Exploring The Workplace of the Future

By 2030, Generation Z (Gen Z) will make up 30 percent of the workforce (U.S. Census Bureau). Born between 1996 and 2012, Gen Zers already make up 20 percent of the U.S. population. They are currently the largest and most diverse and educated generation in history (Pew Research Center, 2018). Understanding their needs and expectations for work and workplaces is essential, as their health and productivity is our nation’s guarantee for future competitiveness and innovation capacity. However, some corporate real estate (CRE) strategies today may need to evolve for this valuable future workforce.

To understand the unique needs and preferences of this generation and how to respond effectively to its members, HGA and the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces (ICHW) at UC Berkeley joined forces. Together, they designed a study about Gen Zers that would help prepare real estate professionals, employers, property managers, investors, and others for this future workforce. They sought information about how Gen Zers think about work—how they want to work, where they want to work and how they want to work with others. The study revealed that they differ from those of other generations in important ways. To recruit and retain Generation Z, employers will need to provide workspaces that balance digital, natural, and human connections. Following are details from the study.

The Study’s Approach

Wellbeing occurs when basic social, emotional and physical human needs are met. People are at their best, most productive and healthy selves when they experience need satisfaction through their work and the workplace. Prior research done at ICHW linked the wellbeing framework to seven attributes of the built environment that support need satisfaction: comfort, connection, flexibility, equity, predictability, privacy and safety. These seven attributes formed the backbone of the research.

A Multi-Faceted Methodology

For the HGA/ICHW study, four different avenues of data collection were pursued over 18 months: surveys, focus groups, charrettes and virtual prototyping. The team noted a high level of consistency across the four sets of data, starting with an initial survey produced by HGA that asked Gen Zers to identify the tools, attributes and environments that would support learning, creativity and productivity.

The early survey results suggest alignment in both the method and means across the three work modes. For example, learning and productivity were best achieved through small group work, experimentation and prototyping. Respondents saw a critical balance between digital and physical tools, with the pen/paper and the laptop tied as the top choices to support learning and creativity. These themes of balance and the immediate nature of work and learning would continue to express themselves throughout the results.

Two rounds of focus groups were conducted. The first round led by ICHW confirmed and expanded the team’s early survey findings by refining how the seven attributes could be articulated in a work setting to suit Gen Zers’ interests. A substantial body of research was generated to inform a two-part charrette held in HGA’s San Francisco and Minneapolis offices. The charrettes further explored the workplace attributes articulated in the research with a broader, more diverse set of participants and market perspective. Lastly, HGA’s Digital Practice Group prepared for the second round of focus groups by creating a virtual-reality (VR) experience for Gen Zers to evaluate workplace designs generated during the charrettes and based on study findings. With the aid of embedded capabilities of narration, environmental manipulation and real-time survey responses, the VR immersion enabled Gen Zers to report their preferences and feedback as well as validate proposed designs and workplace features.

What We Learned

The research study generated four key themes important to Gen Zers:

  • Balancing connections to nature and technology
  • Using technology to facilitate connections, with people remaining at the center of problem-solving
  • Expanding safety requirements to include psychological safety and equity
  • Providing customization and control via choice-rich environments
Balancing Connections to Nature and Technology

Gen Zers are recognized for their use of and reliance on technology, but they do not want to be defined by it. As the world continues to automate, there is a deep desire from this generation to incorporate the natural world into the workplace—100 percent of focus group participants stated they craved a connection to nature, and 71 percent preferred a nature view over an urban view. This finding should be viewed in balance with other preferences around access to amenities and transportation, however; as 86 percent indicated that the office setting would impact acceptance of a job offer, the associative context does matter.

Indeed, access to nature was a non-negotiable for Gen Zers. Incorporating nature into the workspace is good for all employees, research shows. The benefits of biophilic design are measurable and impressive: reduced stress, recovery from mental fatigue and enhanced focus, to name a few. Maximizing natural light, using natural materials, and incorporating plants and biomorphic form and pattern into spaces are a few of the ways to implement nature in the workplace to meet Gen Zers’ basic needs.

Using Technology to Facilitate Connections

While Gen Zers are fully integrated into the digital world—harnessing its potential and pushing tech forward—the inherent need for human connection remains strong. Gen Zers view people, not technology, as the key to problem-solving, building communities and feeling safe. An illustration of this preference occurred during the VR focus groups in which Gen Zers, when given a choice between a virtual or actual person reception experience, chose the actual person. In fact, 43 percent said they preferred a digital-free reception experience. Why? An actual person would be able to respond to a visitor’s unique needs and create a sense of confidence and belonging upon arrival and throughout the day. This is key to engaging this new generation.

