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MixInspired: Is there any value in discussing different generations in the workplace?

We recently took over a large portion of Aecom’s new HQ in Aldgate – complete with unbelievable panoramic views across the City and a pretty impressive sunset – to discuss the next generation workspace.


7 min read

Equally impressive was our panel for the evening, comprising HMRC’s Estates Director, Frazer Smith, Roxanne Quesnel, Director at Turner & Townsend, biophilic design expert, Oliver Heath, and Novartis Global Chief Architect, Marco Serra.

We’ve been fortunate enough to know and work with a couple of Aecom’s most brilliant senior people – Simon Jackson and Terry Gunnery – for many years now. When we first sat down and thought about our MixInspired programme, we thought it would be great to tap into all that knowledge and talk about the grand, exciting days of their careers at DEGW and Gensler.

But Simon pointed out that this didn’t really tie-in with the evening’s subject matter of Next-Gen workspaces.

Therefore, we decided to go to the other end of the Aecom age spectrum and kick things off by chatting with a couple of the firm’s rising stars – Joe Cook and Olivia Madley – to discover what they’re looking for when it comes to their own work, rest and play. Here’s a flavour of the evening’s conversations:

Firstly, we ask Joe and Olivia what they think of their own space here in Aldgate?

Joe: I used to work at our previous office in Holborn and, unlike that space, here we had the opportunity to design our own office, and it’s a bit of a showcase – we often host events like this, which is great. In our previous office you didn’t really feel like you’d want to bring people in, whereas here you want to come and show it off. In terms of the least appealing aspect, I think it can be a bit of a problem living in a showcase office – people don’t want to live in a show home.

With that in mind, do you prefer fixed or agile working?

Joe: I like stuff! I do find myself coming into the office and working in the same place with the same sort of people. I can fully understand the appeal of agile working – it’s nice to get people to move around and meet other people, and I have previously worked in offices that are completely fixed and, when there’s no one there, it can feel a bit dead.

Olivia: When you’re working on different projects, being able to move and sit next to someone who you’re working with is really helpful – you can create a team around you for each project. So, flexibility is key.

I think the big question is whether designers and consultants can figure out how to use that data effectively, and how we use it to inform design.

I don’t think that coworking spaces need all the amenities they have – the real plus is that you’re around a variety of people

What do you feel your generation’s legacy will be in terms of workplace culture, and where do you think workplace design will move?

Joe: I think it will be about data. Whether it’s sensors, wearable technology… data is going to completely transform the workplace in the next 10-20 years. I think the big question is whether designers and consultants can figure out how to use that data effectively, and how we use it to inform design. I think there will come a time when we use that data powerfully, and I think people aren’t quite sure, yet, how to do that properly.

Olivia: I think that younger generations are more open to talking about mental health and the workplace can really help with this. So, if you’re feeling slightly anxious you can sit away from people or be in a group. This flexibility will continue and will help improve how everyone likes to work.

Obviously, coworking is huge right now – would you be happy to work in a coworking space?

Joe: I would, although I have a few friends who work in a variety of coworking spaces and they give me mixed feedback on their experience. A lot of them say that, at first, they used the amenities that a lot of coworking spaces have – but over time they’re finding they don’t get a chance to use them. In a city like London, the fewer amenities you have, the better in some ways. If you get the basics right and have the space looking amazing with nothing frustrating, you should be communicating with other companies. For example, one of the things I really like about Aecom is that you can go to Petticoat Lane, down the road, to a falafel shop, and you say to them, ‘I want an Aecom wrap’ – and they give you a discount! I really like that sort of thing – for instance, doing a deal with a coffee shop nearby instead of having a barista inside; getting people to go outside and use the amenities and businesses within the city.

Olivia: I would work in a coworking space – you’re around different people and ideas, and even if it’s someone who’s not in your discipline, it’s great to get other people’s opinions and see their work. I don’t think that coworking spaces need all the amenities they have – the real plus is that you’re around a variety of people.

