by Joseph Bocchiaro III, Ph.D., CStd, CTS-D, CTS-I, ISF-C, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group
This article originally appeared in RealcommEdge Magazine’s May 2015 issue.

In 2015, millennials will become the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. Since the majority of these millennials are technologically adept, their expectations of when, where and how we work are driving thinking on future office space development. How will we accommodate the most connected generation ever?

From Harvard to Stanford, in higher education we are seeing trends toward active learning, more open work spaces and niche collaborative learning spaces. Driven in large part by new understanding of how people learn, and by rapidly evolving technologies that are influencing building design and efficiencies, how might we translate what we have discovered in higher education learning environments and apply these new best practices to the corporate workplace?

This article explores three aspects of the shifts in future employees’ behavior: 1) expectations, 2) collaboration, and 3) environmental diversity; and the preparations that can be made to maximize their productivity and satisfaction.

Expectations

Expectations of Millennials are different from the previous generations X and Baby Boomers, and how they differ depends greatly on where in the world they are from. Much has been studied and written on this topic, and higher education institutions have been among the first to adapt to the differences. The ease and familiarity that millennials have with technology on an all-day-long basis, their comfort level with social diversity and their grasp of the economic realities of survival have brought a new kind of work ethic and adaptability. The ‘entitled’ attitude seen in Gen-X that made it necessary to pamper and pander is over, as Millennials had difficulty finding jobs, know that there is global competition for those jobs, and expect to work hard. The frugality and consumerism of the Boomers is displaced by the reality of a shared economy; of renting vs. accumulation in the Millennials. Collaboration and transparency is expected: Millennials expect to understand why they are doing things, and how they fit with the big picture. Everything is interrelated, and interconnections are found on their smart devices in an instant.

With these trends in mind, university faculty have adapted by inventing new pedagogies for teaching, and this is reflected in Higher Ed architectural spaces. Facilities planners are including accommodations for the ‘flipped classroom’, and building ‘active learning’ classrooms, ‘maker spaces’, ‘collaboration spaces’ and others. Because they have adapted to these new pedagogies, millennials expect that there will be group work, sharing of research and knowledge, a requirement to communicate verbally, and constant connectivity in their workplace. Because their universities have committed to energy efficiency and possibly zero net consumption, millennials expect evidence of sustainability in their workplace. They take for granted that the previous generation has been innovating and are surprised to find inefficiencies or waste. They are familiar with green buildings, and have grown up with recycling, occupancy sensors, and programmable thermostats. They do not necessarily expect that there will be an office for them, and for some it is preferable not to have one at all.

Robert Simmons, Associate Vice Chancellor Administration at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, said, “For our UMKC Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall project, there was a lot of skepticism from faculty about the ‘active learning’ aspects of the new classrooms. We had several solid early adopters, but there were persistent concerns expressed about how many faculty would want to actually use such an environment. The results speak for themselves. It was clearly evident after the first semester that almost ALL faculty wanted to teach in these environments and that they were adjusting their course materials and structure to more fully utilize the capabilities of the classrooms.”

Collaboration

Millennials are accustomed to being collaborators, navigating their complex world of information overload and receiving multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education from their universities. They have likely learned as much or more from sharing their research with other students on projects, and likewise from learning from their peers. They are likely to view their teachers as mentors, facilitators, and wisdom-sharing guides, rather than authoritarian information deliverers. As such they embrace collaborative technologies such as portable displays with device connectivity, Unified Communication and Collaboration (UCC) platforms, and cloud-based document productivity software. The modern workplace allows for millennials who have been learning everywhere to make the transition to working anywhere. The workplace reflects the flattening of hierarchies and bureaucracies with a combination of layout, furniture, and technology.

Higher Ed architecture to meet these new approaches to collaboration is very deliberate. Active learning spaces are designed with flat, open areas to allow furniture to be moved into clusters as required by group size and purpose. Technology support includes more reconfigurable media devices, such as large displays, videoconference units, and wired tables. Floor boxes accommodate the need for power and audiovisual connectivity at these diverse locations. Maker spaces build on these ideas with concepts from workshops and laboratories included, to allow hands-on collaboration in building, experimenting, prototyping, etc. These spaces may require specialized resources such as water, gas, pressurized air, fume hoods, dust collection, etc. Students are in and out of their seats, learning by collaborating on what they have studied beforehand in the course materials in the ‘flipped’ classroom model.

