When millennials meet design

Generation Y’s ideas about community shape the workplaces of today... and tomorrow

When it comes to office design, creative companies and tech businesses have been among the first to embrace the millennial generation and its outlook. Attracting and retaining young talent is a driving force here. But perhaps more important is setting the stage for creativity and innovation to take place in industries where innovation and breakthrough make all the difference.

Unsurprisingly, our clients in tech or web-based business tend to be heavily millennial in make-up. Understanding their culture requires us to tap into a spirit of today. It’s a hyperactive, sometimes hyperaware way of life in which social media habits become real world ones and vice-versa. ‘FYI,’ ‘DIY’ and other web-friendly abbreviations come fast and furiously in conversation. Time is tight, so much is done in shorthand.


WeWork Multiple locations 425,000 SF (multiple locations) Team: Len Cerame, Mitchell Levy, Ricardo Bermudez and John Yee

While discussions of millennials, their tastes, lifestyles and outlook can risk engaging a pattern vast over generalizations, some level of understanding of millennials is required for us to open the door to a different way of thinking about workplace design. What follows are ideas about designing for millennials shaped from my experience working with tech companies and online clients.

For millennials, the idea of community is paramount. It’s something they talk about when we ask them what they find important. In their view, the office is a community. They and their peers are part of a larger community. At work, they want to contribute to something wonderful, good, groundbreaking and unique. Everyone works together toward common goals. When work is done, they relax with the same people. In this workplace community, they want to know that they can express themselves and their opinion, rally for the causes they hold dear, do charitable work and promote it, engage others with it.

As we see the line between work life and leisure life blurring, millennial-friendly workplaces increasingly resemble microcosms of millennial life. There’s an urge to pack all of the places where life happens in a workplace. Recently a client requested, of all things, a spinning room. Why? ‘A number of people at the company are serious spinners. If we can give our team one in the office, why wouldn’t we?,’ they told us.

In the past, the office was a serious place designed for executing work-related tasks, with carefully designed lobbies and public areas and organized spaces that were largely designed for work and work only. The program was fairly limited.


Library at Tech workplace Washington, D.C. 54,000 SF Team: John Jessen, Pablo Quintana, Liz Peterson, Justin Do, Marian Danowski, Richard Brown

Now, program is anything you want, anything you might want to do while at work. These functions may even seem superfluous to work. But in this mindset, where the workplace is an extension of life, they make sense. As the workday blurs into the rest of life through mobile technology, working after work has become commonplace. And life blurs back into work. In the new workplace, the totality of life can occur at work. Food events can be hosted at work. Some tech companies go so far as to provide three home-cooked meals for their employees. You can get a massage, you can spin.

I call this an urbanization of the work environment. In this mode, the workplace becomes part-café, part-exercise room, part-spa. It resembles the places you go after work. These functions and amenities are becoming acceptable, even expected parts of the new workplace. These amenities can set one employer apart from another in a competitive environment.

Game rooms, outfitted with the latest Xbox but also vintage pinball and eighties video games, are evidence of a mix of style and nostalgia (not to mention extreme leisure) that these workplaces favor. I call this ‘The New Modern,’ a mix of urban, vintage, authentic and raw aesthetics in a space that’s full of texture, color and energy. It’s not a calm environment. It’s vibrant, it’s electric, it’s in your face.


Hook & Loop New York, NY 20,000 SF Team: Mike McManus, Cayce Becket and Erik Millward

This new modern aesthetic language finds a special affinity with the millennial group in today’s workforce. This urban palette may look like your favorite bistro or sushi bar. It brings a stylish city vibe into the workplace. The workplace is decorated like the places you like to go when your work is done.

It takes on the aesthetic of leisure. Work doesn’t look like work at all in this environment. This sleight-of-hand may be distracting by design, but the idea is to stimulate the imagination in the day-to-day environment of work.

Some find this type of workplace disruptive, full of unnecessary excesses which aren’t contributing to a successful workplace. I believe these are productive places. Everything the workplace provides for its employees is designed to allow that worker to come up with a new innovation. These amenities and aesthetics are intended to set the stage for creativity and innovation to occur. It’s about creating a place where people can escape from the typical workplace and be unencumbered, be free to imagine, to create and to visualize.

We’re finding that many aspects of the office are changing. One client, for example, has eliminated the receptionist and reception desk. Any staff member can greet visitors and welcome them to the Wi-Fi-enable café for a meeting. I expect that changes like this are just the beginning of a total reimagining of the workplace. Today, it’s not unusual for us to spend 75% of our time and effort designing this hierarchy of amenities and choice for a workplace project.

Keep in mind that these amenities and non-traditional approach to the office are not for every office or culture. Still, the new workplace is here, much more serious than it may appear and worthy of our attention. For businesses and organizations that want the brightest minds and most creative thinkers, embracing and getting the millennial workplace right is a matter of survival.

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