Gen Zers see “connection” as multi-faceted, so the creation of spaces that foster face-to-face connection and multiple opportunities for spontaneous interaction and learning remain evergreen. Gen Z is accustomed to on-demand learning and will look for work experiences that facilitate the building of a self-curated learning portfolio. After all, this generation grew up with social media; it places a high value on individuality. The digital experience must work seamlessly with the physical one as Gen Zers view technology as an avenue for both connection and privacy. Balancing connection and privacy in workplaces will be vital to their success.

Social relationships have always been a significant contributor to life satisfaction at work and was identified as a top priority by study participants. They look to the built environment to support, even facilitate, social relationships, but in a special way. Gen Zers want places for social gathering to be intentional rather than ambiguous. That is, they want to have places that provide an excuse for being there (e.g., coffee bar, meeting places to sign up for company events, steps for sitting and listening to presentations or lectures). They are less inclined to go to locations where they are by themselves or where they feel they have to explain themselves. Social prompts such as opportunities to contribute to the cultural fabric by leaving a “mark” or sharing stories will help this generation better navigate social settings. These strategies also support an expanded definition of safety, a prevalent topic in our findings.

Expanding Safety Requirements

Typically, safety and security are regarded in the physical sense; however, this was not the focus for participants when asked to consider these attributes. Instead, Gen Zers incorporated mental safety into the equation. Thinking beyond the building when it comes to security to account for inclusion and psychological safety will be a telling characteristic moving forward. Remember, this is a generation that has grown up with safety drills in schools and they are now wired to believe that these physical safety protocols are already in place in their work environment. Yet, in their mind, it may not be sufficient in providing the sense of safety required for wellbeing. Both physical and emotional wellbeing in the workplace ensures a well-rounded approach to safety. And, presumably, accounting for and providing mental-safety resources act as a deterrent to physical security threats.

Gen Zers’ expanded definition of diversity and orientation toward social justice has resulted in a heightened consciousness around inclusion and how participants viewed the relationship between equity and safety in the workplace. In both the breakout sessions and large group discussion, participants believed that the future office for Generation Z meant considering a place that welcomes everyone. This belief was consistent with thoughts around equity, which was defined as having equal opportunity or access to resources—a clear break from the approach of sameness in favor of recognizing the individual.

Creating human-centric design fosters the empathy and equity Gen Zers want in the workplace. This can be achieved by the addition of natural light, transparency, openness and color—all of which are perceived as safer, according to study participants. Ensuring employees have access to human resources and gender-neutral bathrooms, and that site selection, amenities and design consider a broader range of abilities such as neurodiversity and cultural diversity, can increase the feeling of inclusion and safety.

Providing Customization and Control

While connection has been a recurring theme in the research, Gen Zers look to control when and how their connections occur. From on-demand learning opportunities to how and when information is shared, designing the workplace of the future should include choice-rich environments. Just as the boundary between digital and physical is blurred for this generation, we saw a similar blurring between privacy and connection in 100 percent of participants. As one participant explained, “Trust is at the core of privacy and connection; they must coexist.” While privacy was valued, isolation was not: 64 percent reported a preference for transparency as opposed to partitions, regardless of material, between private and open spaces when given options within the VR environment.

Layered over all of this was a desire to control or adapt spaces to support the personal needs of the individual or group. The curation of spaces that aid in connection and privacy may take the form of time schedules for “concentration hours” and “connection hours.” These are workspaces with a private area and a social area, cleanly and acoustically separated from each other or with the capabilities imbedded through building automation. Workspaces that include areas where a variety of postures for working were often discussed in the focus groups.

While these findings suggest mobility, we also discovered that the desire for personalization or even a “home base” should not be overlooked but rather rethought. Gen Zers want to have their own space, with 50 percent seeking an assigned space and 100 percent indicating that personalization is a must.

The Challenge Ahead

To meet the wants and needs of this group demands new, thoughtful and intentional workplace design efforts to balance digital, human and biophilic elements.

Does designing for nature dictate a shift to suburban settings as opposed to urban? Knowing that Generation Z is mindful of a workplace meeting the needs of other generations, is the equity-based approach equally important to those other generations?

More research and data will be useful moving forward. Exploring more opportunities to engage participants in VR-aided designs, as well as working with other generations to see how they respond to workplace design ideas generated from Gen Zers, research will allow our team to approach the future more holistically and confidently.

About the Authors

Melissa Jancourt, CID, LEED BD+C, is a designer and strategist who co-leads HGA WorkSIGHT, HGA’s national strategic planning group.

Cristina Banks, Ph.D., is director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley, leading a team of scholars and practitioners in innovative research projects on healthy workplaces.

Caitlin DeClercq, Ph.D., is a core researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley, leading a study to identify workplace design features that promote positive psychological states in employees.

Read the full article, “Study Explores Generation Z and the Workplace of the Future,” in CoreNet’s The Leader.