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Designing the Workplace for Millennials

Every year, an old Scottish pastor came to town to preach. This guy was ripped right out of a story book: he was at least eighty years old, never used notes, and had an awesome accent. One year, he preached that supposedly difficult questions are often poorly asked questions. His refrain was:

You’re asking the wrong question”.

Millennials have upended the business world. In 2016, they became the largest generation in the workforce (according to the Pew Research Center). Employers are scrambling to accommodate this new generation and asking, “How can we design spaces for Millennials?”

As the Scottish pastor would say: “You’re asking the wrong question!”

An interior design director I spoke with often gets asked the same question. Her reply:

“The truth is, we don’t. We design for people. Perhaps the biggest ‘difference’ for Millennials is that they link meaning to work. But that isn’t a generational thing, it’s a human thing. We design for meaning, not Millennials.”

As talent becomes more mobile, the bar for workplace engagement and design continues to rise. Companies that design their workplace for meaning are winning the war for talent.

Case Study: Quicken Loans

A year ago I was touring downtown Detroit with Bruce Schwartz, and walked through the Quicken Loans office. I was blown away at the boldness of the design, the attention to detail, and the miracle of creating a call/service center that people (myself included) were eager to work in! Later, I was shocked to learn that the space was constructed 10 years ago! As I dug into what inspired the space, it became clear that it was Quicken Loans’ culture of energy, passion, and a get-it-done attitude.

That workplace reinforces the culture at Quicken Loans, and gives employees a sense of meaning at work. Quicken was named the #14 company to work for by Fortune this year. Rumors are that the team occasionally takes mid-day breaks for indoor hockey games (much to the chagrin of the facilities managers).

Five Best Practices

How do designers infuse meaning into offices? I sat down with several design directors to find out, and five best practices stood out:

#1 – Start Early

One designer’s favorite part of the design process is creating a workplace strategy that captures the cultural essence of a company. The key to executing this successfully, she says, is engaging early. Interviews and observational data are gathered and reviewed with company leadership and key stakeholders to determine the strategic vision for the space. “Being clear on the vision helps you navigate difficult design decisions and tradeoffs later on,” she says, “because you can point back to the vision you all agree on and decide: what is the best path to get there?”

#2 – Ask and Listen

Designs often fail because key questions are never asked. One interior design company begins by asking questions that are meaning-centric, rather than task-centric. One of their favorite questions is, “What do you want to see celebrated?”

This question should be asked of both leaders and individual contributors, and the answer might vary across locations, departments, and even teams. One team might want to see values celebrated, for example, while another celebrates accomplishments. Celebrating the most meaningful parts of work is foundational to an engaging workplace.

#3 – Wayfinding

Wayfinding is a small thing that can go a long way – either toward making your workplace feel like a carefully designed home, or like a drab warehouse. Small touches like customized signage and thoughtful placement can go a long way. Custom colors and murals can make large offices intuitively navigable. “It might be hard to remember where room 2751 is,” says one designer, “but if I work at an auto manufacturer and I tell you I’m by the yellow sports car mural, you probably know right where I am.”

Subtle wayfinding “clues” are an effective complement and an opportunity to add meaningful artwork and colors. For example, Bennett Day School in Chicago was designed with different colors for each floor, so even preschoolers can navigate the halls safely, and know what floor they are on in case of an emergency.

#4 – Art

The temptation when choosing art is to choose for aesthetic beauty and consistency. But for the employee that sees the art piece hundreds (if not thousands) of times, art presents a unique opportunity to create a meaningful reminder. Another designer notes that excellent art not only incorporates local themes from local artists; it incorporates company-specific and team-specific themes. Art is a reinforcing manifestation of culture. The wise designer will carefully select art that sends a clear and consistent message.

#5 – Attention to Detail

The final best practice is perhaps the most important: attention to detail. An otherwise thoughtfully designed workplace can be absolutely derailed by any number of distractions. I once saw a $53 million building open, only for the facilities team to realize in horror that no trash cans were purchased or installed!

One designer added: “Even the best design can look terrible if the lighting temperature is not planned correctly; yet many forget to double-check.” She continued: “While it’s often not the first thing on a designer’s radar, HVAC is absolutely critical.” And she is right: you could be in a beautiful conference room with a world-class view, but if the temperature control is poor you will be miserable.

Conclusion

  • Designing for Millennials is a short-sighted approach to workplace engagement.

  • Focus instead on designing a workplace that is the physical embodiment of the organization’s culture by thoughtfully infusing meaning into every aspect of the design.

  • Do not let good design get drowned out by distracting miscues.

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