Four Generations in Four Walls: The Challenge of Creating an Age-Neutral Workspace

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With retirement ages steadily increasing, it is expected that the majority of the UK’s workforce will comprise four generations by 2020. While this will bring the opportunity for businesses to fuse the skills and experience of their seasoned workers with the fresh approaches of the digitally orientated younger generations, it is essential that workplaces are evolved to facilitate this collaboration.

­­­In addition to fostering relationships between the generations, there’s no question the entry of millennials and Generation Z-ers into the workforce has brought a new range of requirements and expectations that businesses must also accommodate in order to attract and retain young talent. However, any alterations to the office space must also respect and support the requirements of older generation workers. According to recent research by Sodexo and Quora Consulting, a startling 67% of the workers surveyed admitted to leaving their last role because their workplace was not optimised for their needs.

The four generations of the future workforce

Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, the eldest section of the workforce is often characterised by a sense of stability and loyalty. While some view Baby Boomers as staunch traditionalists, others argue that growing up in a time of dramatic change means Baby Boomers are more open to adapting. Denise Keating, chief executive at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, supports this view, arguing that “The over-50s have seen and created more change in the workplace than any generation in the past, and far more than the stereotypically innovative millennials.”

Generation X: With almost a third having obtained a degree, this cohort is arguably the best educated and the first to have grown up with both parents working, resulting in a strong sense of self-reliance and, according to an Ernst and Young survey, are the best “revenue generators” of all the generations.

Millennials: This tech-savvy bunch, born between 1981 and 1994, are noted for their flexibility in their choices of communication. Often praised as innovative and derided for being entitled, Millennials are motivated by different factors to previous generations, such as obtaining a good work-life balance and achieving purpose beyond financial success.

Generation Z: While the impact of Generation Z in the workplace is yet to take full effect, this generation is growing up in a world of rapidly advancing technology and media, leading them to be even more sophisticated with technology than their predecessors.

The best use of space

There’s no doubting the differences in values and work practices between the generations, and maintaining an awareness of these will help forward-thinking companies consider how best to use their office space to bridge the generational gaps. Creating areas that encourage informal interaction can help foster relationships between colleagues which can help bridge information gaps.

While the open plan layout, most familiar to Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers, was heralded as a cost effective solution to encourage collaborative working, this style of office layout has declined in popularity during recent years. Ask anyone who has attempted to crunch numbers against a backdrop of buzzing discussions about X Factor, or suffered the annual office lurgy, and they will likely tell you that walls have benefits too. According to a survey conducted last year by Savills and the British Council for Offices, almost half of workers in open-plan offices were dissatisfied with noise levels. Numerous research reports echo the frustration of frequent distractions in open plan environments, with one report going as far as to suggest that the loss of productivity countered the amount of money saved by placing everyone in one room.

Despite this, many leading brands have applied the open plan concept to their own cutting edge offices. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even commissioned famed architect Frank Gehry to turn Facebook’s HQ into largest open plan space in the world. However, what makes Facebook’s 430,000 sq. ft. office stand out from traditional open plan designs is that Zuckerberg himself, along with his management team, sit within in this space. While this lack of hierarchical structure could be disconcerting for generations used to hierarchical structures, this layout choice reflects Facebook’s transparency culture. With both Baby Boomers and Millennials driven by a sense of purpose, the sense of involvement with a company’s wider aims can help boost engagement and loyalty.

It is this thinking that has led to many companies in the tech and start-up space to look for innovative ways to ensure their company values are reflected in their office design. From slides to sleeping pods, the installation of wacky and wonderful features are characterising the modern office as an adult playground. Employing this approach may appeal to fresh-faced millennials more comfortable with blurring the boundaries between work and play, but can seemingly gimmicky approaches attract older generations with a clear divide between work and home life?

Agile appeals to all ages

With mounting scientific research suggesting that sedentary working is bad for health, and issues such as poor lighting and high noise levels are reducing productivity and employee satisfaction, there’s a growing pressure on employers to implement working practices and infrastructures that promote good well-being.

According to Jeremy Myerson, the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art, “we’re moving towards what is known in the trade as activity-based working”, with a greater focus on offering employees a variety of workspaces in which they can choose to carry out their tasks. While sleeping pods may be a step too far for some, a mix of open spaces prompting collaboration and social interactions, alongside designated quiet zones, acknowledges the variety of tasks workers must carry out and gives them the flexibility to choose an environment that will best support their needs.

The agile approach to office design is undoubtedly helping businesses to better tailor work environments to suit the variety of needs of a dynamic workforce. However, ensuring employees are clear on the use and purpose of amenities is essential to creating a common understanding across generations and avoiding potential clashes arising from different expectations.

It is this common ground that should provide businesses the foundation they need in which to build workplaces that encourage communication, knowledge sharing and establish a cohesive and dynamic workforce. While there is no doubting that the entry of millennials and Generation Z has brought a new set of requirements into the workplace, we must recognise that in this age of information and rapidly advancing technology, there’s never been more choice for employers to deliver solutions that allow their workforce to adapt to change in a way that suits them.