How to Design Workplaces for Humans, Not Generations

It’s time to move beyond Millennials, and design for human beings.

By now we’ve all heard about how Millennials are the fastest growing generation in the workforce. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 Millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, surpassing the 53 million Gen X’ers with a staggering 56 million people working or looking for work by 2017. That’s just over one third of the workforce population. In response, companies are making major real estate and policy decisions based on what they think Millennials want, with the sole purpose of recruiting and retaining the best possible talent.What does this all mean for the workplace of the future? For one thing, it means we’re looking at four to five different generations in the workforce and current, trending mainstream office design is disregarding 65 percent of them. What about those 53 million Gen X’ers who at present hold 51 percent of leadership roles in companies across the globe? And who’s designing for the 25 million Baby Boomers, also holding much of the decision-making power, who are still going strong well into their 60s and 70s? And then there are the 5 million-and-growing new-to-market Generation Z’ers (whom it seems we’re now calling iGeneration?) coming out of schools today fully-equipped with technical know-how? Many workplace articles—and, more generally, business op-eds—written today push design catering to those of us born between 1981 and 1996 with a seeming disregard for the other, larger two thirds of the population. But, we need to design for people of all ages, not just the slight majority.

One of the most frequently named generational dividers is technology. So much so that it’s now a common trope that Millennials can intuitively find a fix to any techy issue while Gen X has little hope of catching up. However, in some cases Gen Xers are far more adept at fully integrating apps and other digital tools into their professional lives than Millennials and one reason for this may be because Gen Xers had to make an active effort to stay on top of relevant technology that help them in their jobs, for fear of getting left behind. By contrast, many millennials grew up with apps and social media that may provide them native digital fluency socially, but may not spur them to seek out the skills needed professionally. This is just one example of how generalizations about generational differences can lead to limited, if not outright inaccurate, views into what professionals need and want out of their workplace to perform at their best.Workplaces should never cater to one particular age group, gender, race, or any other label society decides to create. Instead, to create a successful workplace, design must move beyond generalizations to support what it takes for employees to get a job done and a job done well. Good workplace design must support both current and, more importantly, desired behaviors—like collaboration, interaction, invention, or production—today and into the future. After all, a truly successful and diverse workplace is, categorically, age-agnostic.

Designing for Tasks & Behaviors

When you take age out of the equation of how to do your job successfully, you’re left with tasks and behaviors. What tasks do I need to complete, and how do I want to go about completing them? What and how. These are the questions we ask to help inform designing a productive workplace. (We also ask Who, but that answer is company-specific.) When we ask about tasks, we want to know what things you do on a daily or weekly basis. Do you have routine assignments or do they vary frequently? Is your work predictable or is it sporadic, constantly changing and evolving? Or it is, more often than not, both? This leads us to understand how you, as individuals and, more broadly, as an organization, behave at work. Moreover, this line of inquiry allows us to venture beyond how you are behaving today in order to understand and seek out how you want to behave in the future. Are you a heads down, extremely focused company, or are you constantly buzzing with collaboration? Those options are, of course, the extremes of a circular spectrum in which many companies fall somewhere in the middle—and which are not mutually exclusive—but they give us a sense of what kind of organization you are and how you need to be operating to stay successful.

In today’s highly mobile, technology-enabled workplace, understanding the complex ways that teams collaborate in person and across distance is the key to right-sizing office solutions. Many legacy office spaces see closed private offices sit unused as executives travel, while staff scramble to find places to meet. When clients can design their offices, today, they have an opportunity to support existing work norms and inspire new behaviors via design.

Through our experience, we’ve found companies always blend a healthy mix of both focused work and collaborative activity, allowing their employees to be incredibly productive individually while, simultaneously, extremely innovative collectively. We have come to find the balance of time spent doing one kind of work versus the other is not necessarily defined by age but more so by role and responsibility, as well as personal preference and skillset. For one person, a perfectly ergonomic workstation in an open office setting near their team might be the best place to complete a specific task while someone else may prefer a lounge seat in an isolated nook near a window, while still others need to phone in from another location. This may also depend on whether the task needs to be done on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday afternoon, or whether it needs to happen for an immediate deadline or can slowly progress over time. These variables and scenarios are why providing a variety of work settings to choose from is paramount to the success and productivity of an employee or team.

Where Workplace Archetypes Come into Play

One global technology company that we recently worked with wanted a mix of open and enclosed spaces for both active collaboration and quiet focus. In order to understand how best to balance these needs, we went straight to the source of the request: the workers. We surveyed their entire workforce, held smaller focus groups, and researched their existing data and metrics to craft a portrait of their organization. We found they had very distinct modes of working, and quickly concluded their workforce was comprised of three different Workplace Archetypes:

  • The first was the Soloist-Style, someone who spent at least 60 percent of their time inside the office and at their desk. This archetype needed a fully-equipped, ergonomic workstation supporting two monitors and a layout surface with minimal visual and audible distraction, while still having a few places, nearby, for ad-hoc brainstorming and problem-solving sessions with team members.
  • The Mixed-Style, conversely, was a second archetype who also spent at least 60 percent of their time in the office, but was away from their desk for much of the day, far more collaborative, and constantly interacting with people and teams. This group didn’t require all of the components of a full workstation like the Soloist, but instead needed a home-base to pop into and out of during the day to complete quick task-based assignments between meetings. Additionally, their workstation might need space for a visitor to sit and have a conversation as opposed to the dual monitor setup deemed necessary by the Soloist.
  • Finally, there was the Mobile Mixed-Style, a cohort that was in the office less than 40 percent of their time, spending the bulk of their work week traveling between multiple sites and offices. This archetype didn’t require a workstation at all, and instead wanted touchdown spaces throughout the office where they could perform a mix of focused and collaborative work.

Diving deep into how different people prefer to work to perform their daily tasks and the kinds of spaces that support their work styles enables program and design decisions to better support productivity and and cultural goals. Regardless of age, tenure, or level at this tech company, the employees within these Workplace Archetypes typically worked in a similar fashion.

One of the most interesting takeaways that came out of analyzing these Workplace Archetypes was that they crossed lines of age, tenure, and title throughout the organization. Instead, what differentiated the Workplace Archetypes were the roles, responsibilities, and tasks of individuals and departments. For example, the Soloist-Style performing mostly heads down-work was comprised of researchers, analysts, and developers whereas the Mixed-Style was more a combination of managers, tech support, and operations. Regardless of age, tenure, or level in the company, the employees within these Workplace Archetypes typically worked in a similar fashion.

There are certainly truths to some of the generational trends being discussed today—or the stereotypes wouldn’t stick. But we are here to design spaces that support business functions and operations, and that charge, at the end of the day, relies on understanding of needs based on employee behavior, not demographic label. Space should be used to attract and retain talent by showcasing a collection of work styles to make a successful company. Keep your employees engaged with choice, variety, and options to do their best work how they want, when they want by making spaces amenable to all generations in your organization. It’s time to move beyond Millennials, and design for human beings.

 

Article from WorkDesign Magazine by Meredith McCarthy images courtesy of Sasaki
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