions are over if they ever really existed.

At a time where there is a constant need to move forward, we do occasionally need to look back on where we came from to get here. Not only are office changing now; but they have been doing so for the past century.

This Stylepark article provides a nice overview of commercial space history and some of the factors, individuals, and technologies that have driven the change in commercial environments.

Homes and the IBC

I’ve recently come to understand a universal truth about people and the perception of interior spaces. There’s an odd dichotomy between the way we (I include myself in this) think about our homes in comparison to other spaces and the way the code books (and therefore the education of Architects and Designers) treat our homes compared to other spaces. The short version is that while most people think of their home as the most important space in their life, the code books give residential spaces, as a category, much less attention and consideration than they do other spaces. So while our residences have an importance of a 10 to us, the International Building Code (IBC) probably would rate your home about a 3 in importance.

When you consider the purpose of these codes it makes sense. The books are written and then referenced into law to protect the health safety and welfare (much of this is related to protecting people in case of a fire) of the largest number of people possible. They express a minimum level of risk in an environment that the public, any public, should be exposed to (without the need for signing a disclaimer, like you do before engaging in more risky activities, like a paintball arena). Because codes are written to avoid risk to the public, it is more concerned with and spends a lot more time codifying large spaces with lots of people, and how to get them out of a building safely in case of a fire. It’s a matter of scale. Getting thousands of people out of a hospital in the event of a fire is a lot more challenging than getting a family of 5 out of their home. While avoiding fires in both buildings is preferable, the number of chemicals and flammable objects in the hospital is more strictly controlled because the ramifications of a hospital ever having a fire can affect so many more people.

This isn’t so suggest your home isn’t important. It is. Your home is probably the only space in your life where you have complete (or almost complete) control over the space: what and who is allowed in, where things are located, the overall feel, colors and cleanliness of the space are whole yours. There are good reasons that our homes are our most important spaces. I only mean to suggest when a designer is helping you to pick, lets say drapes, they come from a world with oodles of rules and codes governing drapes in a hospital; none of which apply to a residence. You can construct a drape made of matchsticks (could be pretty cool in a the sense of making a woven material from small sticks). It wouldn’t be advisable but there’s no one to stop you.

The bottom line is when I’m asked about the appropriateness of a material, like a type of carpet, for someone’s home, I usually have to go research the material proposed. Because while I may know straight off that I would never use that carpet for a hospital (solution dyed nylon with a moisture barrier backing all the way!), I often have to double-check its properties to know if its good in a home. Odds are, it’s probably fine.