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Recent news highlights three themes impacting the future of work: (1) A move from suburban to urban office space; (2) division over whether work-from-home is better; and (3) an ongoing battle over how office space should be configured (with more open plans seeming to be winning for now). Let's look at what's driving these changes and some of the implications for workers. At the heart of these trends is a key demographic (the rising number of millennials in our workforce) and one key corporate goal (more collaborative innovation in the workplace).
Let's take a closer look at these three themes in changing work venue, how millennials are playing a key role in driving them and some ways you can adapt and respond to these changes.
Reversing a decades long trend of building suburban offices catering to baby boomers raising families, General Electric recently announced it is leaving it’s suburban Connecticut headquarters for urban Boston. Similarly, Reebok will be leaving a spacious, suburban campus in Canton, MA for smaller, urban Boston digs. In Boston, as in other cities, most new jobs are being created in urban tech hubs, such as Boston’s Seaport District. Driving this change is the need for employers to attract top tech talent and future leadership, which is increasingly coming from the ranks of millennials.
Unlike their baby boomer and, to some extent, Gen-X predecessors, who were eager to couple their career success with dreams of raising families, suburban home ownership and the corner office, millennials continue to demonstrate a preference for living and working in highly connected urban centers where apartments, work and recreation are all within walking or mass transit distance. At least so far, large groups of millennials continue to reject the leafy, suburban enclaves where many were raised, preferring to remain unencumbered by kids, cars and real estate. These choices enable them to spend their money on travel and social gatherings rather than on trophy houses, kid's tuitions and lawn service. Statistics show that even car ownership is on the decline as millennials choose bikes, trains, Uber or forego two cars in favor of one. As they prefer collecting experiences over “stuff,” they are happy living and working in smaller, urban spaces.
As companies plan strategically for the future, moving to urban centers makes more sense for a few reasons. Not only is this the preferred venue of younger workers who form the future backbone of the company, but the move back to urban centers may encourage some older workers (who were considering retirement) the time is right to leave. This, in turn, will create earlier, attractive opportunities for millennials, making them want to stay. While this early exit of employees may be hard on some older workers, organizations may benefit as the mentors who remain are the ones who truly have the commitment to the organization’s future success and the development of its up-and-coming talent.
In 2013, another iconic company, Yahoo, led the charge in asking work-from-home employees to return to the office. As word of increased productivity in the wake of the move leaked out, other companies have followed suit, including some major American brands like Aetna, Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard.
The results are starting to come in from Yahoo’s move and they show increased engagement and productivity. As more companies make the move to bring home based workers back, this too, will favor a younger workforce because they are not as impacted by long commutes from the suburbs and generally have fewer worries about family and home maintenance issues. Whether this dual move away from work-from-home and back to urban workplaces is a cynical strategy by which to engineer a younger workforce, or simply a natural side-effect of needing to get people working face-to-face again, only time will tell.
And this trend seems to be accelerating with IBM's recent (May 2017) announcement (after decades of promoting work from home flexibility) that large groups of employees will be required to report to offices where they can work in a face-to-face environment. During the peak years of promoting "work from home," both Aetna and IBM touted significant real estate savings as part of their motivation. It appears many of these companies now feel there is a real value in getting employees eyeball to eyeball again as they work on key projects in self directed groups. Of course, this also plays into what research has shown to be a working preference for millennials.
In a move that certainly makes it attractive for younger workers to reside close to work (and just possibly to essentially be at work all the time) Mark Zuckerberg, has created his own “Facebookville” community so younger workers -- priced out of the area’s more established real estate market -- can live, recreate and work in one spot. Again, the jury is still out whether this is a positive thing or not, as the line between work and personal time gets blurred into nonexistence.
Much has been written about the generational work preferences of Boomers vs. their Gen X and Millennial counterparts. Raised in an environment focused on individual career achievement with better office space as a clear reward, the baby boom generation grew up in a paradigm where private offices and high walls were a perk. Over time, the open office areas of the less senior workers were transformed into the mazes of cubicles present when Gen Xers came into the workforce. While the cubicles offered a modicum of privacy for a generation focused on individual performance and achievement, they were a concession by management to provide a bit more humanity and privacy to employees who, while they were part of a team effort, were still very much measured and defined by their individual contributions.
More recently, following the lead of Google and other tech firms, the trend has been towards open office environments where colleagues work elbow to elbow without walls to stifle team-work, collaboration and creativity. This is the environment most, multi-tasking millennials seem to prefer; however, as the highlighted articles, pro and con, point out, the jury is still out on the long term desirability of the open office concept. As ideas around the ideal work environment evolve, is seems clear the open concept will be with us in one form or another for the foreseeable future. To wit, the latest trend in office design, the flexible office, still incorporates open space into its approach. With flexible office design, a variety of work environments exist within one office space, including different spaces for meetings, phone calls, privacy, socialization and quiet working. Workers, who are highly mobile due to laptops and tablets may spend parts of each day in different environments depending on their needs.
If these trends continue and accelerate, greater numbers of American workers will rejoin their colleagues in increasingly urban workspaces and they'll be working in closer proximity in more open environments with less private space in which to concentrate and focus. For employees used to working from home offices or from more spacious, suburban offices, this will require significant adjustment. For workers who have grown up with a sense of ownership of workspace (“a this is my cube mentality”), they may need to get used to a more floating or nomadic workday where they drift from worktable to conference room to quiet space to cafe, depending on their current activity. Their "office space" may be reduced to the backback or computer bag they use to schlep around their devices and personal items. For introverts, in particular, this new environment presents significant challenges.
Hopefully, the trend towards flexible work spaces (as opposed to a pure open office) will help alleviate some of the stress and enable a multi-generational workforce with varying degrees of introversion and extroversion to work and thrive in a shared environment.
For ideas on how you can use technology to help your employees create, collaborate and contribute in this evolving work environment, please reach out to the Vocoli team at 888-919-5300 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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