We need to design for a multigenerational workforce 0

Excitingly, the workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. However there’s more talk about millennials in the workplace than anyone else. In stark contrast to popular belief, the reality is that the British workforce is getting older on average which means that office design must now consider a new set of workplace requirements. The challenge for designers is to create inclusive environments that address the needs of highly skilled and experienced older workers, while still providing productive environments for all users, ensuring the entire multigenerational workforce is engaged, happy and productive. International bodies are already worried about the fiscal impact of an older workforce, in May the World Economic Forum (WEF) said that a looming fourfold rise in over-65s by 2050 is the financial equivalent of climate change. With people born today having a life expectancy of more than 100, WEF warned of more years in the office to provide financial security in later years, as well as a creeping retirement age heading towards 70. This ageing population and workforce will certainly need consideration when it comes to supporting their health and wellbeing.

As we age, for example, we feel the cold more because of decreased circulation, our hearing and eyesight weakens and our bones lose density. Perhaps there should be guidelines on temperature, lighting, acoustics and furniture to help create a comfortable environment for later life?

This sentiment echoes findings published by British Council for Offices (BCO) and Savills whose research found that employees want greater control of their office environment. Lighting and temperature were highlighted as important factors, and there is increased demand for new technologies that allow these factors to be controlled at desk level. So while there’s a need for the older workforce to have this flexibility to maintain their health and wellbeing, the research indicates that others in the office would benefit too.

Looking towards the fresh-faced spectrum of the workforce, I feel that the ‘generational talk’ needs decoding as our language alone can create barriers. By now we’re all well-versed in the stereotypes of millennials but what about people who don’t neatly fall into those categories – or those who do and don’t subscribe to the behaviours. They’re described as disloyal, flighty, entitled, enthusiastic, ‘digital natives’ and creative – this can’t all be true for all your colleagues under 30.


The four Cs

Design models have evolved from cubicles to open plan, to the current incarnation of activity-based working. Activity-based working provides a variety of settings that aim to support different types of working – collaboration, contemplation, creativity and community. It’s a mix of quiet, informal, formal and touch-down areas, and the model represents what workers have been crying out for. The most critical aspect of activity-based working is being able to move away from your desk without question, and inclusive design recognises that multiple work styles must be represented in the modern workplace. The desk is no longer the only place to do work.

Age aside, when it comes to designing and building offices where people actually want to work; it is much less about designers telling bosses what they should have and far more about tailoring the space to the needs of staff. In recent months I’ve found that clients are far more aware of office design and know what they like, and what they don’t.

The BCO and Savills report also said that 23 percent of employees value having an open plan office and 71 percent want a quiet place for focused work. For some it might be a quiet area where you can take your laptop, a phone booth for private calls or a huddle area in the kitchen for informal meetings. Our day-to-day tasks are so varied, it’s naïve to think that providing only desks in an open plan setting will suffice.

Not forgetting lifestyle and finding work-life balance, the office should promote a sense of community and social interaction. Some argue that the workplace is moving away from remote working and increasingly towards interaction, and I tend to agree. There are so many benefits of being together – sharing ideas, a greater sense of belonging and nurturing meaningful relationships. Surprisingly, research has found that employees would be willing to commute an extra 30 minutes to get to their perfect office; this shows that good office design can create the kind of energy that excites people and draws them together. Additionally, independent workplace research company Leesman has found a direct correlation between a productivity and a sense of belonging. Across its huge database of 169,838 respondents, 58 percent report that their workplace contributes to a sense of community, however in the high-performing workplaces which meet outlined productivity metrics that figure jumps to 72 percent.


Supporting a ‘multi-work style’ workforce

When considering an office refurbishment, it’s important to understand how your employees work; workplace surveys and time utilisation studies can point you in the right direction. Another way to understand how your people are currently using the space is to profile work styles; different working patterns have implications on workplace change. Regardless of age, a person at their desk four days a week might be reluctant to move to a hot-desking environment, while a mobile person may simply need a drop-in area or touchdown desk when in the office.

I agree that different generations have differing needs but the real challenge, as I see it: creating a place where people are happy, comfortable and productive, where their needs are met and where they can make positive connections with colleagues – no matter their age. If it succeeds in doing this, the office will not alienate and stereotype groups; it will encourage people to share and learn from each other’s strengths instead.


Joe Huddleston is Senior Project Designer with Overbury. Image is of BBC Broadcasting House