The workforce is in transition: baby boomers are retiring and successive generations contain fewer employable persons. According to a Pew Research study conducted in the United States in 2015, baby boomers accounted for 29% of the workforce, while Gen X accounted for 34%, and millennials were another 34%. The baby boomers (aged to 52 to 70) are retiring and, even though immigration is adding to the millennial population (aged 18 to 35), it is not enough to make up the difference. In the next 5 years millennials will make up almost 50% of the workforce as 4 million baby boomers retire each year.   

The Times are Changing

This change in workforce demographics is leading to changes in the ways companies attract and retain talent.  Millennials are inherently tech-savvy, having been surrounded by computers, smartphones, and gaming consoles their entire lives. They are more comfortable working and collaborating in lounges and cafes (think Starbucks) than in an office. Gen X staff members, on the other hand, take after their baby boomer bosses and are independent thinkers, organized, and have seen technology take over the traditional ways that business works by bringing about change and leveraging resources. Technology did not become a major factor until Gen Xers were already in the workforce; thus, many of them are still used to the office environment that their predecessors, the baby boomers, operated within— individual offices, cubicles, rigid floor plans, desktop computers and large monitors. 

Offices are also changing dramatically as the patterns of the workforce evolve and technology continues to expand within firms.  Office space previously used for filing cabinets is being reduced or eliminated altogether due to the increased usage of document scanning and storage.  The average office space allocated to personnel has gone from 300 square feet per person in 2001, to 225 sf/person in 2010, and now approximately 150 sf/person. With more employees working from their smartphones, tablets and laptops, office space is being reduced to accommodate the amplified mobility.  Offices are also becoming less restrictive in how they are arranged, both to attract younger workers and to respond to the collaborative way that teams gather to develop plans, resolve issues, or interact.   

The Technology behind the change

The technology enabling this transition centers on the advances in wireless protocols.  New wireless standards such as the current 802.11ac allow for data to be sent at 166 Mb/second. This new standard provides for things like access to email, word processing, and video streaming.  The use of wireless also minimizes the previous constraints of old office layouts. Hardline connections for 10/100/100BaseT, which dictated core drills or cabling poles for cubicles and fixed locations for office furniture, are no longer necessary for the majority of office staff.  In a modern office, a prime example is wireless access points (WAPs), which can be hung from the ceiling grid in locations convenient for staff to work.  

What does all this mean for you?

Floor plans are evolving from office layouts with cubicles, filing, copy rooms, and other support areas in the center with a clearly defined perimeter, to hard offices and meeting spaces at the center surrounded by more free-flowing lounge and kiosk areas that are open to the building exterior, allowing more natural light into the office.  More emphasis is being placed on color and organic materials (bamboo, exposed brick and stone) inter-spaced with traditional building materials.  The traditional beige office is giving way to accent walls with striking colors, carpet that is patterned, or even carpet tiles, to allow for a quick transition as areas are re-purposed.  There is still a need for dedicated spaces that can be closed off for private conversations or concentration away from open areas, but these are serving a “hotel function” wherein the stays are short-term rather than permanent.  Desks and seating are also changing to allow flexible heights and storage. Walking desks (such as the Steelcase Walkstation) are being seen in more offices, giving staff the ability to move more while they work. Comfortable couches, benches and seating areas in open lounges provide relaxation for employees wherever they find themselves in the office. 

Many of these changes are meant to make your firm and office appealing to the wave of younger employees that will make up the bulk of the workforce in the next 5 years, and all of these changes come with a price tag to the capital expenditures budgets.  Modifying your office is similar to any business plan you make – analyze the current structure, determine options for growth, and budget for implementation. Most firms have a quicker ROI on technology rather than furnishings, so look to replace or upgrade your network infrastructure with an emphasis on expanding wireless capabilities and removing outdated wiring and racks. Higher density virtualization hosts can replace individual servers.

Modifying your office is similar to any business plan you make — analyze the current structure, determine options for growth, and budget for implementation.
— Bill Valaski

This equipment change will require less space and can reduce cooling and electric load. After looking into infrastructure changes, review your floor plan to see how you might change interior spaces to open up more of the office.  If the office can’t be easily modified, you might consider making interior changes part of your lease negotiation.  You might also consider a phased approach that allows you to make quick adjustments to the environment in one area of the building that staff can inhabit while more extensive renovations are in progress elsewhere. By adapting your office to the changing workforce and evolving technology, you can improve workplace flexibility and appeal to the younger generations.    

Bill Valaski

IT Consultant | Afidence

References 

Fry, R. (2015). Millennials surpass Gen Xers as the largest generation in U.S. labor force. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/11/millennials-surpass-gen-xers-as-the-largest-generation-in-u-s-labor-force/

Gandel, S. (2015). Labor force participation rate falls faster in U.S. than elsewhere. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/07/02/us-labor-force-participation-drops/

Soergel, A. (2015). Where Are All the Workers? Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2015/07/16/unemployment-is-low-but-more-workers-are-leaving-the-workforce

Sullivan, C.C., & Horowitz-Bennett, B. Workplace design trends: Make way for the Millennials (2017). Retrieved from https://www.bdcnetwork.com/workplace-design-trends-make-way-millennials  

Pochepan, J. Five Office Design Trends to Watch in 2017. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/jeff-pochepan/five-office-design-trends-to-watch-in-2017.html  

Preston, B. 2017 Office Design Trends Forecast. Retrieved from https://workdesign.com/2017/01/2017-office-design-trends/

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