by Chris Moriarty — This article originally appeared in the January-February issue of FMJ magazine.
Employees are not getting what they should from their corporate workplaces, which is reflected by the fact that only 57 percent of employees surveyed by research firm, Leesman, agree that their workplace enables them to work productively. The company’s latest research unearths five key factors that influence workplace performance, arming leadership teams with key insights into how to reclaim the value which is currently being lost through inadequate workplaces.
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The purpose of a workplace should always be the starting point for its design. Starting with data provides a much better chance of a good result. A good workplace design brief will contain hard facts and a specific set of criteria which define the ultimate function of the space, but too often there’s a focus on “form” more than “function.” Both are important, however, injecting data – facts – into the process gets the result that Frank Lloyd Wright would have described as “form and function are one.” In other words, workplaces that are simply and elegantly effective.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. Effective workplaces are difficult to create and manage. There is often something that seems to muddy the waters – a half-truth peddled so often that it appears to have become fact. Attend any workplace conference and you are virtually guaranteed to be subjected to a talk on the needs of millennials not being met. The storyline is that this group are so different from their older colleagues that they need special consideration. They are often pointed to as a disruptor of current workplace thinking, with many commentators challenging organizations to get themselves “millennial ready.”
Let’s put that to bed then. Research has shown there is no solid evidence that millennials have any peculiar needs or are particularly disgruntled with their existing workplaces. None. It is what are called “demographic diversions” in the recently published report, The Next 250k. This study is based on a seven-year assessment of workplace effectiveness, evaluating results from 276,422 employees across 2,160 workplaces in 67 countries.
In that time, and with the benefit of this large data set, there was not anything that suggests that millennials are rebelling against outdated workplace strategies. Why do these myths perpetuate? Real data must be used in design briefing to avoid negatively impacting decisions made when it comes to workspaces.
What is a millennial?
The millennial generation is having a growing influence on the world – well they would, like any previous generation. That is not news. But this perceived influence has prompted a host of businesses to focus on this group and to attempt to understand what makes them different. With 50 percent of the world’s population being under 30, the focus on this demographic is understandable. But, it’s not a straightforward exercise.
The first challenge is that there is no specific date for this cohort. Researchers tend to use the 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years. However, the World Economic Forum has recently released its 2017 “Global Shapers Survey,” which encompasses the views of under-30s in 180 countries, and this study challenges stereotypical opinions about generational attitudes to work. It states that salary remains the most important criteria when considering a job, a “sense of purpose” coming in at second and an “opportunity for career advancement” ranks ahead of having a good work-life balance. So, that’s their attitudes, but what about how they’re working?
Millennials are often labelled as “disruptors” in the workplace, but in reality, this isn’t the case. Think about any workplace; what are the “millennials” doing? Are they in such a position within the organization that they are fundamentally changing the way everyone works? It would be surprising if they already gained that level of influence.
What’s the evidence?
Leesman research found no evidence that millennials are rebelling against their workplaces. In fact, those in the database under the age of 34 are the age group who are reporting the highest satisfaction with their workplace environments. So, this fixation on workplaces not being “fit” for millennials is misplaced. This myth also has the potential to cause further damage, as there’s the risk that the older members of your workforce will be ignored, despite the fact they are less satisfied with the workplace offering.
But these millennials work differently, right? Again, the data says otherwise. Often, we’re told that younger generations want to work in a more flexible, agile way. However, recent research on activity-based working (ABW) – where employees can select a series of different spaces that best supports the particular activity being undertaken – reveals that millennials are, contrary to the popular headlines, the least likely group to work in an activity-based way, and they are instead the most likely to sit at the same workstation to complete their daily tasks.
We constantly hear of young people’s supposed desires for beanbags, sofas, imported grass, fashionable artisan coffee offerings and the occasional slide or swing. But the evidence of demand, let alone need, is not there to back up this assertion. And if the recent headlines on Apple’s new campus are anything to go by, they are not helping people to work effectively or remain satisfied. Instead, research is pointing in the direction of the real challenge – to create workplaces that are able to support a wide-range of different tasks. For all.
As individuals progress through their career, the number of different types of tasks that form part of their average working days starts to accumulate and become more complex; and it is here that corporate workspaces are really failing. Leesman data shows that the more complex an employee’s daily work profile, and the more activities they carry out, the more beneficial it is for them to work in a mobile way that utilizes multiple settings and areas – not just their assigned desk or workstation. Employees who do work in an activity-based way, in environments developed to support that workstyle, report higher levels of satisfaction and are more likely to report that the workspace enables them to work productively.
Overall, the adoption of activity-based behaviors in ABW spaces is woefully low, with 71 percent of employees stating they perform most or all their activities at a single workstation. The data suggests that this apparent failure to adapt to surroundings could be crippling the productivity gains organizations thought possible.
Despite commendable business intentions, employees are failing to adopt the behaviors necessary to realize the potential benefits of activity-based work models. This may merely be because the nature of their role doesn’t require them to work in a mobile way, or it could be because the physical, virtual and cultural infrastructure does not actively encourage the appropriate mobility behavior. If activity-based working can be proven to further support the diverse needs of the workforce, employers must then provide the necessary support systems if their employees are to reap any benefit from such a transition. They key point here is that this cannot just be tailored to certain generations or demographics, it needs to be across the entire workforce.
We are all just people
Millennials – the very term is clearly a diversion. The newest additions to any workforce will have a simpler activity profile than an employee who may have spent over a decade at an organization. Designing workspaces purely for the youngest demographic risks disrupting the workplace for everyone else. The youngest and least experienced workers are the least likely to gain from agile or activity-based working. So, business leaders and designers alike should stop generalizing and instead look seriously at how we can make all workplaces better for employees of all ages.
Let us stop talking about millennials, shall we? Particularly when discussing workplaces and the mythical wants and needs of millennials with regards to their working environments – there is just no evidence to support it. The only fact is that they are younger. We are all just people, all different, but with many similarities. Organizations need to use evidence-based design, so form and function are aligned for all workplace users.
The workplace is awash with data. New technology solutions appear every week to measure, inform, aid response or automate processes, and it’s easy to get lost in the noise and hype. The question organizations should ask themselves is: How many of these tools benefit the customer – the employee? Employee centric workplace solutions – those that understand the work profile of the employee and build a responsive and respectful infrastructure around them – are the workplaces that reap the highest productivity, pride and enjoyment results.
Great organizations build businesses that enable their employees to do their best work. And physical and virtual infrastructures are integral in this equation, so establishing a clearly communicated FM strategy helps you snub the propaganda and get to what is really going to make a difference for your business.
Chris is MD at Leesman, the world’s largest independent assessor of workplace effectiveness. Chris is passionate about helping organizations understand the link between people and place with the data amassed. Learn more at www.leesmanindex.com.