Age is just a number they say – but is this true when it comes to designing the perfect office? According to our recent survey of European office workers, the younger generations are more selective when it comes to office design, while older employees place more emphasis on issues like noise. We put the challenge of accommodating these seemingly conflicting workplace needs and wants to a panel of experts during Clerkenwell Design Week 2018 (CDW2018) in London.

Tarkett invited three leading voices in the built environment - Ankita Dwivedi, Senior Associate at Gensler; UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) representative Richard Francis; interior designer at Wk.space, Hannah Nardini - as well as Applied Futurologist, Tom Cheesewright. The esteemed panel discussed and deliberated the ‘future human’s’ workplace centred around four key considerations that they deemed essential to creating human-centric workplaces.

1. It’s not all about ‘Gen Z’!

The younger generations are obviously the future - but Hannah Nardini warned against being too accommodating of this group at the expense of others; forcing new ways of working where they are likely to meet resistance. Even though, she says, Gen Z (born 1995-2010) will make up 24% of the workforce by 2025, that still leaves three quarters of the workforce that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Gen Z will make up 24% of the workforce by 2025, that still leaves three quarters of the workforce that we mustn’t forget
Hannah Nardini, Interior Designer Tweet this

Simple accommodations such as not putting self-motivated Gen X’ers (born 1965- early 80s) near a photocopier or other sources of constant distraction with their strong aversion to noise, could be a short term solution. However, the differences between the generations potentially run deeper than that.

Gen Z’s biggest workplace bug bear is uninspiring and dated decor. Given the choice, they would like a collaborative space with a homely feel - while nearly a third of 55-65s, and over half of the 65+, are happy with the current look and feel of their current workplace. Being change averse - or simply happy ‘with your lot’ - as we get older isn’t exactly front-page news, however it creates interesting challenges for the office design brief.

One area where seemingly everyone is on the same page, is what they consider their ‘ideal workspace’. All office workers prefer a private office - or a quiet corner - over any other options including open plan spaces and working from home. While this is likely to be a cost-prohibitive desire for most businesses, it is clear that creating more solitary spaces for both deep thinking and creative work is essential for building self-managing teams going forward.

2. Regardless of age, people want purpose

Another important aspect of future proofing the office, and attracting the best talent, is to inspire a sense of purpose. While this may seem far removed from the art of commercial office design, the CDW panel of experts agreed that it is in fact integral to the process.

Whether aged 20, 45 or 65, everyone needs to feel motivated, engaged and - most importantly - we need to feel like we belong. While leading architects and designers recognise this and encourage clients to carefully consider how their work spaces support the organisation’s vision and values, many companies are inclined to shortcut this part of the design process.

To attract the best talent, organisations must inspire a sense of purpose.
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At CDW, Gensler’s Senior Associate, Ankita Dwivedi, started to break down how this sense of belonging - and ability to influence our environment - plays out in the workplace and what it means for employee wellbeing.

Ultimately, she says, it comes down to organisations “...striking a balance between resources and challenges, too much or too little of either makes us unwell. At workplaces this manifests as our ability to be able to influence culture and environment and is central to us feeling well.”

Circling back to the importance of creating ‘purpose’, this means having the ability to control certain aspects of our surroundings and being clear on what we’re there to do and how we can add-value. Having an opportunity to personalise our own space - or having ‘a say’ on some of the office designs are all part of meeting employees psychological needs. This may ultimately impact on their interpretation of the physical environment; how happy they feel in that space - and how productive they are working there.

3. Responding to variable working styles

Tom Cheesewright brought another dimension to the design discussion centred around the differences between generations. 

Gen Z’s are largely considered to be self-learners and free thinkers thanks to the ever accessible YouTube as their classroom. But perhaps technology is the key thing here, enabling this generation to self learn as has never been available before. As a result, their working style perhaps goes against a more traditional and hierarchical top-down approach taken by so many businesses making many organisations nervous about how to manage this emerging employee base.

While Gen Z is a generation already defined by the rise of entrepreneurs and freelancers, it doesn't mean everyone wants to float around.
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However, as Wk.space’s Hannah Nardini highlights, while this is a generation already defined by the rise of entrepreneurs and freelancers, it doesn't mean everyone wants to float around. They may be more open to working from home than any of the other age groups, however as our study shows, the right office design can play a huge role in making them - and anyone - feel at home.

Our survey found that Gen Z prefers a more homely office environment - and recognise that although they are happy to work in an agile way - they are in fact most productive in the office. If businesses can create a well-designed and nurturing environment, Hannah says, we could plausibly see a return to the Boomers’ ‘job for life’ mentality.

Meanwhile, only 5% of the 55-65 year olds prefer to work away from the office with a staggering 75% of this age group being most productive at their desk. However, while being able to get through their workload in their workplace, two fifths agreed that it ‘functions well, but doesn’t look great’.

While the different age groups seem poles apart in their office preferences, an environment designed to cater for a variety of needs would bridge the two. This could involve using clever zoning with a selection of furniture and mixture of materials to create a choice of spaces for different needs.

Perhaps it also calls for a more radical approach whereby the office incorporates a number of styles, designs and layouts within one area or throughout a building - without creating a visual car crash. By working closely with a selection of employees across the generations could make this a truly inspiring brief.

4. Ultimately, the workplace should reflect a company’s brand

The final consideration when designing for the ‘Future Human’ is that of technology - or rather social media. Platforms like Twitter, Glass Door and LinkedIn have opened up the workplace to closer scrutiny from the outside world; prospective employees, customers and prospects.

Never before have businesses’ commercial performance, culture and ‘sense of place’ been on such public display. Whether intentional or not, it is generally fairly easy to get a feel for what it might be like to work for an organisation or do business with them as an outsider.

And as technology evolves further and becomes even more embedded into our working lives, a well designed workplace that truly reflects its ethos and values increasingly becomes part of its brand. Something that the tech giants have capitalised on for some time. For the younger generation, keen to belong, this is business gold dust.

A well designed workplace indicates a focused business. One not just conscious of its future needs, but also those of its entire workforce.
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Although there are some key points of differentiation between generations, it seems regardless of age we all crave similar things from our workspace. As a result, the job of workplace designers is perhaps to design ‘human-centric’ offices, rather than age-appropriate ones.

Monomoy’s Richard Francis, an independent consultant who led the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) Wellbeing Labs, thinks this is quite straightforward.
“We need to start by talking to people about what’s bothering them. Human beings are complicated and there will never be a one-time fix. As long as you keep things fluid and keep them involved in the process then organisations will prevail in becoming more people-centric.
“Indeed, every workplace has a vast mix of people coming together. Embracing different nationalities, ages and personality types has always been a challenge - let alone wholly satisfying individual needs. But understanding what really motivates the majority has to be a good place to start.”

That’s why we’re rolling out The Great Indoors Index. So far we have surveyed 4,500 end-users to understand what matters most to them. In our report, ‘Rethinking Workplace - Part I’, we reveal how parameters including geography, demographic, sector and more impact on how we think, act and function in a workplace context.

Download the free report now for some top-level insights into what matters most to Europe’s office workers.

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Rethinking Workplace - Part I
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Ludwig Cammaert Director Design & Technical Development

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