When seeking to design offices that help bring people back into the workplace, we must consider the overlapping needs of each generation, writes Stuart Finnie

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The office design of today has a lot to live up to. It needs to meet the ever-changing requirements of the hybrid world and the different models of working that have emerged since the pandemic. However, one of the more pressing challenges that the workspace has had to adapt to is the nuanced needs of a multi-generational workforce.

The office now accommodates five different generations at any one time, all with differing requirements of their workspace. From the emerging Generation Z right up to the Baby Boomers and Traditionalists, the office is home to a real mix of demographics.

So how can spaces be designed to suit all in a world where personalisation is highly sought after by employees? The greatest step is laying the right foundations. No workspace should be identical and must, instead be tailored to the needs of the current workforce that is using the office. Stereotypes should not be allowed to influence design at any point.

In fact, doing so could be detrimental to the usability of the final space. In a study of over 3,000 office workers across Europe, we identified a number of unexpected trends around what the different generations wanted from the workplace. While Generation Z is deemed to be the most tech-savvy, for example, that does not necessarily make them the best generation to adapt to remote working.

In fact, our research suggests that those in the younger age demographic are more eager to be in the office, with the majority (81%) of respondents in the early stages of their career highlighting that they felt disconnected from their peers when working remotely. A further 78% revealed that they found it easier to bond with others in person.

Designing a workspace that suits the needs of multiple generations is not easy, but it is certainly achievable

While this does point to Generation Z wanting more structure to their working day through the office, this need for face-to-face interaction is also related to their desire to learn and progress their careers. Overall, 80% of this generation stated that in-person training is the biggest driver of a return to the office. Aside from the need to provide spaces that accommodate both group and individual learning into the office design, this data also creates another challenge, namely the need to attract other generations back to the office to support the development of Generation Z.

Peer-to-peer learning is a highly valuable tool but it requires those with more experience to also be involved and, as our data shows, what entices those further along in the careers back into the office is very different. While those over the age of 45 admitted that they missed the social element of the office while working remotely (cited by 45% of respondents), it was not the interaction with peers that stood out as a driver of office returns for this age group. Instead, 78% wanted to change the office space itself, with incentives including access to free lunches and amenities ranked highly.

If we look at those aged 35-44, 75% indicated they would be happier to be in the office if separate spaces for collaborative and individual focus work were provided. While there is clearly differing needs across each generation, they are all intrinsically linked. Generation Z needs Baby Boomers and Traditionalists in the office to learn from, while the latter have a desire for more office perks. A good office can not have one without the other.

What will be key to making spaces work for multiple generations both now and in the future is flexibility. Offices need to be designed to be used in a range of ways, from open plan collaborative areas that can be shifted to social spaces when not in use, through to quiet pods to concentrate in or to host private conversations. Clearly, the ability to accommodate the majority of needs will be what ensures a great office space stands out. Given that we know how quickly the world of work can change, ensuring offices are designed to flex with the emerging needs of the workforce will also help future-proof spaces.

Designing a workspace that suits the needs of multiple generations is not easy, but it is certainly achievable. The foundations do need to be built on a recognition of what staff really want from their space. Without this information, stereotypes can creep into plans and inadvertently create an office that is not suitable for the very people that make the most use of it.