Generation Y – who are they? And why are they different?

office design for generation Y

Generation Y and the Workplace – is this generation different or not and what does it mean for space and ergonomics?

Much has been made of the perception that Generation Y individuals are different from previous generations. Evidenced, for example, by the way they act, connect and operate within office environments. However, our research suggests that in many ways they have the same basic needs and respond to some positive and negative aspects of office environments in the same way as their colleagues from other generations.

We aim to introduce briefly the similarities and differences and examine the implications for office design, configuration and ergonometric design.

Generation Y, also referred to as Echo Boomers and Millennials or as we prefer “Always-On Millennial” are mainly defined as the specific generation born between 1977 and 1994. They are now aged 20 to 37. They represent new graduates, middle managers and high flying leaders.

What makes Generation Y so different from previous generations?

Well they are seen as having the ability to tap into technology seamlessly; blur the boundaries between work and social contexts; have fun at work; and be continuously and globally, professionally and socially, connected.

So what does this mean for workplace environment?

Always-on Millenials tend to have multiple devices and blur boundaries between the use of employer provided equipment and their own. In many countries the majority have more than one mobile device and prefer to use these devices rather than laptops and most certainly static, desk based equipment. Couple this with a move to more flexible working, non-territorial desks and project-based environments and it is unlikely that traditional approaches to office configuration and ergonomic solutions will be suitable for this generation.

Office layout and office design for generation Y

Yet in our experience we still see the “one size fits all approach” being adopted in many organisations with uniform solutions for all generations, all personality types and cultures.

Officeworks in association with Dr Barry Haynes (Sheffield Hallam University) and Professor Nick Nunnington (Nottingham Trent University) have been examining the positive and negative drivers of productivity within office environments in Europe and the Middle East and their applied research illustrates dramatic differences and similarities between these groups.

One example of this is an assumption that because this generation is “always-on” they cope with noise, distractions and densely occupied open plan floor spaces with ease. This assumption is driven by the fact that teamwork is a very high priority for them and regular connectivity both real and virtual is essential. In this regard collaborative open plan environments work well for them. However, to assume that they are immune to distractions, according to our research, is a fallacy.

In many studies we have examined what employees regard as the most negative aspects of their workspace. Combining the results of detailed surveys undertaken with several organisations, we see that: whilst the profile of the three generations making up the workforce of the organisations surveyed have significant differences, all generations have very similar negative responses to distraction from noise created by people. As can be seen in the diagram, in fact distractions from people, equipment and movement in open plan offices continues to be the consistent “big issue” for most workers regardless of which generation they are from.

Whilst Always-on-Millennials may be seen as the generator of some of these distractions, because of their work-style, in fact our research shows they are equally aware of the negative impact of productivity that noise and other distractions create upon them.

So for office design and configuration we ask the question:

Why are we still designing one size fits all, when our own research demonstrates wide variations in what positively and negatively impacts on productivity between gender, culture, generation and personality type?
Why are we still designing one size fits all, when our own research demonstrates wide variations in what positively and negatively impacts on productivity between gender, culture, generation and personality type?

The latter is interesting in terms of the emergence of the recognition of the importance of the introvert or “data analytic”. Susan Cain explores this in her excellent book “The Power of Introverts”. Interestingly Steelcase has adopted her philosophies in a strategic partnership and are developing office solutions for quiet spaces as the gallery on their website illustrates.

Our research also demonstrates that it is dangerous to generalize Always-on-Millennials as extroverts, many use technology for data analysis and have introvert personality types so again one size fits all solutions will not work. Our research is building up a comprehensive data set as to what positively and negatively impacts upon all types of employees based on gender, cultural background, generation and personality type allowing a more informed approach to office design and configuration.

So what about the issue of office ergonomics?

There is no doubt that Always–On-Millennials rarely use a PC or even a notebook, yet in most cases they sit at a desk which at best has been ergonomically configured for a static notebook solution. What does this mean for posture when using an iPad or other tablet or mobile device?

Tim Hanwell, an expert in musculoskeletal disorders associated with sitting, explains that ideally a PC screen should be at eye level to encourage good spinal posture and to help reduce the risk of developing a thoracic kyphosis (forward flexed spine in between the shoulder blades or hunchback) which he commonly see patients presenting with at his osteopathic clinic.

As mobile devices with a fixed keyboard and screen including iPads, touch screens and smart phones are often held in the hand this encourages spinal flexion and tension in the upper thoracic/shoulder muscles.

This problem has become so acute that some furniture providers such as Steelcase have released innovative products such as the Steelcase Gesture Chair which has a creative new design that supports the body in the unique postures associated with the use of laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

The positive aspect of Always-On-Millennials behavior is that they tend to be much more mobile, agile and fluid than previous generations so even if their posture is not ideal at their workstation they do not tend to be static for long and movement can mitigate problems of the use of mobile devices.

The single biggest problem with avoiding musculoskeletal pains whilst using a PC (or mobile device) is the lack of variety for our bodies; we tend to adopt a sitting posture and maintain it for many hours. The human body adapts to the stresses put upon it and therefore variety is key to maintaining musculoskeletal health. Regular breaks from sitting can also help reduce weight as research by Dr James Levine from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, USA has highlighted. Following various studies including the use of ‘Smart Pants’ which uses sensors to measure a subjects every movement he has come to the conclusion that regular daily gym workouts are not enough to combat the ‘sitting disease’ but that getting up and moving about for 10 minutes every hour is more beneficial. Therefore the Always-On-Millennials have an advantage as they are regularly switching between devices and are more likely to be on the move.

So, in conclusion, we strongly recommend that companies treat “one size fits all solutions” with extreme care – your workforce is highly diverse in so many dimensions and our research shows that not understanding this and providing generic layouts leads to less than optimum productivity and performance.

The 2013 Gallup national poll of the US workforce found a disturbing number of people disengaged and uninspired in their workplace.

We believe this is not just about “horrible Bosses” some of this is arising from misguided and uninformed “one-size fits all solutions” and a lack of understanding of an increasingly diverse workforce.

OfficeWorks is collaborating in a partnership with Dr. Barry Haynes and Professor Nick Nunnington to apply their many years of workplace and productivity research and consultancy to the practicalities of office design, configuration and specification which places employees at the heart office design.

This article first appeared in Cardinus Connect Magazine: The new rules – How smart working is changing the game for ergonomics (p8-9)