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November 21, 2012, by Lindsay Mullett

The Generational Spectrum at Work

If there were ever a time that different generations needed to learn to play nicely together in the workplace, it would be now. For the first time in history, there are FOUR generations working together: the Silent Generation (1929-1945), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1978), and Generation Y or the “Millennials”(1979-1997...to which I belong!). With this culmination of generations ultimately brings different workstyles, skill sets, and expectations as to the way an office should function.
So, what is it that gets the generations on each end of the spectrum motivated and what exactly are these expectations?  There are countless studies and findings that indicate the younger generation want their workplace to evoke a sense of home and social comfort, as they are more likely to merge their personal life with their worklife. Conversely, the Baby Boomers tend to place emphasis on the efficiency and function of a space and don’t mind separating personal life with work.  Millennials prefer casual "chats" on comfortable lounge furniture, while Boomers tend to desire formal meetings around a conference table.  Millennials crave open offices with shared spaces for collaboration, while Boomers like the privacy of a full height office and meeting room.   And if Millennials have it their way, the days of gathering around the water cooler will soon be replaced with gathering around the pool table in the fun room.  The list goes on as the differences pile up...
In the next 10-15 years, there will be a massive shift as Baby Boomers leave the workforce, and at that point, the workplace will be comprised primarily of the Y generation. In the meantime, how does an office design keep everyone happy? While the expectations I listed above are simplified generalizations, I’ve seen many of these thoughts echoed in design meetings as business leaders navigate the waters of creating a new space that will satisfy everyone AND contribute to their companies future success.
While branding, the mobile office, and an open floorplan are all reoccurring themes in the design of an office, the most noteworthy trend that seems to keep both sides happy is flexibility of space. Not only are dual-function spaces efficient from a square footage and growth perspective, they also assist in bridging the generational gap as they don’t limit certain workstyles. From desks that stand up, sit down, and can move to moveable walls that can create privacy or be folded open, the possibilities for flexible spaces are becoming more and more common and affordable as design solutions. Whether employees prefer working in an open lounge setting with their laptop, or a more formalized office setting at a desk, just having the choice is often key to the success of an office design in the eyes of the user.
I'm reminded of this even in our own office, as we have people of all ages, backgrounds and interests working together in one area.   While I touched on some of the differences these generations bring,  it also brings a broad range of skills, talent, and experience into one space.  An office should be designed to have all of these flourish.  As a designer, it's increasingly important to try to step into all users shoes, understand what they need to feel comfortable and assist in bridging the Generational Spectrum.