Assumptions about millennials are driving workplace design, but the important question is whether these assumptions are correct.

Pino Catalano

Lead Designer

11th Nov 2015

According to popular belief, we are a selfish generation: narcissistic and comfortable sharing the most private details of our lives on social media. Millennials are the generation that invented the ubiquitous, “selfie”, have short attention spans and demand to be entertained quickly and cheaply. We are the most educated cohort with 63% of millennial Americans having at least a bachelor’s degree, and the word “entrepreneurship” is a mindset, not a profession. We are fickle and hop jobs quickly, with an average tenure in a job being only 2 years. We are not the epitome of the “ideal worker”, so what attracts us to the workplace?

Growing up in the era of Tamagotchis, the dot-com bubble and the first mobile phones, I can safely call myself a technology native. The advent of Wi-Fi, instant connection to information whenever and wherever, is something I take for granted. But I wouldn’t give up one of my five senses for it - the McCann group found that 48% of my age group would give up their sense of smell for connected technology, and even more under-21 years olds would at 53%. Apparently, we’d rather Instagram that burger than be able to smell or taste it.

This translates into the idea that providing the very best technology is the way to get millennials to stay. Yes, providing computers, smartphones and tablets is enticing, but providing the infrastructure of good connectivity is far more essential. There is also an increasing trend to bring your own device to work. Over 85% of millennials currently own a smartphone, and I am no different. I would be quite happy to use my own tech at work, so having a simple and easy plug-and-play area and really good, fast Wi-Fi is all it takes to make me happy. But it’s not just myself – when the internet goes down, the whole office freezes. While we might be more aware of our dependence on connectivity, chances are the generations are equally as reliant.

In addition, I’m constantly being told my generation wants to collaborate more, be more informal and spend a significant amount of my time socialising. So how about the research that shows millennials actually do slightly more individual work than the current generations, and place highest value on concentration spaces? Gen X and Baby Boomers are equally as collaborative as millennials. It also suggests millennials wish to connect slightly more through email and formal meetings than other generational groups, while baby boomers want to use more social media in the future.

The open plan office with its constant noise and constant informal chatter is not conducive to my generation’s wish for concentration. However, the solution is not to place everyone back in cubicles or offices – people are simply reacting to what they know. Providing spaces where individuals can go to work silently and concentrate is a much more effective solution, moving away from the idea that the main workpoint provides the right type of environment for all tasks.

This choice to work flexibly – in spaces around the office, out of the office and at home – is welcome. However, I and many of my peers simply don’t choose to work at home. The most crucial thing about working at home? You have to have a home. Most of us still live with our parents, and the various distractions of siblings, free lunches and using our cramped childhood bedrooms as a workspace isn’t particularly appealing. I personally find having somewhere to go solely for the purpose of work refreshing. Four years of higher education meant more often than not my bedroom was a bombsite of papers and half-finished essays – separation of work and home was not a thing. Being physically removed from work is a kind of novelty. So for a lot of people my age, home is too distracting or they simply prefer being at a desk in the office for the social aspect.

The key message is not to focus on what a specific generation wants – the truth is we are all still individuals, with different tasks to complete and different work styles. The fact you were born in 1989 rather than 1979 does not necessarily mean your differences are generational. Choice and access might be important to a millennial, but they’re important to your staff at the moment too. Designing a well-balanced office involves talking to your staff now and considering how the workplace of today will support the culture and working practices of the future.