Youthification of the Workplace

Youthification of the Workplace

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Lindsay Wilson
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Lindsay Wilson

Talk About It

About 7 years ago: Alfredo L.

This article was interesting, and was good to see the extent of the sample on which the referenced research was based, both geographically and generationally.
Curiously, I recently read in the DMN about a local study discussing this same issue, but with the twist that in Dallas, there seem to be many empty nesters who are relocating to uptown, downtown, near downtown; and even more unexpectedly, a much larger than expected number of young adults moving to the the Dallas suburbs. I do not have the article or its provenance at hand.
This is not meant as a criticism of the article, just an ironic difference in findings, showing again the varying degrees that can take place within a data set, or when altering the data base.

Youthification of the Workplace: Does It Really Matter What One Generation Wants?

Youthification is officially one of those terms that I had never heard—and then it was everywhere. The asleep-to-awake system of my brain was hard at work on this one as it consciously rose to the surface in many of my conversations and studies.

Digging a little deeper, I found that the term “youthification” was coined by Dr. Markus Moos at the University of Waterloo in his study of the “influx of young adults into higher density” cities and neighborhoods. Essentially, he defines youthification as the creation of some neighborhoods that are “forever young.” In effect, younger people age out of their neighborhoods as they increase their income, partner up or marry, and then start families. They move out and a new group of young, typically single people replace them, beginning the cycle again in that neighborhood.

In these revitalized neighborhoods, condominium units are designed and targeted for the younger generation who require less living space than a household with children. Trendy boutiques, live music venues, movie theaters, and restaurants appeal to millennials and GenZ, but not so much to the older generations. Moos’ research shows age groups (44-54 and 55-64 years old) move to lower-density suburbs.

So, each generation migrates to an environment suitable to their current lifestyle—at least as far as home life is concerned. But what’s happening in the workplace? According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of current U.S. Census Bureau data, more than one-in-three American workers are millennials (adults between the ages of 18 to 34), and in 2015 they became the largest part of the American workforce—surpassing Generation Xers.

It should be no surprise then that the discussion of millennials in the workplace has evolved from one of mild interest to one that is central to the discussion of workplace transformation and employee retention. What do millennials want?

Unfortunately, the conversation is often spurred by sensational images of Silicon Valley offices, or very stereotypical ideas that millennials are only interested in the “anti-office” office. Images of in-house baristas, corkscrew slides, nap pods, bicycles, and themed conference rooms would lead many to a superficial conclusion that “cool” will satisfy the millennials that all organizations desire to recruit. While fun and interesting amenities are important to corporate environments to be effective today, they must be authentic to the culture of that organization.

This development begs this question: As architects and designers, are we at risk of a similar youthification issue? Are we creating workplaces and environments so geared to the preferences of a youthful generation that workers will essentially age out of them? Or worse yet, will the mature workers who are critical for knowledge sharing and mentorship feel uncomfortable and less productive in these spaces?

One major factor dividing millennials from GenXers and baby boomers is the open office environment. A growing body of research shows workers in open office settings experience more uncontrolled disruptions, higher amounts of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation than those in standard enclosed offices. Couple that with the fact that older workers were raised on the theory that private and larger work space were earned through tenure or through contributions and achievements. The opportunity to get larger offices was a motivating factor in their job performances.

Photo credit: Kurt Griesbach

While some senior workers struggle with the change to an open environment later in their careers, millennials often thrive in a group-oriented environment where they can socialize and feel connected to their co-workers. Although, let’s face it—distractions from heads-down work aren’t age-specific.

How do architects and designers address these disparate preferences and challenges? Should the type of work and desired results drive the workplace more than the physical age of the inhabitants? Isn’t technology changing the nature of work too fast to rely on generational preferences? Perhaps it’s actually much more of a combination of organizational culture and the individual’s work style that make up your generation than it is your actual birth year. Maybe this writer is just a frustrated millennial trapped in a GenX body.

This dilemma is a real one. “I have a current client with two decision-makers exactly the same age with completely different wants from their work environments,” said Allison Arnone, principal workplace strategist with HDR. “It’s our job as designers to provide data and evidence about how people work now and project their needs for the future.”

