Generational Shift

As younger workers enter the workforce, and more of them expect to be mobile, the pressure is on for designers to create more flexible spaces with smaller budgets.

03.22.2012 by Peter Conant

As technology drives change and a new generation emerges in the workplace, designers have responded by creating spaces that are more flexible and anticipate future technologies, while still reflecting the current culture of collaboration.

The emergence of new technologies in the workplace is changing the way people work and conduct business every day. Mobile workers are empowered by personal technology such as smartphones, laptops, iPads, wireless internet and real-time data sharing, enabling them to communicate seamlessly and be virtually present, yet physically remote. Collaboration technologies such as cloud computing have given employees the ability to access documents from any of their devices, further promoting the expansion of the wireless work life. Designers and manufacturers recently discussed how this technology is changing and impacting the workplace at the International Interior Design Association’s (IIDA) 15th annual Industry Roundtable, held this past January in Chicago.

The rise of the mobile workforce is allowing companies to get work done faster and more efficiently. By 2013, there will be nearly 119.7 million mobile workers in the U.S., according to a study done by Cisco. This is contributing to the change in the landscape of the office. There is an increase in the shared spaces in work environments that encourages interaction between coworkers. There is also a focus on designing workplaces for a transient population, and creating specific spaces that are welcoming for mobile workers.

At the IIDA Vancouver Leaders Breakfast in February, keynote speaker Jay Shuster, an art director at Pixar, shared insights on the creative work environment and design of the company’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, their headquarters include a 600-seat theater, two 40-seat screening rooms, a cafe and a fitness center. The office interiors have been designed for fun, including bright colors, life-sized statues of characters from Pixar movies, “clubhouses” that serve as offices, and a game area with ping pong, foosball and pool tables. For the imaginative and artistic minds at Pixar, this is the kind of place they’ve always dreamed of working. It’s a place where their work doesn’t feel like work, and that is reflected in the company’s office environment.

In the center of Pixar headquarters sits a huge atrium that acts as a central plaza for the campus, as well as a meeting area for employees. The offices are open, with collaborative spaces and lounges where coworkers can socialize and engage—a design trend that is growing in other work environments as well. The goal is to be user-friendly, and it speaks to the idea that individual work and collaborative work can occur anywhere, given the right environment. Collaborative areas are becoming key workplace elements for clients, especially now that employees can work remotely and do not always have that full-time interaction with each other.

Not only is the design of the workplace changing, but so are the people in it. Baby boomers, generation X’ers and generation Y are working alongside one another, and bringing their own values, goals and communication approaches to the workplace. A study conducted by the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation revealed that by 2025, generation Y will account for 75 percent of the world’s workforce. This generation has grown up in homes, schools and communities where attitudes towards a more socially and technologically connected world are the norm, and this has changed their outlook on work. Motivation, employee engagement and career drivers are measured and viewed differently by each generation. Learning to manage these expectations and work styles will be a challenge all employers will take on in the future. IIDA recently released a white paper from its recent Industry Roundtable detailing these generational differences, along with the impact of social media and how it’s evolving the workplace. That paper can be accessed online at the IIDA Knowledge Center.

Employers are also facing the difficult task of creating workspaces that can accommodate all generations. Firms are now paying close attention to the need for flexibility in the widening disparity of work styles, habits and social interactions between the different generations; that is, in turn, leading to new workplace strategies. Understanding the dynamics of the people and the work environment is key to building a space that enhances the day-to-day work experience for employees.

Clients are looking to firms to help them redefine who they are, and to design the type of environment that will help them attract and retain the best employees. They are also trying to change their workplace to enhance productivity, increase efficiency and offer more flexible work solutions. With competition increasing daily, clients need their spaces to say and do more, in regards to customer and employee loyalty. At the same time, this is often accompanied by a smaller design budget, so providing creative solutions while keeping costs in mind is more important than ever before.

Many designers are expanding the scope of their interior design services to better assist their clients in areas including change management, branding, graphics, real estate analysis and workplace strategies consulting. Design firms are also partnering with client teams to look inside an organization to understand people’s current needs, beliefs and processes; these teams are then looking outside to best-in-class examples and future trends. The result has been an integrated, efficient approach to providing total design service packages that is expanding the role of interior designers.

In short, the dynamics of the office environment—including the advancement of technology and the introduction of a younger generation to the workforce—have dramatically changed over the last few years, and will continue to do so in the future. Down the road, designers will be challenged to imagine a work environment filled with constantly evolving technologies designed for the newest generation of today, as well as for the innovators of tomorrow.


IIDA President Peter Conant, IIDA, AIA, LEED AP is the founder of Conant Architects in New York. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at