With four generations active in the workplace it’s time to ditch preconceived, 20th century notions about office layout

Nicola Gillen

For the first time in living memory there are four generations active in the workplace. Baby boomers – who still run the boardroom of most organisations – now often find themselves working alongside Millennials who are up to 50 years younger. In terms of workplace design, this diverse mix presents some interesting challenges. Add the differing workspace needs and expectations of generations X and Y, as well as the tech-savvy fifth generation who are just a few years from entering the job market, and the challenge becomes even more complicated.

With people working longer, companies must ensure they meet staff needs across the full spectrum of their employee base. And these needs will continue to evolve as a new, younger workforce develops, retirement is delayed and there is a need to retain more experienced staff, particularly in certain sectors. How can employers successfully weave four generations into the workspace while also being vigilant of the expectations of the next?

The answer lies in dismantling what has to date been a typically static environment driven by presenteeism. More and more companies are leaving behind the 20th century office layout, comprising rows upon rows of individual desks and cubicles. Advancements in technology, remote working and greater flexibility in terms of hours have forever changed the way people perform their jobs. The role of the office is therefore changing as a result.

There is an increasing recognition that the workplace can be a tool to attract and retain staff, with the technology sectors being particularly good at this

Increasingly, the office is becoming the “community hub” of organisations rather than the main place where work is delivered. This is having a real influence on the type of office accommodation provided, with the workplace designed to facilitate more team working through break-out spaces, informal lounge areas and cafes. Flexible working environments like this should make up around 40% of the floor space.

There is also an increasing recognition that the workplace can be a tool to attract and retain staff, with the technology sectors being particularly good at this. Changes to the physical workspace can help promote happiness and wellness at work, as well as attract new talent. It can also have an impact on staff performance, with wellness intrinsically linked to productivity. Taking this argument a step further, Aecom and National Grid have objectively measured the link between productivity and workplace design, conducting research that suggests transforming the workplace translates into bottom-line benefits.

The study objectively determined the impact of National Grid’s Smart WorkSpace programme, which includes a redesign of its headquarters, on business performance. Figures from the study showed that the financial impact of the programme could include up to £20m gained through employees’ improved performance. Staff individual performance increased by 8%, measured through cognitive performance tests. National Grid believes the impact of 3,000 people in its headquarters working 8% more effectively equates to £20m of increased productivity.

Insights like this add to the growing evidence that workplace design can impact organisational success. My hope is that more employers will realise the true value that can be gained from leveraging people, technology and place to cater for the needs of every generation. Flexibility and choice will be key. Buildings are designed to last for decades but the organisations within them change about every 18 months. With the yet-to-be identified requirements of the next generation just around the corner, a flexible workplace is more important than ever.

Nicola Gillen is practice lead for workplace design, Europe, Middle East, Africa & India, Aecom