The Generation Z workforce — once thought of as craving the opportunity to work from home, where they find flexibility and freedom from the watchful eye of a superior — happens to be the demographic that is most eager to return to the office.
Researchers at West Michigan-based office furniture and design companies that track how generational differences are affecting workspaces have found that not only are younger workers eager to return to the office after being cast away by the COVID-19 pandemic, but their approach to work and the amenities they value are also shaping the modern office.
“In some ways, it might be surprising: The younger generations are so social that I think they like coming to the workplace to connect and they love the sense of being around others and building on and learning from each other and the older generations,” said John Hamilton, global design director for Coalesse, a Grand Rapids-based manufacturer of contemporary office furniture that is owned by Steelcase Inc.
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing many employees to work from home for the last year, companies were left to reimagine what their workplaces should look like and how employees will utilize these spaces. Each of the four generations in today’s workforce are having a say in that evolution.
Gen Z struggles at home
With a giant swath of employees still stuck in the work-from-home format, conferencing with their colleagues and clients via video chat, one thing is becoming clear: The younger generations place value on the office, and they need it to develop professionally.
“They’re wanting to grow and develop,” Hamilton said. “You want to be around other people and want to be learning from the older people that can show you the ropes, and you want it to rub off on you. The only place that works well is at the workplace.”
A study released last month by Microsoft shows that 60 percent of Gen Z workers — people born between 1996 and 2010 — said they are either struggling or simply surviving under the work-from-home format.
Gen Z respondents to the study admitted to finding difficulties engaging with their colleagues and were overall unexcited about work. This was true for Gen Z more so than the three other generations.
Beck Johnson, senior research specialist for Holland-based Haworth Inc., and her team started a research program a couple of years ago that focuses on Gen Z and are slowly building trend data through the program.
Johnson echoed Hamilton’s sentiments that Gen Z is looking to be around other people in order to collaborate and learn.
“They’re heavily leaning into and seeking a lot more mentorship from their colleagues, their supervisors and managers, where Gen Xers were more like, ‘I don’t need a supervisor, I can get my work done,’” Johnson said. “Gen Z is really craving that relationship because they’re really keen on learning from folks who have been through things before.”
Out of Haworth’s research, both flexibility and mental health carry a lot of weight with Gen Z.
A desire for both structure and flexibility leads to open, collaborative workspaces with pockets for one-on-one meetings.
“They do want the structure of an organization and being on a team, but the way in which they behave is a little bit more informal,” Johnson said of Gen Z. “They’re much more keen to having a structured meeting in a lounge setting as opposed to around a conference table. That’s something where probably the Boomers and Gen Xers were used to things being a little more formal and might be a source of maybe a little friction.”
Employers can make workplaces more attractive to Gen Z by taking mental health into account. Younger job seekers are looking for companies that provide spaces with amenities such as clean air, biophilia and daylight. In some cases, these employees are willing to take a lower paying job if it places them in a more positive environment.
“The fact that I have access to daylight and clean air (ranks) way up there right now for me,” Johnson said. “I can look out the window and see nature. If I’m already stressed, that’s going to be important to me. There is a connection there and our current line of research shows there is some evidence that your work environment can influence and even be a mitigator of stress if you have the right elements in place.”
Still, charting trends and conducting forecasting solely on the age of workers can be a precarious game, especially with so much nuance within each generation.
The life stage of a professional, regardless of how old they are, can often have a much more profound effect on what that person is looking for in a job and workplace, for instance.
“Sometimes, (lumping generations together) can be troublesome,” Johnson said. “You absolutely are going to run into a Boomer that might act more like a Gen Zer. It’s important to be aware that these categories are not written in stone.”
Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights for Herman Miller Inc., said his company finds it counterproductive to use a generational framework within workplace design. Doing so fails to factor in differing cultures among organizations, industries and geographical locations, among other deep flaws.
“Our belief is that using generational frameworks to guide workplace design is not only unhelpful but can actually be harmful as it can promote stereotypes, limit a deeper understanding of people’s needs, and inadvertently create intergenerational hostilities,” Anderson said.
Instead of assuming broad generalizations of each generation, Anderson and Herman Miller see a different solution.
“Offer a wide variety of work settings within and beyond the office from which people can choose to work on a given day,” Anderson said. “Don’t limit people to working from a single desk or location.
“If the employee has a wide array of options, then they can take into account the myriad of factors impacting their ability to be productive on that day. They can choose where to work to be most productive. Empower the employee with choice.”
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