The tangible output of collaborative study in Higher Ed is also going in new directions that can be accommodated in the corporate environment. Access to output devices such as 3-D printers, large-format color printers, digital cameras, and video and audio production equipment is a part of the Millennials’ multi-media world. Millennials are comfortable producing their work not just as print, but as infographics, 3-D models, and photographs, sometimes as all of these media connected in innovative ways. Millennials allow themselves to be ‘nerdy’, and recent popular culture has empowered this attitude through such television shows as The Big Bang Theory, and Mad Men. Companies such as Google that foster this attitude have gone as far as allowing employees to work on their own projects for a certain amount of time each week, in designated areas, and the work environment must allow for this flexibility!

Environmental Diversity

Environmental diversity is important to Millennials, who periodically refresh their creativity throughout the day by moving to a different space in the workplace. Technology enables the freedom to work in unexpected places, and Millennials are not comfortable or accustomed to being tied to sitting at a desk. Modern higher education facilities such as libraries are now being designed with a variety of spaces. Comfortable, relaxed seating in open areas, access to outdoor spaces, ‘nooks’ with minimal distractions for self-study, ‘huddle rooms’ for group collaboration, and ‘hotelled’ stand-up/sit-down desks or offices caters to these new behaviors. Adjustable and customizable lighting, ubiquitous high-bandwidth Wi-Fi, ample power in walls and floors, and micro-customizable HVAC allow customer engagement, research and projects to be done anywhere. UCC platforms such as Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber are enabling the technology to follow the individual, assuming that everyone can be engaged wherever they are as long as they have IT connectivity.


Netherlands
Image Courtesy of Google

Environmental diversity from a cultural perspective extends to aspects of décor and arrangement that may seem counterintuitive or odd to some facility managers. Companies are learning to accommodate design challenges such as Feng Shui, prayer rooms, smoking rooms, unisex restrooms, and preconceived notions of the relation of office size/location to hierarchical status. According to Henrik Bresman, in summarizing his landmark study of Millennials, “To attract, retain, and develop Millennial leaders, companies and managers need to take these regional differences into consideration. What matters to a Brazilian Millennial might differ from what matters to a Singaporean Millennial, which differs from what matters to an American Millennial. While it’s important to understand what’s valued in a particular culture, it’s also necessary to remember that people vary greatly within cultures. If there is one thing we know about Millennials globally, it is that they want to be seen as individuals.”1 Universities learn best how to understand these regional differences by seeking advice from student groups and faculty. Corporate facility managers may wish to create similar groups of employees and heed their advice.

The ability for Millennials to personalize their spaces is important to them, even if they do not have their own personal office or cubicle. Higher Ed facilities offer many examples of how this can be achieved. It is common now to find shared spaces brimming with a blend of individuality and group-think. Write-on glass walls, expansive push-pin surfaces, post-it-note spaces, knick-knack shelves and other horizontal surfaces, and varying colored walls give a lived-in, vibrant look to many spaces. In the corporate environment these same trends may be maintained, to allow Millennials to bring their favorite sports teams, bands, celebrities, events posters, plush toys, nationalities, etc. along with them. This may appear outwardly as visual mayhem, but it is a reflection of the information overload world that they are comfortable in. Conversely, the ability to find space apart from this amped-up environment for concentration, serenity, and privacy is also important.

Educational sociologist Andy Furlong described Millennials as “optimistic, engaged, and team players.”2 This useful description informs facility planners in many ways, and is certainly a positive indicator of productivity for a corporate future. Some stereotypes about Millennials are exaggerated, and space planners need not fret about missing some trends. For example, Millennials may appear to be distracted or disengaged as they multitask and interact with their smart devices, but they are just the opposite: focusing and interacting through these enabling technologies. They have an ability to separate their work life and their personal life. They may also prefer to learn from printed documents, rather than to read everything digitally. They will respond to the same things that make any workplace functional and excellent, including positive attitudes, reasonable and effective managers, and useful work assignments. Accommodating Millennials will be positive for all age groups in the workplace. A lifelong emphasis on individual creativity and group competitiveness has instilled a spirit of entrepreneurship in Millennials that facilities planners can delight in supporting.

1 What Millennials Want From Work, Charted Across the World, The Harvard Business Review, Feb. 23, 2015.
2 Youth Studies: An Introduction, Routledge, New York, NY, 2013.
 

About the Author
Joseph Bocchiaro III, Ph.D., CStd, CTS-D, CTS-I, ISF-C, is a principal with The Sextant Group, and is based in Washington DC.