Designing the Office of the Future

Don’t plan it around (what you think you know) about U.S. Millennials

Written by CBRE | November 2014 | Download Original Report

Attack of the millennials?

In 2007, the news magazine television program 60 Minutes gave us our first in-depth look at the millennial generation in a story called “The Millennials Are Coming.” In that broadcast, they asserted that, “A new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred: From giving orders, to your starched white shirt and tie. They are called, among other things, millennials.” It has been seven years since the episode aired and millennials indeed are here en masse. Currently, millennials represent about 24% of the workforce and it is estimated that by 2025, more than 45% of the workforce will be comprised of millennials, accounting for the largest generational segment of the workforce.

As a generation, millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are widely characterized as being extremely connected, tech savvy, diverse, expressive, optimistic and socially minded. In the workplace, they have been described as being adaptable and collaborative, multi-taskers, and as having a general disregard for organizational hierarchy.

In response to these broad-brush categorizations, corporate boardrooms and real estate departments are preparing for the millennial onslaught by re-thinking workplace design and technology standards. In more than a few organizations, the debate has centered on how to balance the needs of millennials with those of a more tenured workforce. Effectively: How can they provide millennials what they desire without potentially alienating everyone else? After all, baby boomers are delaying retirement (according to a recent Gallup poll), and although Generation Xers have a lower profile, they still make up 27% of the current workforce.

One of these things is just like the other

As it turns out, how millennials work and what they want from their work environment is not drastically different than what Generation Xers and baby boomers want. In fact, in the vast majority (75%) of the 250 questions CBRE’s Workplace Strategy team posed to more than 5,500 U.S.-based professionals from a wide range of industries in its workplace surveys, there was no more than a 10% difference between how millennials responded versus how other generations responded.

How they work

Yes, millennials are collaborative (they report spending approximately 38% of their time interacting with others), but they are not spending any more time collaborating than their more tenured colleagues. In fact, they actually report spending slightly more time doing individual-focused work than their colleagues from other generations. When CBRE’s Workplace Strategy group looked at the aggregated survey data of how people report spending their time, they found little difference between generations. However, there were larger differences in how people responded from organization to organization, indicating that company culture is likely a better predictor of how time is spent in the workplace, as opposed to generational differences.

What they value in a work environment

When asked what types of spaces would enhance a future workplace, millennials placed most of their value on spaces that allow them to think and concentrate, followed by spaces to meet and collaborate and spaces for learning and training. Of least importance to millennials was space for socializing, although they still rank this as considerably more important than their Generation X and baby boomer colleagues. Essentially all generations are making the same argument and they want a little bit of everything in a work environment— they want choice.

What is different?

According to the survey, millennials do not track with Generation Xers and baby boomers on everything, but where they differ is a bit surprising. When asked how they would like to work in the future, millennials said they would like to spend more time connecting via email and more time in formal meetings. And, despite major efforts by companies to enhance internal knowledge sharing and networking, they said they would like to spend less time on company-sponsored social networks. While this does not exactly play into the stereotypes of millennials preferring more informal and socially based communications, it does illustrate the desire to have increased visibility into organizational decision-making and a more established and integrated seat at the table.

What it means for the “workplace of the future”

Locating the office of the future

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion around the shift to urban cores as population levels in the urban core of many U.S. cities have increased faster than the suburbs. Corporate America has taken note, as numerous Fortune 500 companies are either headquartering their offices or expanding their portfolios to include space in urban cores. While there are many reasons for this shift, the most notable has been the desire to attract the millennial talent that (presumably) lives there.

While it is true that the millennial population has risen in many urban cores in recent years, there has actually been a more substantial increase in the number of millennials in suburban neighborhoods throughout major metropolitan areas. In fact, less than half of all millennials live in urban cores—although this share varies greatly from region to region and is generally a function of a city’s geographic boundaries within its metro area. Also, when evaluating the top 30 metro areas by total population, mid-sized MSAs such as San Diego, the Inland Empire and San Antonio, lead the way when it comes to millennial population as a percentage of total adult population.

Even though more millennials live in suburbs than urban cores, CBRE’s Workplace Strategy group predicts the desire to attract talent will continue to drive demand in downtown office markets— but not specifically because millennials will live there. Why? Most (71%) of employees surveyed self-report that their average commute time is 45 minutes or less (regardless of whether they live in the city or in the suburbs). As long as average commute times remain under an hour, urban centers should remain attractive to companies, as they can tap both the urban and suburban talent pools.

Designing your office of the future

The results of CBRE’s inquiry into generational work patterns and preferences actually make a strong case for companies to make “future” changes now, as traditional work environments are not working as well as they once did. In looking for more spaces to think and concentrate, millennials are not shunning collaboration, rather they are reacting to environments that, by and large, give them limited space to collaborate and socialize, but practically no spaces (or conditions) in which they can focus. Millennials, more than any other generation, enjoy to work in all types of work spaces and have a strong desire for flexibility and choice in the workplace.

CBRE’s recent white paper, “The Balanced Office,” outlined an argument for giving all employees greater flexibility and choice by creating office environments with a greater diversity of space types, investing in design, events and programs that drastically improve the experience of being in the office (in alignment with local culture); providing technology that enables employees to work seamlessly in and outside of the office; and extending the trust required for employees to feel they can make their own decisions about where they need to be to get their jobs done. CBRE’s aggregated workplace survey data clearly supports these goals for employees across all generations.

The bottom line: Do not necessarily design the workplace around millennials. Design a well-balanced office that can accommodate all generations of workers—one that provides a healthy mixture of independent focus workspaces, areas that provide greater collaboration opportunities (virtual and face-to-face) and an environment that promotes employee socialization.

For more information contact:

Diana Riekse | CBRE | 630.573.7055 |