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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.