By T. Patrick Donnelly
A lot of ink has been spilled about Millennials, their “unique” characteristics, and how best to attract, engage, and support them in the workplace The research is vast, and viewpoints are abundant. We at BHDP Architecture have done our own deep-dive, engaging Millennials in a semester-long “self-discovery” class at the University of Cincinnati (see the sidebar below for details).
Based on our research and experience, we have come to believe the best way to think about Millennials, their needs, and their impact on workplace design is to think about them a lot less. To us, it makes more sense, instead, to look at employees overall and develop strategies for engaging them based on where they are in life. As Adrienne Rowe, workplace strategist at Fidelity Investment, asserts, “Generations can be a useful conversation starter in many cases, but these definitions are less useful for much of the practical work of real estate and meeting associates’ life needs.”
A Life Stage Strategy
Demographers like to uncover, classify, and name groups: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials. It’s what they do. But it’s not what corporate real estate, human resources, and workplace design people do. We deal with living, breathing, changing organisms called organizations — made up of all kinds of individuals, juggling all kinds of life events, needs, and desires.
The “perfect” workplace would understand this and be able, via sensors and other technology, to “see” how employees are interacting with their environment, then be amenable to modification in close-to real time. (See: “The office experiment: Can science build the perfect workspace?”, from Nature, 2016)
We’re not there yet. But we do know that employees at certain stages of life have typical requirements and expectations of work, and face predictable work/life challenges. Some of the more obvious, according to Rowe of Fidelity, are single employees who want ways to socialize at and after work, or new mothers who have specific needs such as mother’s rooms. And, these life stages do not necessarily align with arbitrary generational groupings.
Here are five distinct, easily recognizable life stages of workers, with brief descriptions of each and a list of workplace characteristics:
These groupings shown above are functional, characterized by action, rather than assumed generational preferences. Five groups may be too few. The list doesn’t include non-traditional workers such as parents entering or re-entering the workplace after raising a family or those seeking the flexibility of part-time work because of other commitments.
It also important to remember that life stages don’t have to be linear progression. As Rowe of Fidelity points out, some parents of grown children may have grandchildren living in the home. They may have the needs of older employees closing in on retirement as well as a young family. The challenge for a truly successful life stage approach to workplace design is dedicating the necessary resources to identify and understand the typical life stages that exist uniquely in each organization.
Implications For Workplace Design
If we focus on employees according to their life stages, not their generations, what are the consequences for workplace design? First, flexibility and choice move to the fore. If you’re trying to create spaces that engage and empower people who are focused on everything from self-definition to balancing commitments (work, family, community) to workplace stability, environmental versatility is key.
Versatility doesn’t just mean providing different types of workstations and meeting spaces with various furniture configurations. It’s a business strategy that must be integrated across human resources, information technology, and operations.
The Perils Of Obsessing About Millennials
Because Millennials have been joining the workplace in force over the past 15 years, it’s natural for real estate and human resources professionals to focus on them. But, in addition to not being the optimal approach to workplace design, we think this emphasis on Millennials actually presents long-term organizational risks.
As we’ve noted above, the generational focus can obscure the fact that employees have lives, and life experiences influence how people engage at work. Also, fixating on one generational group has the danger of skewing workplace designs, making them more inflexible, and alienating other groups of employees in the process.
Consider the latest and greatest tech workplaces. We’ve all read the articles about the play areas and assortment of social spaces, the themed conference rooms, the gourmet cafeterias, the lavish perks, the design-your-own workstation, and work-from-where-you-want approach. (See this article.) There are a lot of good things happening in these spaces, especially all of the flexibility and data-driven elements. There are also limitations. These workplaces are built to recruit, retain, engage, and empower two primary kinds of employees: software engineers and ad sales people. They emphasize younger workers — how many 50-year-old software engineers do you know? And, they’re designed to capture and keep employees on site.
That’s fine when workers are primarily young, single, and interested in experimenting with their jobs and building a community at work. But what about 20 years from now when these same workers are more interested in stability and order and commitments outside of work such as family and community. How will these spaces work for them? And can they evolve as their workers do?
Our Research On Millennials
At BHDP, we realize that no matter how much we stress the importance of thinking about life stages, Millennials will still be a concern for our clients. After all, by 2020, they will account for half of the workforce. So, what did our research with undergraduates at the University of Cincinnati actually tell us about them and the key strategies for meeting their needs?
While conducting our research to characterize Millennials, what struck us most was not how different they are from older generations of young people entering the workplace but how similar. They seek fulfillment at work, connection to a greater good, and a sense of community and collaboration, just as their parents did at that stage in life. Millennials may be more passionate and outspoken about these values, but those are difference of quantity, not of kind.
As Fidelity’s Rowe says, “With respect to designing spaces and amenities in the workplace, we observe that most individuals have the same essential priorities. They want places to collaborate, focus and socialize with colleagues. Flexibility and autonomy are universally important. Everyone loves an airy, naturally lit environment. They all want to learn, adapt and perform their best work.” Generational definitions can get in the way of this commonality.
Even the Millennials’ oft-noted familiarity with and immersion in communications, media, and digital technologies is hardly a unique generational trait. The rise of technology and the speed and ready access to information has impacted everyone, allowing all workers to stay connected like never before, unbounded by location. This is a fundamental change with huge consequences for the future of work. The rise of more agile, and mobile, workplaces — and the challenges and strategies for making them really function — will be the topic of our next article.
Donnelly is an architect, owner, and client leader with BHDP Architecture, headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. Established in 1937, BHDP designs environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results for clients by thinking creatively, staying curious, fostering collaboration, and delivering excellence. Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com.