Designing offices for different generations
15 February, 2024
Designing workplaces for different generations

We live in an era where increasingly working environments are occupied by a wider age demographic than ever before. People are living longer, and often working longer, meaning the age diversity in the current workforce is the widest it’s ever been, and it’s only set to increase.

There are enormous benefits to a multigenerational workforce, ranging from the improved capacity for younger team members to learn skills through mentoring, to the collective advantages of having both new ideas and established expertise all under one roof.

However, different people often have varied working preferences in terms of the style and organisation of their space, noise, and so forth. Different age groups may also have different health requirements that need to be embedded into the structure of a working environment.

Crucially however, failing to design an office that makes the most of the benefits of a multigenerational workplace is a missed opportunity for productivity and progress.

Which generations currently make up the workforce?

Broadly speaking, there are four generations that are in or soon to be entering the workforce, all with widely reported generalised characteristics, workplace attitudes, skills and preferences. These include:

Baby Boomers

Born between 1946 and 1964, Baby Boomers are often described as workaholics, but they’re also hailed as the generation who have had the most disposable income across their lifetime. Committed, hardworking, confident and competitive, they have a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience, assured decision makers and self-reliant.

Generation X

Also known for their self-reliance and individuality, Gen X encompasses those born between 1965 and 1980 – the era of independence. They tend to be well educated and volunteer themselves readily for projects and initiatives. They’re entrepreneurial, resourceful and like a challenge.

Generation Y (Millennials)

There’s a bit of a split between early and later Millennials who were born between 1981 and 1996. This demographic sit on both sides of the technological shift, entered a tough job market in the recession and have had careers defined by rapidly evolving technology. As a result, they’re broadly characterised as being the first digitally native generation, tech savvy, adaptive, creative and flexible in their approach. They tend to be good at teamwork and value collaboration.

Generation Z

Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z are the up and comers in the workplace, reportedly known for being ambitious, self-aware, digitally savvy, and deeply passionate. They’re highly socially and environmentally aware, like in-person interactions, value flexibility, are competitive, entrepreneurial and are less tolerant of authoritarian environments.

How do different generational needs and expectations differ?

The defining experiences that different generations have grown up with often set their expectation and preferences for the working environment.

Many members of Gen Z have entered the workplace during or after the pandemic, establishing the early part of their careers in a remote environment and never meeting their colleagues in person. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and Gen-X have spent most of their working life commuting into the office and experiencing quite traditional set-ups.

It’s often said that Gen X tend to value a work-life balance and flexible schedules, while Millennials and Gen Z value autonomy and the ability to work from anywhere. Gen Z typically place a high value on diversity and inclusivity while Millennials and Gen X may have different expectations as to what that looks like. What’s clear across all generations is that they recognise the value of technology and appreciate a sense of collaboration and community.

These are obviously broad principles, but they help to establish the bare bones of how we translate generational characteristics into the physical design of the working environment, how it works and how it looks, to maximise the workplace experience for individuals and organisations.

What do different generations want from office design?

There are three aspects to considering the needs and expectations of different generations within the workplace:

  1. Needs associated broadly with different generations
  2. Needs associated with different age groups (new parents, women in menopause, mobility issues etc.)
  3. Needs of individuals

All these requirements need to be considered within the design, whilst also appreciating that spaces are created for everyone who spends time in them.

How can multigenerational needs be met in one place?

The key to this is creating spaces that give people choices in where and how they work, from quiet spaces to collaborative spaces, loud areas to more muted areas, lounge seating to more formal desk spaces, open plan to individual offices and so forth.

While it’s impossible to cater to every individual, it is possible to cater to almost every eventuality by giving people the autonomy to organise their own working schedule within that physical framework.

Our design process is based on these deep rooted and often complex considerations about the team and the working environment. From empathy with different wants and needs to practical considerations for disability, neurodiversity, wellbeing and religion, even when we are not creating dedicated features for specific needs, these are the considerations that underpin our designs and choices.

Taking a layered approach to design:

  • The foundation is the must haves including legal requirements for the use of the space.
  • This is enhanced by Maris’ own standards which consider general accessibility and empathy for team members within our materials selection and design process as a whole.
  • Then we get into the specifics – interviewing team members and undergoing a series of workshops and reporting to understand the qualities that are unique to your environment, your people and your business to create the best space for your needs.

This is the basis on which we can create a multigenerational workspace with the flexibility to evolve with your team.

Of course, it’s also often desirable within that to create specific facilities for needs that you know to be more prevalent within your team. For example, if you want to retain women in the workplace between the ages of 40 and 60, it’s beneficial to consider infrastructure that might support them during menopause (10% of women say they’ve left the workplace during this time because of a lack of support).

More and more, catering to multiple needs translates to moving away from people having set desks and set spaces in which they sit for eight hours a day. Increasingly, workplaces provide options so if individuals want to collaborate, they can spend time in a lounge area, around project tables or in an in-house coffee shop. Alternatively, if they want quiet time on a call or working alone, they can jump into a private office or booth. It’s that fluidity that defines working environments that work and evolve for all.

A great example of workplace design based around the team and their needs is at ID Business Solutions (IDBS) data management and data analytics software company.

Designer, Cait, said: “They wanted to attract all talent, no matter who they were, irrespective of any physical impairment. The space had to be accessible so they could attract the best candidates without impediment, which made it a really joyful project to work on.”

She elaborated, saying: “When we’re designing workspaces and education environments, we have to appreciate that there are multiple user types. For me, it’s all about thinking about people – that’s the most important thing about the entire job – how are they going to use a space, feel in it, function in it? It’s easy to get carried away and create a beautiful space but if it doesn’t work, what’s the point?”

Designing for all people

The reality is that if we design with empathy, we end up designing better for everyone. Lowell UK Shared Services in Leeds as a particularly great example of a space designed for different needs.

Design Director, Adam Haury, said: “In a broad sense, the important thing is to make designing for different needs a key part of the whole design rather than an afterthought. We want spaces to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. That’s why the design process needs to involve getting to know the team, which is a fundamental part of what we do at Maris. We need to ask questions so that when it comes to decisions like the colour palette, if 100 people aren’t bothered but one person is fundamentally affected by it, we need to cater to them because that way it actually caters to everyone.”

Much of the gold standard office design process is about future proofing the space for the new people who will join your team, as well as the people who stay with your business for a lifetime and whose needs change in that period.

With that in mind, while individual aspects that stereotypically suit Millennials or Gen Z are important, it’s variety and flexibility within the infrastructure that is the key to catering to multiple generations in one space, giving people choice and autonomy in how they work.

Want to create a workspace that supports your multigenerational team?