As attracting and retaining young professionals is vitally important to corporations, there has been so much mental energy spent trying to gauge the whims of millennials. Time marches ever forward, however, and society evolves. So too must our office spaces.
“For the past 10 years, everyone has been focused on millennials and how they interact with their workspaces. This led to ping pong tables and kegerators and those kinds of extras,” said Linda Kanoski, AIA, LEED AP, managing director, interior architecture at Chicago-based OKW Architects. “The conversation should be on the next generation, Gen Z, which is just entering the workforce.”
Everyone suffers the “back in my day” speeches of their parents. But each generation does have, albeit in broad strokes, its own sensibilities. When Generation X entered the workforce, they were derided as slackers though they themselves identify as self-reliant former latchkey kids. Depending on who you ask, millennials are either job-hopping industry disruptors or global citizens with a more acute awareness of social good.
And what of Generation Z? The oldest Gen Zers were born in the mid- to late ‘90s; they are all digitally native and for many of them, their earliest memories not only include the existence of the internet, but the hyper-connectivity of smart phones. They want different things than millennials or Gen Xers or, for that matter, the boomers in the C-suite calling most of the shots. That’s why understanding those desires is imperative for companies trying to attract young talent.
Over the past decade or so, the open office concept redefined what the American workspace looks like. In the spirit of collaboration, cubicles and private offices have been decimated. Bench stations now fill many offices while huddle spaces, phone rooms and expanded conferencing facilities still provide discretion when needed. Might we actually see the pendulum swing back?
“I think people are going to value more personal privacy now,” Kanoski said. “Those collaborative spaces will potentially shrink a little bit and personal workspace will grow. I actually see footprints growing in the next few years.”
For some companies, “collaboration” may have been a bit of a smokescreen as the real incentive for knocking down internal walls was to reduce the number of square feet allotted per employee, and thus lease space. While understandable, the savings in operating expenses are single-digit percentages; the cost to replace unhappy employees requires much more capital.
If millennials were happy to work in an open, collaborative environment, that’s great but it’s also old news. If it turns out that the desires of the next generation result in increased office footprints, then companies have to cater to those desires. There’s no sense saving a few dollars on a smaller lease if you’re spending far more than that on turnover.
The cost to replace an employee can be twice their salary. If a company can avoid that added cost by giving their workers what they actually want, it provides more operating capital to be able to maybe put into a larger footprint with more private spaces.
“This next wave saw their parents lose their jobs and families lose their savings,” said Daniel Solera, marketing manager, OKW Architects. “When they go out into the workforce, they’re going to value stability, high-paying wages and good benefits more than the amenities that the previous generation put an emphasis on.”
For this reason, it’s very likely that the days are short for corporations carving out space for pinball machines and foosball tables. Office buildings will still likely maintain an amenity floor as they are key to attracting tenants (regardless of how often those amenities get used)—but individual users may start to focus on business-oriented space exclusively within their leased areas.
“This next generation is looking for more personal connection with their bosses and their colleagues. That’s why they’re not only working remotely, but coming out into the real world,” said Yong In, IIDA, RID, LEED AP, design director at OKW Architects. “As workplace designers, our discussions with the companies who want to attract them should focus on how we can design the space that way.”
This bigger emphasis on stability, mentorship and personal connections doesn’t quite square with a desire for more personal space. The office of the future may make use of more glass as a way to provide sightlines while preserving privacy.
Diversity is another one of those social mores that can have reverberations into our physical space. Generation Z is much more accepting of gender fluidity, an issue that meets real estate at the crossroads of the communal washroom. Who gets to use which washroom is no longer a political hot potato if offices switch to single-occupancy, unisex facilities. It’s a costly solution, but one that may find audience with younger employees.
“Companies that are starting to pay attention to these generational trends will be more on the cutting edge,” Kanoski said. “They’ll be ready when the Gen Z employees come in saying, ‘I just graduated college—what do you mean I don’t get a private office?’ Companies who can adapt to that as they move or renew their leases are going to be more successful.”