Multiple Generations and Office Preferences

An article I saw recently online on City A.M. by Sion Davies, sparked an interesting question: How do you create a work environment that suits the needs and expectations of multiple generations? The piece notes the popularity of a puppy and kitten room on a recent survey, which I wholeheartedly support, but then it also suggests that not all other features may be as popular.

For example, the piece points out that while “café-style” seating, in a casual environment, may appeal to Millennials, it may not appeal to nearly as many Baby Boomers, who were taught that there is a clear division between work and socializing. I’m a Generation Xer, rather than a Millennial, but I’ve noticed myself a difference between the way I think and the way my 61-year-old boss thinks. He mentioned once nostalgically that back in the day he and one of our co-workers would roll out a small artificial putting green, and play a quick game of miniature golf. I thought that sounded great, and asked why they ever stopped. He said that once the “times changed” in the ’90s and early 2000s, with financial crises, it became unacceptable to do things like that. It’s funny because, though my generation and the Millennnials came of age in a time of economic struggle, we see taking fun breaks during the day as key to productivity. I’d be all for a pinball machine in my cubicle.

However, more like the Boomers, sitting in a café-style area in the office—rather than behind the protection and privacy of my cubicle walls—doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, even with cubicle walls, the smallest annoyances from my neighbors in the office can drive me crazy. Just yesterday, I had to control myself from stomping over to the desk of one of my co-workers to ask that he stop chewing sunflower seeds so loudly (he sounded like a human nutcracker).

It seems like the key to a successful workplace environment is flexibility. I don’t see the layout, design, and amenities of an office as an all-or-nothing proposition, in which it has to either be very traditional and closed-off, or a café-like free-for-all. How about giving employees their own workstations (whether they be offices or cubicles) and treating the area of the office where those workstations are located as the “quiet section,” like the quiet car of a train, in which conversation and other noise is kept to a minimum? Then, at the other side of the office, or behind a closed door, there’s the café-like environment, with creative seating options such as modern beanbag chairs, floating desks, couches, and picture window seats. This is the place employees can take their laptops or tablets to work in a more relaxed, interactive setting. This would be the place to come if you feel like your mind is wandering from boredom, and you need period breaks in concentration with chatting or contribution from a colleague. Or it’s a place to go to when doing busy work not requiring much concentration. This work café area could even have game tables and a stereo or iPod docking station with speakers to play music. Would a TV be out of the question in this casual work area?

To embrace a workplace that has both traditional working zones, as well as a more innovative, free-spirited café, means keeping the focus on the right place—the end products/deliverables, rather than the process/procedure of getting work done. If you walked into the café seating area and saw your best employee working in front of the TV, picking her head up every 10 minutes or so to watch Days of Our Lives, would you be concerned? What if, an hour later, she then turned in a super-impressive report or business plan or other deliverable? Would it still be a problem?

As trainers, how can you help your company’s decision-makers learn the work environment preferences of your employees, and then come up with needed solutions?

If you find mixed survey results along generational lines, how do you handle it? Would you consider a mixed solution, or is it best to just wait until all the Boomers retire, or at least retire from decision-making positions, and then roll out your café?