Good design needs to be rooted in supporting the work, business objectives, and culture of an organization. How can designers best provide the spaces and tools needed to allow employees to do their work effectively and efficiently? Despite this age of the pop-up shop—and as “fun” as it is to make a 1950s Airstream trailer into a conference room (and it is fun)—the designs of our offices, schools, health care facilities, and institutions need to extend beyond the millennials and GenZers. Clients are asking for designs not only for the multiple generations currently in the space, but for the three or four generations that will follow. The goal is to create spaces about the work—not about the age of the people using the space.

Photo credit: Kurt Griesbach

Designers and architects must focus on the needs of the individual organizations, and the basic preferences of all workers should be tightly married to the policies and cultures of each company and institution. The relationship between real estate and human resources should be knitted together much more tightly in order to support the organization and reflect the culture more accurately. What do workers really want? Work-life balance, the ability to have flexible hours, the opportunity to advance, and an environment that promotes and supports collaboration are at the top of the list.[i]

Brad Blankenship, executive managing director, Cushman Wakefield, said, “I am a boomer but I hope to plan our next office in a way that doesn’t match my age. We have hard-walled offices both interior and exterior. The only time I can spontaneously interact with my team is if we walk in front of each other’s offices. In our next space, I need visual and audible contact to manage the rapid-fire pace of our business. Give me a millennial workspace without the skateboards or dog park, please.”

As these individuals prove, neither generation is putting playful amenities at the top of their list of requirements for a satisfying work space. While those extras may be fun to have and light up a recruiter’s eyes, if the culture doesn’t embrace it, the team ends up with a slide collecting dust, an empty game room, or a nap pod full of banker’s boxes. None of these will attract a millennial worker, a GenZ worker or GenXer to the workplace.

Allowing employees to work in a way that is comfortable for them and allows them to be productive, whether working individually or collaborating, is of utmost importance. Flexible hours aren’t solely the prerogative of millennials. More senior staffers find a little more freedom goes a long way toward increasing their satisfaction on the job and even delayed retirement.

Photo credit: Kurt Griesbach

In fact, my own father, Jack Case, a 60-something working for a global technology company that has embraced flexible hours and remote work, fits this bill. He said, “Having a virtual work environment makes it easier to be connected across various time zones from the comfort of my home office and encourages me to continue working beyond normal retirement expectations, with the added benefit of sharing knowledge and experience with younger associates.”

Preferences and evolutions in work due to technology are supremely important today as well. The nature of work is changing. Variety and choice within the workplace has proven successful in addressing the diverse needs of work and work styles. Having the technology to support a “work anywhere” mentality is foundational. But having a management culture that supports each employee’s ability to truly work anywhere without casting doubt on her or his work ethic? That’s what makes it successful.

The practice of detailed or enhanced programming has never been more important to the project process. There is often a rush to put pen to paper or mouse to screen as it were. Project schedules are tighter than ever before, but if designers want to provide solutions that address the complex and rapidly changing needs of the organizations and institutions that they are designing for, they must help their clients understand that generational labels and research are important factors, but they do not replace a deep understanding of the culture, mission, values, and business goals of their organizations.

Form still follows function, and the highly sought-after millennial employee doesn’t follow the ping pong table.

Lindsay Wilson, RID is an executive managing principal at Corgan.


[i] Survey Methodology: This survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of Ernst & Young, within the United States between November 20, 2014, and January 14, 2015, among 9,699 adults aged 18–67 who are full-time employed across a variety of companies in the U.S., U.K., India, Japan, China, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. Roughly 1,200 each were surveyed in the U.S. (n=1,208), UK (n=1,202), Germany (n=1,209), India (n=1,219), Brazil (n=1,208), Mexico (n=1,206), Japan (n=1,228), and China (n=1,219). For each country, the respondents included: 400 from GenY (ages 18-33); 400 from GenX (34-49); and 400 from baby boomers (50-68). This includes 100 parents/non-managers, 100 parents/managers, 100 non-parents/non-managers, and 100 non-parents/managers.