Workplaces are eveolving to make them more creative, healthful and supportive of collaborative generation
They’ve been labeled the “Creative Class” and “Generation Y” — a legion of younger knowledge workers who don’t know life without cell phones, were raised with computer games and iPods, and came of age in classrooms where collaborative learning and group projects were the norm.

In many ways, the emergence of this technologically savvy group has transformed the way business is done. So it should come as no surprise that offices are changing to meet their desire for more comfort, flexibility, teamwork and an eye for the environment. That means low walls, more windows, open spaces and relaxed furniture that’s flexible enough to be used for multiple purposes.

Design of the space and furniture is done around the task or job, rather than the employee, including making spaces more creative and supportive of collaborative problem-solving and interaction.

“They’re trying to be less structured, more comfortable,” observes Steve Sendelbeck, director of the Workplace Design Studio at Cincinnati’s KZF Design Inc. “This (younger) generation has been in an educational environment where teaming was the norm, so collaboration is the way they learn together. That, and they are also being more selective about where they want to work.”

In turn, companies are working to create offices that they would want to work in.

First and foremost, that means that the Dilbertesque high-walled cubicles of yesterday are going the way of pocket pen protectors. “Those cubicles with high panels close you in,” points out Deni Tato, owner of Contract Interiors in Cincinnati. “Today, people want as much natural light as possible and very low horizons so you can look from one end of the building to the other.”

And modern offices have fewer executive suites appointed with dark woods and mammoth desks. “You see a lot of executives out in the open,” Tato adds.

Sendelbeck suggests that this, too, is a product of the newer employee. “This group tends to be turned off by private offices or upscale workstations that suggest some sort of entitlement and hierarchy in the office.”

Although Cincinnati remembers its conservative Midwest roots even in office design, its unique position as home to Fortune 500 companies such as P&G and Kroger have helped make it a branding mecca. Here, some of the world’s best product innovation occurs, and high-profile advertising agencies seek to attract creative professionals from around the world.

“They’re bringing creative talent,” Sendelbeck notes, “and they work on forward-thinking strategies to do that.”

How They Work

Economists predict a shortage of workers in the United States by 2030. So, companies will be forced to compete for skilled employees move than ever. Attracting and retaining talent will be increasingly difficult. That, and the fact that the economy has forced companies to do more with less, supports the idea that offices should be designed to get the most from employees, where they feel comfortable working long days and coming in on weekends.

One factor that drives design these days is the type of work that’s taking place in the space. “Companies are trying to customize the workspaces to the type of work that’s being done,” explains Jack Keane, president and owner of The Warehouse and Office Furniture Mart in Madisonville. “Most companies are adopting a team approach to most projects, so they want the space designed so employees can collaborate together.”

To address that, casual lounges, open spaces and conference rooms with a “coffee shop” feel are cropping up in offices across the region. “Younger people have a tendency to multi-task, and they seem to respond to those comfortable environments,” Sendelbeck remarks. “Every company I talk to is asking for this casual, almost recreational environment. It’s part of an attitude where a lot of these people are looking to work more flexible hours. They’re going to be working different hours, not traditional hours,” and they need to be comfortable.

Getting employees to do their best work, in the most productive way, is what office design is about. But that doesn’t mean nobody has a cubicle these days. Most jobs require some time for concentration and solitary work. One trend is smaller personal workstations, with more area devoted to common space. “Workstations used to be 8 by 10 feet, but now they’re more like 6 by 6 now,” Tato observes. “Personal space is much smaller, but shared space is bigger. Companies are focusing on making the best use of floor space.”

The cubicles themselves have a different look, says Keane, who works mostly with clients who have 10 to 100 employees. “It’s curved countertops, things that create visual interest. It’s more of a cockpit type of feel, a little more comfortable for the employee.”

After their solitary tasks of e-mail, paperwork and private meetings, employees are heading to creative group environments for team meetings. It’s a style of work that education is stressing these days, Sendelbeck adds. Group projects and collaborative learning are the rage from elementary schools to universities, and companies are following in those footsteps. “It’s just a different type of workstyle. These people coming into the workforce have been trained to work differently.”

Yet, mixed styles and projects remain in the workforce, forcing companies to find ways to meet all the needs.

Furniture That Works

One answer is flexible furniture. Workstations today are less formal, and mobile furniture is more common than ever. Tato is seeing more multi-use furniture hit the market, including chairs and tables on wheels, and desks that adjust to different sizes.

“We see lot of situations where there is a three-month project, and they have to adjust the furniture when it’s over,” adds Tato, who’s witnessed many changes during her 23 years in the business.

“The tables move, workspaces can be adjustable,” she says. “Companies want to be able to take it down and re-create a different environment without calling the facilities department.”

The design of office space is critical to accommodating the furniture, of course, and Tato says she likes to get involved with the architects and designers very early so the space and the furniture work together. An area might have clean, curved lines and open rooms, but the furniture can make or break the look. “When I think of contemporary, I think of clean and timeless. If you look at the products we have now, they are clean and timeless,” she says. “These products are a huge expense for a company. We stay away from trendy. We stay away from anything that’s going to look dated in 10 years.”

Green Is In

Companies and employees are looking at more than just the furniture 10 years out. The earth has become a focus, too, and green is in: sustainable products that use as few natural resources and do as little damage to the environment as possible. Younger generations take it seriously, and it’s coming into play in increasingly more ways in the office.

But this isn’t just about the building. Design and furniture can create waste and emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that come from paint, finishes, textiles, carpeting and an array of office furnishings. Using recycled products, combatting waste and containing VOCs is a new focus for the office furniture industry.

For Earl Flummer, vice president of Hosea Office and Facilities group in Cincinnati, recycling is a way of life. His company specializes in refurbished office furniture. “Everybody is trying to be more conscious of the environment they’re in, and we don’t want to put more landfills in,” he says. His company buys used office furniture and refurbishes it with new paint and upholstery for resell.

“One of our objectives is to recycle as much as we can,” Flummer notes. “Same thing with metal desks. We don’t put them in landfills. We try to scrap them, take metal to a scrap yard rather than landfill. It’s being melted down for your new Honda.”

Green is a big factor at the manufacturing level, too, Keane adds. Recycled products are more common and the packaging of furniture is more streamlined than it used to be. “There’s a huge push now for green sustainable products,” Tato agrees. “The USGBC (United States Green Building Council) works with our manufacturers” and other organizations to certify that certain products are low in VOCs.”

Younger workers, experts say, tend to understand that green offices are healthier. They’re often designed such that each space has individual heat and light controls. “If you design them properly and provide the ventilation, you can have more healthy workers and an environment where there is more control with personal heating and lighting,” Sendelbeck explains. “Workers who have more control tend to complain less. When there is no local control, people spend more time getting out of their workspace to heat up or cool down. When you do that, the logical conclusion is you’ll have less downtime and greater productivity in the workplace.”

Younger workers ask about it, too, and it’s considered a plus if an office has put in green measures. It’s one more way to help attract the most forward-thinking workers.