Era of one-size-fits-all office is over

ISG - Presley or Swift 2 September 2016 / By Tim Hardingham

Every generation re-writes the rule book. From the music they’re into and the clothes they wear to the way they speak and the way they spend their spare time; change is inevitable.

Changes in technology, the jobs we do and how we do them have all caused office design to evolve over the decades too, but that doesn’t mean we should leave anyone behind.

Today’s mixed workplace demographic combines age and experience with youth and ambition – and all shades in between. The need to reflect that diversity in our office environments has led to the birth of a new design concept: welcome to the inter-generational office.

As former director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA), Jeremy Myerson, put it: “The picture is complex… any new solutions must therefore accommodate not just the baby boomers but younger colleagues too within an inclusive framework.”

Jeremy’s comments sum up the challenge: offices need to accommodate teams that may combine decades of experience with colleagues who are fresh out of school. They need to be comfortable, accessible and relevant to all within that range of age and experience.

So why has this not been a feature of office design trends before? Much of the drive towards inter-generational office design has been prompted by a greying workforce. Far from focusing on creating work environments that cater solely for the tastes and aspirations of millennials, therefore, we must look at how we combine those needs with the requirements of employees in their fifties, sixties and seventies.

Currently 64.7 years is the average retirement age for men in the UK, with women retiring only slightly younger at 63.1 years. And retirement ages look set to rise exponentially over time. A recent study entitled ‘The Aging Workforce’ carried out by Deloitte reported that 48 per cent of baby boomers expect to work beyond their 65th birthday, with longer life expectancies, better health in later life, smaller pension pot savings and a higher state pensionable age all affecting retirement decisions. It’s a phenomenon that will prove useful in answering the needs of our growing knowledge economy, with older employees making a valuable contribution of skills and experience to knowledge-based businesses.

With Millennials already having an impact on work environments, where will the entry of Generation Z employees, born in the 21st century, take inter-generational office design next?

At 52, my wish list for the office is not slides and snooker tables but comfy chairs and maybe a quiet corner for an afternoon nap. Today’s office workers might realistically expect to be another 20 years older than I am now before they retire, so orthopaedic furniture and snooze zones may not be too far from reality!

At the very least, it is likely that older workers will prefer quiet thinking areas where they can take refuge from the hustle and bustle of open plan offices, and meeting spaces where they can talk face to face rather than over digital media.

Meanwhile, both Millennials and the Generation Z colleagues that will join them in tomorrow’s offices are children of the digital age; they feel at home with working, chatting and listening to music all at the same time.

It’s important to remember too, however, that generational stereotypes don’t always apply. In the legal sector, for example, professionals of any age are likely to want quiet space to read, research and ruminate.

But, regardless of sector, one critical point is unavoidable: we can expect a much more age diverse workplace in the future and office design will need to respond to that change. A one-size-fits-all approach to office concepts has to be consigned to history.

It is a discussion on which Realys has led the way. We sponsored the RCA’s ‘Include’ annual conference, which was themed: ‘Disruptive Inclusive: Disruptive Ideas in Inclusive Design’ and explored the drivers for inter-generational design as a speaker at the event.

Personally, I’m passionate about making workplace design genuinely inclusive. Across both our clients’ offices and our own European HQ at 40 Gracechurch Street in London, Realys has pioneered inclusive design and seen first-hand how it can help to support the needs of a broad demographic, simply by understanding the varied requirements of different age groups. Success depends on the details: from the scale of furniture, to lighting design and the creative configuration of space.

For example, I designed the café at Gracechurch Street with our younger colleagues’ needs in mind. While they love to socialise with their peers, many find eating out in London too expensive. That’s why we designed the café a stylish environment with plenty of space and natural light. It has lots of quirky design details too, such as alcove seating that was built in our own workshop. Best off all it provides free coffee to help kick start the creative juices of our twenty-something team members, who can frequently be found starting the day there with breakfast and catching up with colleagues over lunch.

We’ve also found that the quiet work areas we’ve provided in our offices have been a big hit with our team. Acoustically padded ‘cocoons’ with A/V Apple TV links, they have created spaces where colleagues can feel that they have a private thinking zone but remain connected to the wider office. Everyone loves these pods, but they seem particularly popular with older colleagues who really value this quiet thinking space.

Realys’ own office is an example of how our inter-generational office design concept makes a day-to-day difference to the productivity and wellbeing of a diverse team demographic. In this way, we can create inclusive workplaces that address the varied needs of a much more varied workforce.

An expert in workplace design Tim Hardingham is design director at Realys

This article first appeared in ABC&D magazine, 01 January 2016

Author: Tim Hardingham

Design Director at Realys

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