Reshaping Spaces for Millennials


By Guy Worley

Designing the perfect workspace isn’t just a matter of efficiency and ergonomics; it’s a moving target that changes with generational shifts in the workforce. Each successive generation brings a unique set of needs and preferences that have been shaped by culture and their experiences. In turn, those needs and preferences shape the definition of an optimized office.

Last year, the millennial generation officially bypassed baby boomers to take the lead as the largest population group in the United States. The shifting demographic balance of working-age individuals toward millennials brings progressive changes in office space. Case in point: more than 70 percent of U.S. workspaces are moving to an open layout.

Office space has and always will play a vital role in talent attraction. As the millennial generation begins to dominate the workforce, needs and expectations for office environments are shifting rapidly. Closed-off offices and cubicles have now been replaced with open office concepts and communal workspaces, and millennials are driving this change.

New Techniques

To keep pace with the needs of the millennial generation, the construction industry is embracing a new set of techniques offering open and innovative work environments that appeal to millennials. These design changes have been specifically observed in the downtown neighborhoods that are magnets for millennials. According to a recent study titled “Urban Revival in America, 2000 to 2010,” 39 of the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas saw more college-educated professionals between 25 and 34 move to downtowns instead of suburbs. Researchers found that 62 percent of millennials prefer to live in urban areas where they can easily find restaurants, entertainment and other convenient amenities. The rising demand for housing and retail in downtown neighborhoods means that overall available space has drastically decreased.

Millennials aren’t the only ones attracted to this new office concept. Employers are also seeing the benefits of this design—not only to attract workers, but to also improve productivity, boost employee retention and encourage creativity. According to a study from the Harvard Business Review, creating social and inviting workspaces fosters an increased number of unplanned interactions between coworkers. Those human interactions can actually improve job performance. Working in an environment that promotes collaboration, employees become more engaged and are able to tap into an extended network of ideas and innovation. Moreover, a Gallup poll found that employees who are more engaged and have a high sense of well-being are 59 percent less likely to look for a job with a different organization in the next 12 months. They also miss a whopping 70 percent fewer work days.

An open office doesn’t necessarily have to be large. On the path to becoming more open and collaborative, workspaces are actually becoming smaller. According to Gartner, workers only spend about 40 percent of their time at their desks. As a result, their personal space is shrinking – in 2001, workers had an average of 300-square-feet of personal office space, and that number dropped to 225-square-feet in 2010 and 176-square-feet in 2012. Instead, companies are investing in communal work areas, where group work—which is becoming increasingly more important to companies—can thrive.

Meeting Modern Needs

The design changes that meet modern needs can be achieved in a number of ways: new construction, renovation and adaptive reuse. Looking at the office spaces within Downtown Columbus, Ohio, for example, a drastic change can be seen in workspace construction over the last 10 years. Buildings renovated or constructed in the early 2000s feature suites with rows of offices and clusters of high-walled cubicles, characteristic of office demands at the beginning of the century. Fast-forward to 2015, when the latest and greatest commercial space inside 250 High hit the market. Built on a thin strip of land between a parking garage and Columbus’ historic High Street, where no one dared to develop for more than 30 years, this modern high-rise is currently home to some of the most sought after office space in the region. Columbus companies, like Resource Ammirati, Lextant and NBBJ Architecture, quickly jumped at the opportunity to house their teams in this cutting-edge environment. With rows of desks (rather than cubicles), common work areas (rather than offices), and modern finishes, linear floorplates, outdoor balconies and plenty of natural light, it’s no surprise the building’s office space leased up months before opening. 

But the trend goes beyond desk placement, light fixtures and color schemes, savvy employers are also offering wellness programs, unique benefits and exciting company culture to stay ahead of the curve. While many aspects of good design change over time, this new shift, emphasizing collaboration and communication, is a welcome change for working millennials.

Guy Worley is the CEO and president of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, a private, non-profit development corporation with the mission to lead city-changing projects in the heart of Ohio’s capital city.

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