The Silent Generation. The Baby Boomers. Generation X. The ubiquitous Millennials. Generation Z. These generational labels — and the stereotypes associated with each — are as familiar as proverbial sliced bread and they’re the focus of Buildex Vancouver’s Interior Design Keynote on Feb. 15.
The keynote is a panel discussion titled Exploring the Myths and Realities of an Intergenerational Workforce. Jennifer Busch, Teknion architecture and design vice-president, moderates.
"The proliferation of multiple generations in the workforce, and how that affects workplace and office design, is something a lot of people are talking about," Busch says, adding that, today, there are up to five generations sharing work environments, largely because people are retiring later.
How these multiple generations impact workspace functionality will be the issue four panellists, along with Busch, will explore. To add extra authenticity to the discussion, the panel contains one representative from each generation. "They’ll be talking from a personal perspective as well as a professional one," Busch says.
Carol Jones, Senior Principal and Vice-President of Interior Design at Kasian Architecture, represents the Baby Boomer generation on the panel. Rather than dividing the workforce into five generational categories, Jones believes there are only two key divisions to consider: those who grew up with technology and those who didn’t.
She quotes American poet, essayist and activist John Perry Barlow to accentuate her point: "When it comes to technology, we are tourists in a country where children are natives."
From a workplace culture point-of-view, Jones says this means "knowledge transfer" can be a two-way street: While younger generations can assist the older generations with things technological, conversely, employees in their 50s and 60s "know a lot that can be useful for younger generations," resulting in "lots of opportunity for mentorship."
Fellow panellist Sara Remocker, a Senior Interior Designer at Dialog in Vancouver — herself straddling Generation X and the Millennial Generation — says younger employees are "looking for more connectedness, more friendships, more mentorships and more collaboration" in the workplace. "They don’t want to sit at a desk by themselves for eight hours a day. That’s not going to feed their passion for what they want to do," Remocker explains.
And whether it’s generationally driven, current trends in workplace design support that style of work, trends such as open-concept design, fewer private offices, more varied spaces in the workplace including lounge areas, well-equipped staffrooms and quiet "focus rooms," all of which offer workspace alternatives to the traditional desk.
"Young people want the ability to work in other locations throughout the office. They’ll do some work at a desk, then sit in a lounge area to write a report, then grab a cappuccino and do some work in the staff room. Older employees are learning to do that, too, and they’re loving it. Besides, it adds to health and wellness, because people are up and moving around," Jones says, admitting, however, open-concept design might take some getting used to for those who started in the workforce during the Mad Men – era, where office size and location were connected to one’s seniority.
Remocker says the physical nature of today’s workspace is designed to encourage health and wellbeing. "You want to create a space that promotes movement and stimulation and provides access to natural light. In the old days, private offices blocked that light. These features are important to everyone’s wellbeing, regardless of generation," Remocker adds.
She cautions, however, that it’s unwise for an organization to jump on a trend just for trend’s sake. "A business has to answer, ‘Who are we as a company?’ What one company may need, another may not, depending on one’s clients and culture," she says.
Fellow panellist Loren Bergmann — the Director of Workplace Strategy, Western Canada, CBRE, Vancouver — agrees.
"We shouldn’t be generalizing as designers. What’s most important is to listen to the business of the client. Generational differences shouldn’t drive our design," Bergmann says, adding that a 2014 survey that went to professionals from all industries across the United States found that workplace preferences were fairly universal, regardless of generation.
"What has driven workplace design over the past five-to-ten years is the element of choice. An employee can choose to work in several different environments in one space," Bergmann adds.
She posits a theory as to how the workplace will continue to evolve into the future. "The biggest shift we’re going to see is a shift towards artificial intelligence taking over some of the mundane tasks. We’re going to be shifting more towards creating a culture of creativity as opposed to one of only productivity," she says.
At the end of the day, Busch says she hopes the Buildex Vancouver panel will debunk some of the myths that persist about generations, such as the oft-spread notion that Gen Xers and Millennials tend to have a greater sense of entitlement and less work ethic than their predecessors.
"At the end of the day, we’re all humans. We all respond to the same types of things," Busch concludes.