Karl / Office designer

By Karl Carty
Project Designer |

With all the focus on millennnials, you'd be forgiven for thinking that we should be designing offices for the select needs of this generation. After all, they're the future - right?

Phillip Merrick, Workplace Consultant from WKSpace joins us to uncover the truth behind millennials, and how they're surprisingly similar to the generations that came before.

When designing an office it’s important to remember for the space to be a productive environment, it's got to satisfy the needs of everyone that uses the space. The humble telephone, for example, offers an interesting look at how these different generations achieve the same result with varying levels of technology.

It also shows us the advancement of technology over time and its impact on how we work today. Boomers couldn’t make wireless calls. Their communication was static; tethered to a wall or desk to make a call. Gen X saw the arrival of the first brick-like mobile phones; Gen Y has grown up with handheld phones; and, Gen Z has only ever known smartphones with Instagram, Snapchat and a multitude of apps. While each generation has seen a vast improvement compared to their predecessor, all of these devices do the same thing; they connect people and bring them together. This, of course, isn’t too dissimilar to the modern workspace!

Who are millennials?

Research looking at generational groups and their impact on office design and culture always throws up questions about millennials. Born between 1985 and 1995, this group of Gen Y movers and shakers grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s. Stereotyped as impatient, millennials are often purported to be in constant need of gratification. Raised with technology at their fingertips and seeing first-hand its ins and outs, millennials are also known as ‘digital natives’.

The challenges millennials create in the workplace may stem from their formative years and resulting behaviours. Consider this: millennials grew up in the era of non-competitive sports days and endless encouragement to ‘be who you want to be’. As a result there’s a school of thought that this more demanding generation has entered the working world with a greater sense of entitlement. Of course this doesn’t undermine their incredible traits; they’re tech-savvy, can easily access online markets that Boomers and Gen X are unfamiliar with, and they’re more likely to be collaborative and entrepreneurial with other professional side-hustles.

What do millennials want?

A few years ago, Google revealed what they were doing with their workplace, which was seen to be a frontrunner of millennial office design. It was the ultimate big-kid workplace, complete with ping pong tables, indoor slides and bean bags. In a way it became a catalyst for other companies to take stock of how to attract and retain millennials and, essentially, how to build loyalty.

The stereotypical millennial office gets eyes rolling pretty quickly as these 20- and 30-somethings have been tainted with an ‘urban cool’ paintbrush. Their dream office has bean bags and mountains of free stuff - from breakfasts to yoga classes - to sweeten the working world. But frankly speaking, who doesn’t love a perk?

Thinking about where a millennial sits in their career trajectory, anything that may help them along financially is a huge win. This sort of workplace culture really does appeal to a millennial; it tells them they’re being looked after and they’re valued for their contribution.

The second thing a millennial is looking for is friends: a sense of community and a social scene that’ll liven up their work-life and boost creativity. Without the commitments of family life, millennials are more willing than older generations to form bonds with their colleagues which extend past offices hours into the cocktail bar or local pub.

What do millennials want from the office?

The campus experience with different areas for various activities really appeals to the millennial. This could manifest itself in a whole multitude of ways, and the combinations are endless. For example: a classroom or private space for learning, a café for socialising, a quiet room for relaxing, as well as traditional and non-traditional working stations.

Quiet, concentration spaces

One popular stereotype is older generations who may have had private offices, find the transition to open-plan working difficult, while millennials thrive in collaborative spaces. But, in reality, most people at some point throughout the day need or want to move to a quiet place without distractions. This is what we call activity-based working: having the autonomy to use a variety of different working scenarios to suit the task at hand. In activity-based working office design we always recommend quiet areas to counteract the buzz of the open-plan.

Quiet areas may take the form of small meeting rooms, furniture pods, booths, telephone nooks, or an entire zone where no noise is welcome - much like the quiet carriage on a train. One of the spin-off benefits of creating smaller areas for concentrating is more efficient use of meeting rooms. Workplace studies regularly show a mismanagement or misuse of larger meeting spaces with one person using an entire boardroom, for example.

Communal and collaboration spaces

Communal areas are super appealing to sociable millennials who want to work alongside likeminded peers. Collaborative behaviours don’t always come naturally to millennials who may spend a lot of time virtually communicating with friends online. Some may even feel more comfortable sending an email or instant message to a colleague, rather than walking over to them. Boomers and Gen X’ers are far more likely to seek face-to-face communication, which is why you’ll often see senior leaders frequently moving around the office.

Interestingly studies show the most productive combination of people is the pairing of millennials with boomers. Millennials will upskill Boomers on tech and the latest trends, while Boomers will mentor millennials on professional workplace communication, interaction and collaboration. This is why collaborative spaces are so important!

Millennials want to learn, that’s what they’re ‘in it’ for - to upskill, get feedback and find fulfilment in their chosen career path. Providing areas in your office for the mingling of different generations allows the millennials to meet these needs.

The right technology

If your tech is slow, the millennials in your office will be the first ones to complain. They want mobile tech so they can work anywhere as they’re naturally used to doing so. Fresh from a university setting, most are used to moving between different environments where all they need is a laptop, WiFi, power and a comfy chair to get things done.

Looking at telephone systems, Voice Over Internet Protocol - or VoIP - is definitely recommended, as is any platform where phone calls can be made or received using a laptop connected to WiFi. Additionally videoconferencing is a must and it doesn’t need to be premium software for day-to-day communication between teams. Many millennials revert to using mobile apps like FaceTime or WhatsApp for video calls more than they use their laptops.

Why we shouldn't design offices for just millennials

A modern office is a necessity for everyone, not just the younger generation. Office design should be about providing future-proofed spaces which support and inspire, rather than gimmicks like swings, faux grass and slides.

The ideal office is a place where all your employees are happy, comfortable and productive; where their needs are met and where they can make positive connections with colleagues. If it succeeds in doing this, the office will not alienate and stereotype generational groups; it will encourage people to share and learn from each other’s strengths instead.