Gauteng Business News

Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  17 Dec 2010

OFFICE SPACE: Finding Room for Three Generations


Recent Gauteng Business News

Today three generations - Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y - share office space. However waiting in the wings is Generation F: the Facebook generation. It's an interesting juncture in business history. It's also one that, if handled astutely, could catapult innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and productivity within organisations. Workplace design, without doubt, can contribute much to the creation of such an environment.

The drivers for workplace design or re-design are multiple: organisations want to lower costs, better utilise available space and improve productivity. These are all valid drivers with best practice used to achieve this. However, creating a smart office that matches your organisation's needs, including business culture, work practices and staff preferences, requires forethought and planning. And it is the 'soft' aspect of workplace design strategy that will determine its success.

Most utilisation studies show that buildings are only 40-60% utilised, but there is a fine balance that needs to be struck in terms of changing space: grouping people logically according to tasks may encourage interaction and improve productivity, but move them too close together (through densification strategies) and it may affect outputs negatively. People need flexibility and choice - there is no one-size-fits all. Work style preferences and work settings need considered carefully.

The typical characteristics of the three generations currently in the workplace provide a good foundation on which to begin that planning.

Integrating knowledge across generations

Baby Boomers (aged 50-64) are retiring from work but they have an immense knowledge store. They are catching up fast in terms of technology use, but they may never be fully comfortable with it. Generation X (aged 30 to 49) are the senior staffers that know how things work and why they work that way. They use technology, are independent, resilient and adaptable, dislike authority and rigid work requirements and will work with you, not for you. Generation Y, on the other hand, are just starting out. Born into the Internet Age, they 'assume' technology. They represent the start of a new era of truly boundless communication, of doing things faster, differently and without the weight of past practices constraining action. They are mobile, they like structure and they prefer to work as part of a team.

The value of stimulating interaction between these generations is significant. Generation Y, with the knowledge of the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to support them, will more easily guide businesses into this new era of communication and interaction with customers. Despite their differences in outlook and work styles, just by looking at the way the three generations use technologies and their preferred means of communication and interaction, you can begin to see the potential in terms of creating workspaces in which they can communicate and collaborate more easily.

For instance, Baby Boomers may want their own office, Gen Y would be comfortable with a 'shared desk' but may want an isolated area to conduct a confidential conversation or work on a particular task; Gen X may want multi-use space where he or she can be private and conduct team meetings, as well as a separate meeting room to conduct client meetings. Meeting all of these requirements need not be complicated. The trick is to think of spaces in terms of the behaviours of people in those spaces.

Some businesses have a culture and business processes that work well with open plan - others do not. You don't want to be taking away the office of a senior executive but you can improve utilisation of that space by perhaps shrinking the desk to make space for a bigger team meeting area in the room - and that meeting area may, or may not, be shared space. Similarly, where offices are converted to open plan design, the space 'saved' can be given back to staff in the form of 'quiet rooms', meeting areas, 'chill spaces' and lounges that will provide them with the environments they need to be productive.

Show me your desktop

Technology is a very important part of workplace design for open plan and other settings. A well equipped meeting room, backed by the right technology, will assist collaboration across generations. If a Baby Boomer prefers a flipchart, Gen X wants a laptop driven presentation and Gen Y wants an interactive presentation with access to the presenter's desktop for supporting material, how do you facilitate the interaction? An intelligent whiteboard that will store and email all sketches to all participants is a good first step. A recording of the interaction can also be made. Perhaps a Webcast set-up can ensure the meeting is broadcast to another offsite group of employees, who could interactively participate - the options are numerous if some forethought is applied to equipping these rooms.

Similarly, for everyday interaction, setting up a teleconferencing and videoconferencing 'meeting place' platform on which staff can collaborate, share desktops and information is important. The functionality offered by social media platforms have considerable merit and are now being introduced for group interaction. In the future, these platforms may well define how we create business networks.

For example, what if email were no longer a primary means of communication? It would save immense time, effort and resources: no more trawling thought everyone's contributions, no more sorting through spam, less security issues, storage and archiving challenges. While new solutions like Google Wave is now catering to these challenges, effectively allowing users to see traffic from a single email trail and archive it for easy retrieval, use of email will begin to tail off as everybody communicates more directly with everyone else, whether by means of a social media platform, IP chat, videoconferencing or voice.

Removing barriers to potential

There is also the increasingly global character of businesses featuring a cross-mix of culture across the world, and a sharing of global knowledge. Everyone does similar activities, using similar tools and there is an awareness of how things work - increasingly it's also about how people work best. The norms and standards are being challenged around the world as cultures mix more regularly both physically and virtually.

Ninety-nine percent of people want to do a good job and workplace design is about removing barriers to their potential. That includes not just creating the right physical and technological environment, but setting expectations for and managing the behaviour of people in those spaces. It is also crucial to ensure that processes that govern these workspaces are efficient and effective - if a meeting place is underutilised due to a bad booking procedure or behaviours, it may as well not exist.

Technology has changed and generations are coming together. We are almost at a tipping point and organisations need to prepare their workplaces and workforce for this era to reap the benefits.

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