A culture clash is brewing over work space in Canada. Three different generations, each with radically different expectations and values, now share the same work environments. Companies are adjusting these spaces to help the generations work together in harmony.
"You have baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y in the building at the same time," said Mark Fieder, president and managing director of Avison Young's Ontario division. "Gen Y looks at the boomers and they think, 'You're on another planet.' They hold no value to a large corner office. The traditional layout of [office]space - they don't understand that."
While pleasing Gen Y employees may be a challenge, it's essential, said Mr. Fieder. In order to make up for the looming mass retirement of boomers, companies are aggressively filling gaps -attracting young talent by creating the working environments this demographic is looking for.
"Within the next five years, huge numbers of middle-management boomers and management boomers will retire and there's not enough X'ers to backfill. So they're going to reach down into the Ys for these management positions," said Mr. Fieder. "Employers, tenants and landlords are having to take that into consideration."
What does Generation Y - those born from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s - want from the workplace?
Two years ago, Steelcase, a Michigan-based company that makes office furniture, set out to answer that. They found that Gen Y sees technology as an extension of themselves and they expect to have access to it whenever and wherever they are. The generation believes they have as much to teach senior staff members as they have to learn from them. And when they're working on a concept or project, they want the perspectives of the 300 people in their online networks, not just the people in the room.
For their workspace Gen Y wants open, collaborative space, a less rigid hierarchical structure, immediate access to technology and plenty of amenities close by, among other things. It's a far cry from the traditional workplace and its love of corner offices.
Judith Amoils, managing director of consulting services for CB Richard Ellis Limited, said she has spent a lot of time working with clients to accommodate the differing generations, and it can be a challenge.
"How do you design around this set of needs? ... boomers who want the corner office and the privacy versus the younger generation that looks at the traditional cube farm and says, 'I don't want to work there.'" she said.
According to Ms. Amoils, the solution isn't funky furniture but rather flexibility, allowing employees to move around, interact and utilize different types of space as they need it.
"The types of space-planning concepts that are starting to emerge [include] providing a variety of space in the workplace," she said. "You have the war rooms, the cafe areas where two people can get together and say we need to work this through, the lounge areas, the quiet zones, the places that feel more like a library for people who need the office with the door that can close."
Mark Herbert, president of DTZ Barnicke Vancouver, recently went through a complete renovation of his own workspace and was challenged with creating a space that would work for the company's diverse generational makeup.
"We do have a couple of baby boomers, a ton of Gen Xers and we have a few Gen Ys," he said. "We had the luxury of starting completely from scratch which enabled us to accommodate all three different generations."
The office was transformed from a traditional cube farm to something more flexible and collaborative, he said. Instead of five-foot cubicle walls, Mr. Herbert has incorporated lower, 42-inch walls in individual workspaces. According to the Steelcase project, Gen Y prefers lower barriers because it allows them to physically see who's available to discuss a concept or an issue, in the same way that programs like Facebook or Skype show who's available for an online chat at any given time.
As well, Mr. Herbert incorporated communal boardrooms or "closing rooms," should employees need to have a private meeting with clients. In the end, he said, the company ended up with 60-per-cent private or semi-private offices, 25-per-cent collaborative work space and 15-per-cent boardroom space.
He said that though they are committed to attracting young talent to the company, it was important to accommodate the senior staff members, many of whom come from an era of filing cabinets instead of computer files.
"There are guys in here that are top-dollar producers, guys in their 50s who I wouldn't dream of changing their work habits," he said. If the space had changed too much, "I would have lost them, and it was something that had to be considered," he said. "You need to accommodate around them versus the other way."
David Foot, author of the demographics manifesto, Boom, Bust and Echo, warned against a radical shift in workplace culture in an attempt to please Generation Y. From his perspective, the young have always been at the forefront of technology and pushing the older generations to adapt. The only difference in this era is that improved health care means the boomers are living longer and so are unlikely to exit the workplace in one fell swoop.
"The boomers will present a tremendous reservoir of experience and contacts, so encourage them to work three days a week for 60-per-cent salary," he said, "or see if they want to work mornings or afternoons or eight months of the year, with a proportional dip in salary."
One trend that could facilitate boomers interested in easing into retirement more slowly is "hotelling." Ms. Amoils said this has been in use for a decade in the technology and accounting sectors, but is growing elsewhere. Hotelling allows you to book office space to use, which will be given to someone else when you leave.
"When they were first introduced to the concept, employees were very reticent," said Ms. Amoils. "It's a big hurdle personally to get over, but once people understand the flexibility it gives them, to be able to drop into an office, to be able to get all the services you need, they appreciate it."
Mr. Herbert agreed, and said the "plug and play" concept is something he's trying to encourage for all generations in his office. If older staff members are able to embrace this new work mode, then retirement doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
They could stay involved in the business on a part-time basis, said Mr. Herbert, working with just their best clients. As well, it gives options to staff who might prefer to work outside of the office part of the time.
"That could mean three or four flexible, plug-and-play desks in our office where people can come in, log in, get what they need, but still be out there doing that work from home or elsewhere," he said. "And I believe that will be the biggest change in our business."
Mr. Foot also suggests that companies would be wise to hold off on tearing down all the walls just yet. As Gen Y starts to marry off, have kids and become management, he thinks they will start to see the benefit of privacy, whether it's to discuss an issue with an employee or talk to their mate about their kids' sickness.
"I predict that by their 30s, Gen Y will be looking for walls."
Five ways to design an office for Gen Y
1. Provide spaces that reflect "me"
Eliminate the cube and Dilbertville. Today's knowledge workers want spaces that reflect how they see themselves - as creative individuals.
2. Provide socially conscious environments
Generation Y is very aware of the impact of individual choices and their long-term effects on the world. Make sure environmental sustainability is an authentic part of the organization's mission.
3. Ensure organizational transparency
Support an easy-access view into the organization and provide workspaces that communicate the culture, values and mission of the company. Use in-fills, movable screens and other surfaces to reinforce the brand throughout the organization.
4. Support personal growth through constant feedback
Provide non-hierarchical and informal collaboration settings, with open floor plans to encourage acculturation and learningMake managers more accessible through physical adjacencies and private offices with glass fronts.
5. Reflect work-lifestyle integration
Integrate physical well-being into daily work activities: for instance adjustable-height workstations, ergonomic seating and movable monitor supports. Provide a means to get away without going away, such as decompression rooms or places for contemplation. Support work that may be shifted to home offices.
Condensed from the 2009 Steelcase study, How the Workplace Can Attract, Engage and Retain Knowledge Workers