Three ways to leverage your workplace to help bridge the generation gap

Three ways to leverage your workplace to help bridge the generation gap
Three ways to leverage your workplace to help bridge the generation gap


The past thirty years have seen the demise of the expectation of a job for life. We've seen traditional career paths of apprenticeship, journeyman and master craftsman largely disappear, not just in the trades but also in professions like engineering and government policy analysis. Waves of redundancies have hollowed out the middle layers of many organisations, leaving incumbents in key roles often lacking the depth of experience needed to make wise decisions. 

Demographic changes are one of the seven forces affecting corporate property decision-making. There are of course many dimensions to this, including increased labour force participation by women and a broader ethnic mix in many organisations than we've seen previously. But one of the things that is particularly interesting is the composition of the workforce by age. Traditionally the population pyramid, which is a graphical depiction of the number of people of each age group split by gender, has been fairly, well, pyramidal. That is to say, plenty of younger people and relatively few older folks. 

What's happening is that it's starting to become a population rectangle and is generally getting taller as more people live into a ripe old age and family sizes decrease. This link takes you to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' animated population pyramid, where you can see how the shape changes over time.

Throw together the lingering effects of the global financial crisis (GFC) with a bit of "generational studies", there are some interesting implications for workplace planners:

Baby Boomers have abandoned early retirement dreams - A sad fact of the GFC is that many people have had to defer their retirement plans and remain in or return to the workforce. Many of the so-called baby boomers (people born immediately after WW2, who are now aged up to 70) are seeking part time work to top up their retirement income sources. Notwithstanding the fact that longer life expectancies are forcing people to re-evaluate the level of savings they need at retirement. In some cases people are preferring to continue working at least part time simply to keep themselves physically, mentally and socially active given the expectation of a longer period of retirement. 

Generation X battling to buy into the property market - Generation X (people from their early 30s to late 40s) are in the middle of raising families. Given housing (un)affordability or by choice, many X-ers are in double income families, but often at least one member seeks to work part time to make juggling family commitments a little easier.

Generation Y job-hopping and chasing online start-ups - As Generation Y's numbers in the workforce continue to swell over the next few years as they complete their education, they will become the dominant age group at work. While noted for their upwardly mobile job hopping ways (unsurprising given they are the first generation to enter a workforce with no notion of job security), we expect that as they hit their thirties they will start to moderate their expectations of their employers as they encumber themselves with children and/or mortgages. Nevertheless, some will continue to pursue multiple jobs: the office job for income to supplement their web business or hobby job until it takes off.

Meanwhile the Millennials, who will be joining the workforce before this decade's end, are growing up in a world of iGadgets and social media and will be occupying the offices you are fitting out today.

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Here are three ways to leverage your workplace to help bridge the generation gap:

1. Support multiple generations with a mix of work settings

How do you cope with up to four generations working under the same roof? At one end of the spectrum the Millennials are likely to want something that is contemporary and open, giving them good access to management, cutting edge technology and a sense of personal control over when, where and how they do their work. At the other end of the spectrum is a generation that is perhaps least accustomed to open plan environments and may seek the solace of an enclosed office.

Across all generations we see  distraction avoidance as a key requirement, though some individuals are more adept at dealing with this than others. While some advocate a set of ear buds and a good music collection, listening to music can potentially introduce more distraction and reduce cognition, impacting productivity except for mundane repetitive activities. Quiet rooms for individual use and so-called "library" spaces where groups of people can work quietly and phone calls are banned are becoming more common. The success of such environments depends on an appropriate mobile technology solution and managerial permission for staff to move about the office and select an environment that meets their needs (including off premises options).

2. Hot desk to create space for part time and part remote workers

Even an open plan workstation is a relatively expensive overhead, generally costing a CBD based corporate in the order of A$10,000 - A$18,000 per annum in rent, fit out depreciation and operating costs. Economically (with the new world economic order in mind) it makes sense to optimise utilisation by imposing some form of desk sharing regime for all those part timers. It's an approach being adopted at a growing number of workplaces as we've seen in other posts

Organisations must be careful when introducing desk-sharing regimes. Our experience is that staff are more likely to accept workplace changes that take something away (such as an office entitlement) if something else is given back. Given the property, fit out and churn savings derived from largely or completely eliminating enclosed offices, it should be possible to channel a benefit back to the affected staff, in the form of an expanded potential bonus pool if nothing else. Effective communication of this balance is critical, which is why workplace projects need great change managers. 

Before we leave this topic I'll point out that there are several pitfalls with staff working part time (and even full timers who work remotely some of the time). The first is that many part timers target at least three days per week, therefore limiting opportunities for desk sharing due to the overlap. Another is that the opportunities for team interaction and collaboration may diminish and/or demand for meeting spaces peaks on the overlap days (and indeed we typically find midweek mornings to be the most popular time for meetings). In some cases the use of mobile technologies can overcome such issues. Nevertheless, as talented employees seek work/life balance more employers are needing to gear up to accommodate this change.

3. Mentoring the trick to keeping younger employees engaged

A problem with older fit outs is that they do not facilitate the mentoring opportunities younger staff crave. However, an issue in some cultures is the sense of entitlement that mature staff may feel towards an enclosed office, particularly if promotions or longevity have traditionally been rewarded with the proverbial "nice piece of carpet". But as more people remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age, there won't be enough senior management positions to go round. In any case (and partly due to the loss of traditional apprenticeship based career paths), there's a fantastic and desperately needed opportunity for mature, long term staff to mentor younger workers, which is not easily achieved from an individual office. 

As can be seen, walking the tight rope between each demographic group's expectations while maintaining fiscal prudence is difficult. The compromise solution may be some form of activity-based or agile workplace strategy, but perhaps without going to the extreme of forcing people to find a new seat every day.

David McEwen is a management consultant working at the intersection of workplace strategy, sustainability and technology with Colliers International.

You can connect with David on LinkedIn.

This article first appeared on Colliers International News.


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