Time to introduce our panel for the main session. We begin by asking, fittingly, whether our esteemed speakers think there is any value in discussing different generations in the workplace?

Frazer: I think so. We’ve got quite a varied workforce – from those coming in at age 18-19, through to their 60s and 70s. When you design a new office, you do have to think about quite a large age gap. There will be some things that are the same, but there will be other things that need to be treated slightly differently just because of peoples’ experience in the world – those coming out of university now compared to those around during the war. They have different perspectives in life and so you could have a clash if you tried the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

Marco: More than thinking about different generations, I’m interested in having actual discussions with different generations. I work in a big global company and we are very good at hiring young people but then telling them how things should happen and how things should go. Education typically happened by direction and today it happens by example, so I’m really interested in this conversation between different generations. Really, Joe and Olivia should be sat with us, if we’re talking about different generations, they should be present! So that’s the challenge I see.

It’s not all about these cool, fun spaces, you do need spaces for the different tasks and different things that you need to do throughout the day

Roxanne: I think what was interesting was that they did say that open plan space is not necessarily what they want – they also want the quiet spaces to work in. I don’t think it’s all about these cool, fun spaces, you do need spaces for the different tasks and different things that you need to do throughout the day.

Oliver: As Frazer mentioned, it’s interesting to recognise that we have different experiences that we use as precedent. As a proponent of biophilic design, I am interested in what we can do to create a universal design ethos that has an appeal for people, that supports their physical, mental – and by mental I mean cognitive functioning, but also emotional wellbeing – throughout the day. We all have these basic human needs that need to be met.

Marco: It’s interesting that when Joe was talking about data – which is a big word now too – he linked it to personal interaction, and what I get from young people are two things; one is the lack of physical interaction, and secondly that the lack of privacy is a challenge. At Novartis, we do the pre-move service, the post move service, the data collection – and the most powerful service is interviews. I really like that Joe was linking this big flow of information to the actual personal interaction.

What’s your view on post-occupancy research – specifically in terms of whether it’s qualitative or quantitative data that is being collected?

Roxanne: I think you need to do both. When we’ve now got all these data tracking systems, where you see which spaces are actually being used, what you really need to do is understand why certain spaces were being used more or less than another space. Was it because people wanted to part of that team, temporarily, or was it because that space actually isn’t that comfortable to be in, but you thought it would be? You must have more in-depth analysis of the human side to understand the drivers behind what the data is telling you.

The biggest feedback we get from young people are two things; one is the lack of physical interaction, and secondly that the lack of privacy is a challenge.

With this in mind, we ask the audience for their perspective.

When working on projects that deal with flexible and coworking space, many of our audience members received vastly differing views from senior fee earning clients, who are used to have an office and private space, while the next generation moving into the space wants more flexibility and choice. How would our panel best deal with those differing views, particularly between someone who brings in the biggest fees to their company, versus the larger number of people who form the main body of staff?

Roxanne: We’ve had some interesting conversations with our clients in terms of those that were resistant to moving out to open plan spaces. What they did was create semi-reserved spaces for those people, and what this client began to find was that they spent more time outside these spaces, and it was more of a comfort factor. That was interesting, but I think we need to provide enough of the spaces for people to break out into, and to have that quiet time to work – because maybe your best ideas aren’t in a busy environment, they’re when you have time to reflect.

Oliver: We recently wrote a white paper on how biophilic design can enhance a sense of community in buildings, and we were looking at one particular case study – the Patagonia offices in Amsterdam. Whilst there are a variety of spaces for people to sit and work quietly, there are also a lot of collaborative spaces. It’s quite prevalent in Amsterdam for lunch to be served and everyone sit around big tables, and you will have people of all ages and hierarchies sitting at a table – you may have an intern sitting next to a CEO, and I think that’s really valuable; gathering and understanding different ideas, and what’s going on in different age groups and different perspectives.

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