The Modern Workplace: A Mixed-Generation Battlefield?


Gone are the days of holing up in the office, keeping your head down in your cubicle, and grinding out as much work as possible.  The younger generations are entering the workforce and bringing with them a refreshing energy and enthusiasm for collaboration, community, and partnership that is leading us to design innovation across the board.  

Here we are struggling not only to keep up and provide the “coolest” work spaces, but we are being challenged to combine the private and ‘structured’ offices of the more seasoned professionals with the fun and energetic landing pads of the millennials.  In a mixed-generation environment it seems to be a battle between the Xer’s, and the millennials, but I think I’ve found the cause and, just maybe, the solution.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start… 

Look at this place above.  Just look at it. Would you want to work there?  If you answered yes, that’s totally okay!  You are probably one of our more seasoned workforce vets and you grew up in schools that looked like this, your college probably looked like this, and you are naturally only comfortable with your workplace looking like this.  It’s great!  Well organized, structured, uncluttered and just your speed.

If you look at this picture and think “no way on earth would I spend 40 hours in there,” you are most likely coming into the ranks as a greenhorn to the workforce.  Perhaps you don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit, but you desire connection and feel stifled by this type of work environment.  It’s okay, your school environment most likely didn’t look like this, and here you are in this land of rows and columns feeling forced into a mold you will never be able to fit into, and that’s not your fault.

Let’s go back.  Way, way back.

What I have begun to piece together over the last few weeks in my research with furniture dealers, office planning professionals, school teachers, and school administrators is that there has been a huge shift in the way we are interacting; in the office and in the schools.  Perhaps this disconnect between the younger and more seasoned generations is no more complicated than in the way we’re taught in school.

Where we once had rows of desks(left image), were instructed not to chit chat, and were reprimanded for collaborating, we are now seeing pods, clusters, brainstorming, and collective project work in education(right two images).  Technology has been introduced, of course, but it’s not the technology as much as it is in how students are being asked to use it.  Class discussions are being replaced by blog and online forum discussions after school and participation is mandatory.  The students are asking the questions and the teachers are assisting them in finding the answers, rather than being fed information and data to memorize.

(Side Note: I personaly must state that I feel like I fall precisely between these two very differing schools of thought.  I admire and remember the refreshing organized feeling of sitting in rows, but very much loved when our classes were broken into small discussion groups.  I think I fall between the Xer’s and the millennials as far as order of birth and it’s an interesting place to come from.)

What’s the fuss about?

Though arguments can be made for and against the collaborative office, it is the trend ATM (that’s “at the moment,” Xer’s) and it’s not going away any time soon.  The furniture is as cost-effective as it is adaptable, and that saves business the on the bottom line, the only line that really seems to matter to those in the purchasing department.

The problem is in determining if you are really going to boast increased productivity and employee moral, because that is what “benching,” and collab is pushing; happier people doing better work, not necessarily more of it.

If you have an office of seasoned Xer’s, taking away their cubicle walls is going to make them not only angry, but also quite uncomfortable and you may get a decrease in productivity while they adapt; if they ever do.  And the same can be said for the millennials; force them into cubes and you will soon see their enthusiasm and spirit dwindle until they are producing nearly nothing at all.

You see, no group is better or worse than the other.  Both desire the exact same outcomes.  Where they differ is in their values.

Xer’s need their space and quiet, time to contemplate, privacy in their work.  They value working hard and diligently, and believe that over an extended period of time this is the only way to get results.

Millennials need feedback, opinion, the  rejection of their initial ideas, and community input to work well.  They value thinking about their process first, and believe they are working smarter for a shorter period of time to get the same results.

Middle ground. 

For people who are wanting to appeal to both crowds, I suggest you take inventory of your staff.  Perhaps do an anonymous survey using images of collaborative vs traditional spaces.  You might find that it is well worth your time and money to plan your new office in the new collaborative way; don’t just assume, those Xer’s might surprise you!  Or you could find that closed doors and high walls are going to be the best option for you.

If in fact you find your self stuck somewhere in the middle please, and I really mean this, do not divide your floor into two “sides.”  This does not offer a peaceable solution for anyone.  In fact, it is going to enhance the feeling of separation more so.  Get with an office planning professional (*insert shameless self promotion for Spark Interiors here haha). There are some really clever ways of combining these two differing work styles into one elegantly and ingeniously panned space that everyone will be proud to call work!


*Spark Interiors claims no rights to these photos.



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