HR & Management

Things to have in mind when designing an office for millennials

9 min read

18 August 2016

Greedy, wasteful, self-absorbed, and that’s just how millennials describe themselves. Those born between 1980 and 2000 have taken a lot of flak in recent years, and it seems the negativity has been internalised. In reality though, millennial workers have a lot to offer.

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They believe innovation can be learned and repeated, are on track to become the most educated generation in history, and are “digital natives in a land of digital immigrants”, according to Pew Research.

Whatever your views, some predict they’ll make up 75 per cent of the global workforce by 2025, so it’s probably best to get on their good side.

Large scale surveys from Deloitte, PwC and others suggest millennials approach work differently. To support the collaborative, values-based culture they’re seeking, the workplace itself must also evolve.

With this in mind, here are five office design tips to help attract and retain millennial talent:

(1) State your mission

Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, based on almost 7,700 interviews, reveals that the next generation are looking to derive a sense of meaning from their work. In fact, when they evaluate job opportunities, meaning, purpose, societal impact and reputation are among the top factors they’re looking for.

To attract millennials, businesses are often advised to design a space that expresses their culture or brand. The advice is useful, but young workers are actually after something much deeper: you need to state your mission.

What does that look like? Take some inspiration from Adobe’s Utah campus. Designers have incorporated street art, typographic designs and continual references to computer graphics and technology.

The result achieves more than simply matching brand colours or including logos. Adobe have found a way to state their mission, using design to tell a story and echo their unique place at the juncture between technological innovation and artistic disruption. That’s a powerful narrative.

On the next page, find out how different spaces play a part in appealing to millennials and what the benefits are.

(2) Be flexible

Numerous surveys, including Deloitte’s, show that millennials value flexibility. Traditional office design, which all too often relies on a straightforward one-size-fits-all layout, is poorly equipped to meet that demand.

In today’s volatile, digital world, employees are asked to take on a range of activities, from solo, focused work to creative group meetings, all in a single day. Ask the question, how is your office organised? Does it provide the perfect space for each task?

If your staff are fixed in space according to the arbitrary lines of department, it might be time to reconsider.

For games developer Valve, office design is a critical part of its organisational structure. The business relies on the principle of self-organisation. Staff aren’t directed by managers; instead, teams form organically based on the need to complete a feature or game component.

The whole system is made possible by movable desks and freight elevators, which mean employees can move quickly to form groups on any floor of the building.

Clearly, that’s not a model for every business. Yet, it beautifully demonstrates one law of office design: space defines behaviour. If you expect your team to be flexible, and you hope to attract millennials, who respond to varied interactions, you must design an office that supports these behaviours.

Is technology more important than money when it comes to keeping top talent?

(3) Promote collaboration

Twice as many millennials are “very satisfied” with professional development when there’s a high level of collaboration. As Deloitte points out, that’s important because professional development satisfaction is one of the strongest indicators of millennial loyalty.

Promoting collaboration isn’t simply a matter of going open-plan – designers and psychologists are now warning against the dangers of the open office. It’s about creating a space that supports the free flow of ideas, helping people share these as quickly and effectively as possible.

Stanford’s d.school is a space built iteratively over half a decade to develop new prototypes for collaboration. Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, its designers, are full of powerful and actionable ideas for promoting collaboration.

They encourage popular techniques like team breakout areas and movable furniture, but they also ask you to consider the effect of posture on team interactions, or status symbols on the willingness to share ideas.

In essence, it’s important to think deeply on precisely how your space will encourage collaboration. Does placing all your staff in a single room really allow people to communicate as you hope?

On the final page, check out the remaining two tips which include recognition of privacy and how to break the rules.

(4) But don’t neglect privacy

A little privacy is not the enemy of collaboration. In fact, Witthoft emphasises that when there’s “the extreme of a lot of collaboration, you also need the extreme of a hiding place, or a place to find respite, or a place to do work in for long periods of time.”

Balance is as important to your millennial hires as to your seasoned veterans. Though the young might be more open to disruptive group spaces, designers are now describing a privacy crisis that affects us all. A Steelcase survey found that, of the mere 11 per cent of respondents highly satisfied with their work environment, the ability to concentrate easily meant more to employees than being able to freely express and share ideas.

As a provider of workplace solutions, you’d expect Herman Miller to get office design right, and they don’t disappoint. Their team have imagined ten different work settings, with each “optimised for purpose, character and activity”.

For example, a “Haven” is a private space that facilitates focused work, while a “Clubhouse” is a base for teams working together.

The company’s workplace archetypes provide a valuable model to all designers. Create a variety of spaces, collaborative and private, that’ll aid the task at hand. Whether it’s enclosed furniture, quiet regions or staff lockers, be sure to reaffirm your dedication to privacy.

Five millennial myths and six personality traits your business should be aware of

(5) Break the rules

In a YouGov poll, innovation was the top word millennials chose to describe the kind of culture they want to see in business. What does that mean for office design? Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

Google’s original New York office, like so many Silicon Valley tech firms, features pool tables, arcade machines, scooters and all other forms of whimsy. The playful office is now so commonplace that its innovative origins are often overlooked. Return to the earliest days of Google and you’ll see that same playful attitude on show.

In truth, it’s not the slides or ping pong tables that bring gaggles of talented young people to Google’s door. It’s their willingness to break the rules, to develop entirely new workplace paradigms that express the company’s perspective. That’s no easy task, but if you hope to convince millennials of your unique purpose, doing things differently is the ultimate start.

Tom Brialey is the owner of Action Storage

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