Thursday 14 May 2015 8:32 pm

The workplace designs that combat ageism: Floating desks and a paperless environment won’t suit the whole team

There has been much hype recently about what makes an office “cool”. Respondents to a survey from a design company ranked a slide, personal barista and a puppy/kitten room as the top three “cool” requirements. These may appear on the wish lists of so-called millennials, but are they likely to represent the views of employees in a typical workplace environment? 
This type of survey shows just how prevalent ageism is in the workplace. Consultancy firm Deloitte says that 48 per cent of baby boomers expect to work past the age of 65, and 13 per cent into their 70s. This means up to four generations may work alongside each other in the same office, yet that survey appears to reflect just one. 
A recent government report found that ageism in the workplace is common, with staff facing barriers to promotion and training. I suggest this also applies to workplace design. Firms are easily seduced into thinking a cool environment with sleeping pods and bean bags will attract and retain young talent, but they fail to appreciate that this may not fit with their brand, culture or workforce – and certainly will not be the choice for over 50s. This means providing different spaces for different tasks, activities and generations.


Staff should be able to work in an environment with a choice of settings suited to their preferences and tasks. The trend of offering collaborative working spaces, relaxation areas and cafe-style settings may resonate with the younger generation, but it could take some getting used to for those who have spent a lifetime being told social interaction takes place outside the workplace. 
Similarly, the growth in activity-based working, where the physical constraints of desks are removed, may be considered the norm for youngsters, but not for those used to the security of a personalised space.


Older workers have a working style that may not embrace a paperless policy; the “paper generation” may therefore feel uncomfortable when their reference tools are removed. Desks, personal space and privacy will continue to be key contributors to an effective workspace. 
In open plan environments, all generations agree that noise can be an unwanted distraction. Quiet areas, pods or both will allow people to break away from the main working area. 


And across generations, employees appreciate workplace design that maximises daylight, and furniture that promotes better posture and circulation, such as standing or height-adjustable desks. They also appreciate opportunities for movement; achieved by positioning staircases in prominent locations, placing water coolers and printers further apart, and creating a spacious eating area. 
While different generations inevitably have differing preferences, they also have the same basic needs: to feel valued and cared for. To fulfil this for a multi-generation workforce, workplace design must focus on what works for the company and its people, rather than what others suggest is cool. A workforce that spans age groups creates greater diversity, so why design only for one?
Sion Davies is managing director at Area Sq London.

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