if i had any doubt that an interior space could evoke emotion, i need only to look to memory for evidence. experience and observation support the argument. accounting for the impact of a specific space on a particular individual may be another thing altogether. Nonetheless, i think that ideas can be cast and apprehended in forms, ideas that are felt as well as understood, thug enriching the meaning we find in objects, buildings and spaces, what does this suggest for design of the 21st century workplace? i'll begin with a memory.
Not long ago, I had an appointment to meet with an architect at a well-known firm in downtown Los Angeles. I arrived at the appointed hour and stepped from the elevator into a space filled with light, one that seemed to soar upward past the open staircase and a mezzanine with offices stacked around a central atrium. I had to wait a few minutes, but I was happy to live in that generous space for a while. It felt like a place where ideas could grow towards the light. It was vibrating with activity and yet, it also felt calm.
I liked being there. Did others share that feeling? What about the bearded junior associates trekking up the staircase? Or, the young woman I met with? Clearly, they had come of age and into the workforce at an earlier time than my own. In a sense, these young people were native to a culture unfamiliar to me, separated across time as Los Angeles and Kolkata are separated geographically. Certainly, office design had changed even in the last decade. And this one was clearly a post-Millennium office, although I saw no hover boards zooming through the reception area, no dogs snuffling around desks or “ironic” wallpaper.
How different are we? Surely, Baby Boomers and Millennials share more than biology and morphology. Or, is the mindset of the Millennial generation unlike any other in history? Do these young men and women have different attitudes and aptitudes, ideals and anxieties? It may be important to find out. After all, people age 20-37 are now most of the people in North America and in the workplace.* These are the people that design can engage, inspire and empower—or not.
There seem to be hundreds of articles in print and online that describe the current crop of young adults as entitled, lazy and lacking in discipline. At work, “spoon fed” Millennials expect to be rewarded without having earned the prize. They are highly social, but unable to form lasting relationships. They have no attention span; distracted by Snapchats with co-workers and friends. Such generalities do seem to apply. What we know, empirically, is that Millennials are the most ethnically diverse of any generation and are on track to become the best educated. They are less likely to be married than young adults in previous generations and are less attached to political parties or religions. And of course, we know they like artisan coffee, indie music and bean bags.
* Note; Millennials are a significantly smaller percentage of the population in Europe and, if research by Pew is accurate, they are happier with their lives than American Millennials.
Recently, Simon Sinek, a British/American author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant published an online video that has been viewed by 6 million people on YouTube. The subject? “Millennials in the Workplace.” Sinek agrees that Millennials do pose a challenge to management, and to themselves. The source of the problem, according to Sinek, is three-fold: parenting, technology (which engenders impatience) and the work environment.
To quote Sinek, “The generation that is called the Millennials…too many of them grew up subject to failed parenting strategies where they were told that they were special…they can have anything they want in life, just because they want it.” When these young men and women are “thrust into the real world,” they discover how unworkable that self-definition is. The reality results in disappointment, a loss of self worth and a deficit of motivation.
Sinek next points out that young adults are not only fluent in the use of technology, they are also addicted to it—dependent upon a dopamine kick that hardwires the brain to seek continual affirmation from texts, tweets and re-tweets. While plenty of Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers also find it difficult to put aside their cell phones during a business meeting, perhaps only a twenty-something “executive social editor,” as described in an article in The New York Times, would “…[prefer] the theater of tweeting back and forth with the editor she sits next to rather than speaking face to face.” The editor works at Mic, a news source web site, and left her previous job because “we had to mail things. And no one really took my opinion into consideration.”
Technology has another effect on behavior thanks to an ever-ready supply of streaming news and movies, shopping websites, apps and media libraries like iTunes that are available 24/7. The “kids” get used to, and expect, instant gratification. Sinek continues, “And so Millennials are wonderful, idealistic, hardworking [and] smart kids who’ve just graduated school and are in their entry-level jobs and when asked, ‘how’s it going?’ they say, ‘I think I’m going to quit.’ They feel that they aren’t making an impact. “To which we say, ‘You’ve only been here eight months...’” Lacking experience in delayed gratification, these young people don’t know how to deal with the fact that “things that really, really matter, like love or job fulfillment…confidence, a skill set…” take time. Sinek isn’t the only writer to note the reluctance to pay one’s dues.
One writer put it this way: “If a generation had a mantra, “my way, right away, why pay?” would fit Millennials perfectly.”
Sinek’s next assertion takes us back to the office environment—not only the physical space, but also corporate culture, which, according to Sinek, is not geared to helping young human beings succeed. “We care more about the year than the lifetime,” says Sinek. “We are putting them [Millennials] in corporate environments that are not helping them build confidence…that aren’t helping them learn the skills of cooperation…that aren’t helping them overcome the challenges of a digital world and find more balance.”
In a sense, Sinek seems to suggest that companies act like good parents, aware of skills that are lacking, ready to offer guidance and feedback in order to build confidence and willing to listen to questions and challenges. Mentoring is essential. The “kids” will figure out the software.