Designing Across Generations

A peek inside the modern office will tell you all you need to know about the evolution of the typical workplace. Rigidly aligned cubicles, closed-off office suites, stodgy conference rooms and break rooms with nothing more than a coffee maker, water cooler and small seating area are increasingly uncommon. Sure, they still exist, but on the whole, today’s offices have transformed to keep pace with today’s workers. And, if you haven’t noticed, they look vastly different than before–and by that I mean both the physical spaces as well as the employees that occupy them.

The change began a decade or more ago with the influx of dot-coms, technology start-ups and social media pioneers. Innovators and creative types were the first to embrace the idea of collaborative spaces, open floor plans, over the top amenities and a workplace that made its workers, well, feel right at home. Over time, others followed suit and this office model became increasingly attractive to an entire generation of workers affectionately known as Millennials.

Soon this generation began to enter the workforce in great numbers, taking over where Generation X left off. The Millennials had their own expectations; they sought flexibility and transparency. In order to attract this set, businesses (and the architects they hired to design their offices) responded accordingly. Now, the informal, interactive office is no longer novel–it’s part of the landscape. Companies seeking to keep rising real estate costs in check have embraced the idea, as it allows for increased density and multiple uses of individual areas–a wise financial move in a time of protracted economic flux.

While I’m all for looking forward, I caution the tenants I design for to step back and take in the whole picture. Sure, it is important to create an office that will appeal to tomorrow’s worker, but not at the expense of alienating the generations that came before, many of whom make up management teams and are part of the company’s existing fabric. They may still feel an urge for privacy and that needs to be respected. With a bit of ingenuity, it is possible to achieve the kind of balance that allows you to recruit a Millennial and retain a Baby Boomer, all within the same space and at the same time.

Concepts should be translated and refined to meet the needs of each generation and its preferred work style. For instance, conference rooms can be smartly furnished to achieve a formal meeting space or, with a bit of reconfiguration, smaller on-demand huddle areas. Cafeterias may be equipped with sleek audio-visual equipment, stored in an unobtrusive way, to allow for presentations and collaboration while still serving as a traditional place to grab a drink (albeit from a Nespresso) before returning to ones’ desk. Informal furniture can be positioned throughout the office to make it cozy, but not distracting: a win-win.

Giving strategic thought to all of the design elements–lighting, acoustics, furniture, finishes and flexibility–and how they are perceived by everyone, from senior staff to the new crop of interns, is essential. By blending the old with the new, it is more than possible to design an office that every single person can enjoy, no matter what their age.

Scott E. Spector, AIA, is a principal at Spector Group, one of New York’s premier architecture and interior design firms and a leader in corporate tenant and building owner-based design. The award-winning company has affiliate offices nationally and internationally. To date, it has completed more than 1,500 projects.

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