By Kevin Sauer, Global Workplace Strategy & Experience Leader at Join Digital — As any office manager today will tell you, workplaces in the post-pandemic environment have become more than just physical spaces. They have evolved into a widespread network of sites, mirroring miniature cosmos, linked by technological strands and fluid, ever-changing standards and practices. Workplaces have also emerged as a top factor that shapes and supports the productivity and well-being of employees.
As a director of workplace myself, I see this new reality unfold daily, even three years after the mass conversion to hybrid work models in response to COVID-19. This transformation has been rapid, with numerous quality-of-life implications for workers and those who manage them.
The hybrid work revolution has coincided with another seismic shift in the labor market: the arrival of Generation Z on the scene. These digital natives, born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, bring with them a fresh perspective and an inherent affinity for technology.
To harness the full potential of office spaces, businesses must design them thoughtfully with the goal of empowering and engaging Gen Z. But as part of that, it’s important to recognize the distinction between the circumstances that have shaped Gen Z’s entry into the labor market and their actual preferences as a workforce.
What Gen Z wants
Surveys have shown that 40 percent of recent college graduates actually prefer to work fully in person, in an office, despite entering the workforce at a time defined by widespread return-to-work policies. Another 39 percent on top of that favor some kind of hybrid arrangement.
Why is this the case? Well, about three-quarters of those Gen Z graduates surveyed say they worry that remote models will cause them to miss out on certain in-office opportunities, like community building and face-to-face mentoring. They worry their careers will suffer as a result.
Still, about 60 percent of job seekers already in the market say they prefer remote roles, which have obvious appeal for working parents or those who don’t wish to live within commuting distance of a major metropolis. Thus office managers today face an important question: How do they balance remote offerings, which are essential to attracting and retaining veteran talent in 2023, without disregarding the needs of the incoming generation of workers?
The answer, generally speaking, is not to eliminate office spaces altogether, or even strip them down to their bare essentials. There are in fact a number of strategies that businesses can undertake to maximize worker satisfaction and productivity — from simple interior design to the very philosophies underpinning how and why we use physical space.
The office of the future
Just because Gen Z workers by and large support a return to the office does not mean they necessarily envision returning to the office of the past. Health and wellness are significant priorities for Gen Z, and today’s workplace must accommodate those goals.
Ergonomic design features go a long way to meet Gen Z workers’ expectations of a health-conscious workplace. Employers can provide adjustable monitor stands, ergonomic keyboards and peripherals, and supportive chairs to promote good posture and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal issues. They can also integrate sit-stand desks that, as the name suggests, allow workers to switch between sitting and standing positions throughout the day.
Gen Z workers appreciate flexibility in other aspects of office design, too. For instance, workplaces can provide movable partitions or modular furniture to allow for easy reconfiguration of workspaces based on individual or team preferences.
One of the main benefits of offering flexible workspaces is to cultivate collaboration. Building a sense of community is one of the driving factors behind Gen Z’s interest in a return to the office, so this is especially important to ensure a full and productive work experience for them.
To do this, businesses can incorporate open areas with comfortable seating arrangements, and outfit them with whiteboards and easels with large notepads to encourage spontaneous discussions and idea sharing. These spaces can be equipped with technology, like large flat-screen displays and digital collaboration tools that allow remote workers to participate in these activities as well.
While collaboration is a key element of the appeal of in-office work to Gen Z, workers of this generation also appreciate quiet areas for focused work. To foster this impulse, businesses can provide designated quiet zones or individual work pods where employees can work without distractions or interruptions. They can also incorporate acoustic materials, soundproofing, or white noise systems to create a peaceful environment in these specialized spaces.
In an era defined by a hybrid workforce, the spatial needs of an office could change as frequently as day-to-day. Employees who prefer remote work might depart and be replaced by someone who prefers an in-office experience. Even those employees who stay with an organization for an extended period of time could change their preferences multiple times a year.
All of this means that offices need to be adaptable in more ways than just furniture placement. And managing an adaptively designed workspace is no simple task. Besides fielding ad-hoc requests from individual employees and teams, how should office managers assess, or even predict, when a change to layout or in-office resources needs to happen?
Enter the Internet of Things (IoT). Office managers can utilize IoT occupancy sensors, for example, to gain valuable insights into workspace needs over time. By installing these sensors in various areas of the office, businesses can monitor and analyze data on occupancy and utilization patterns, such as the number of people present on a given day, relative popularity of smaller workspaces, and peak hours of activity. This data-driven approach enables office managers to make informed decisions about workspace allocation, and whether to retain or shed certain resources.
Office managers can also leverage indoor environmental quality (IEQ) sensors to continuously monitor parameters like temperature, humidity, air quality, and lighting conditions. This real-time data enables them to gain insights into the comfort levels and environmental quality experienced by employees. With this data in hand, businesses can make informed decisions and take proactive measures to optimize the workplace environment. These might include adjusting HVAC settings, optimizing lighting systems, implementing air quality improvements, or even redesigning the office layout to enhance airflow and access to natural light.
As with occupancy monitoring, environmental monitoring has the benefit of identifying opportunities to reduce energy costs in less heavily trafficked areas of the workspace.
Intergenerational knowledge exchange
While technology is certainly a powerful tool for accommodating the diverse needs of different generations of workers, these employee subsets can’t work in silos. Facilitating intergenerational knowledge exchange is absolutely essential for the hybrid workplace.
An obvious tool for facilitating this kind of exchange is a mentorship program. Employers can pair employees from different generations together so that they can learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives. This can be a great way to help employees from different generations understand each other better and to build mutually beneficial relationships.
Traditional mentorships, which typically entail a more senior employee imparting wisdom on a more junior counterpart, can also be configured to work in reverse. Junior staff can help senior employees stay up-to-date on the latest trends and ensure their continued professional development in a rapidly evolving business landscape. This kind of mutual mentorship has the added benefit of making Gen Z workers feel as though their expertise is valued by business leadership.
Finding the right balance between the interests of Gen Z workers eager to return to the office and those who prefer remote arrangements can be a challenge for office managers. We’re simply not going to be returning to the workplace of the past. But the workplace of the future won’t necessarily be the impersonal, digital-only environment some cynics have predicted.
By designing adaptable workspaces that leverage applicable technology and cultivate easy knowledge sharing — no matter where employees choose to get their work done — organizations can indeed have the best of both worlds.
About the author
Kevin Sauer is a seasoned workplace strategy leader with 20+ years of international experience building high-performing workplace strategy teams and workplace programs in large multinational technology companies from the ground up, transforming business practices and improving the employee experience. He is currently the Global Workplace Strategy & Experience Leader at Join Digital.