BUENOS AIRES — Shifting workforce dynamics are presenting companies that specialize in office furnishings and design with a new and unusual problem: how to create spaces that suit employees from multiple generations.

Whereas in the past, large and mid-sized firms would have two or perhaps three generations working side-by-side, nowadays there can be as many as four. That's because in addition to Baby Boomers (1945-65) and Generation X (1965-80) workers, there are also Millennials (born after 1980) and even some hangers-on from the so-called Silent Generation (born before 1945). We're also seeing Generation Z (born since 2000) start to make its presence felt.

The challenge for office-design companies is to keep "this combination of ages and work types" in mind, says Alejandro Mariani of Contract Workplaces Argentina, in Buenos Aires. Because what's at stake, he adds, is "productivity and the staff getting along."

The broad range of generations is very much a reality in Argentina, particularly in light of recent labor-law reforms that prevent firms from retiring employees under the age of 70. At the same time, 45% of the country's workforce was born between 1980 and 1995.

The office has different connotations for the different generations.

Research done by Business Interiors, a British firm, found that each generation has its own interpretation of the work/life relationship. For people in the Silent Generation, work is a duty and a sacrifice, whereas as Boomers see it as an exciting adventure that leads to personal fulfillment, albeit without time to rest, according to Business Interiors. People form Generation X, in contrast, see work as a challenge that requires a contract, but not at the cost of social and family life. They want an adequate, measured separation of work and life. And millennials want to integrate life and work, seeking both satisfaction and meaning.

Contract experts thus see each generation as having a differing vision of the workplace. The oldest generation, with their sense of discipline and duty, prefers spaces that define and clarify hierarchies, while Boomers are optimistic and oriented toward teamwork and professional development. They want both personal and group spaces. Generation X workers want flexible offices that can be personalized, and with direct access to technology, while Millennials and the successors — with their technological skills and talent for multitasking — want their workplace to be advanced and fun.

A study by the architect and design firm Gensler found that the office has different connotations for the different generations. Silent Generation workers see size as communicating achievement. Boomers feel similarly, but especially like offices that favor consensus and collaboration. Younger generations tend to personalize their workspace. Generation X, which also likes teamwork, finds closed offices less attractive and yet, Gensler found, when necessary they will find a private spot to work alone, even outside the office. Millennials were found to be able to work in many places.

Gensler office design for a communications marketing firm in London — Photo: Dave Parker/Instagram

How then can designers harmonize the tastes and aspirations of generations that respectively want stability, collaboration, relevance or recognition for merit?

Gensler experts found that these generations found common ground in five central areas where each group has priorities or where a problem could be resolved with strategic thinking or design. The areas of overlap include significant work, collaboration, learning, technology and flexibility.

From the real estate perspective, the challenge for formal learning spaces is their level of flexibility for other uses, and the ease of changing technology when necessary. Research has shown that most collaboration takes place in groups of two or three, which suggests solutions through mobile furniture or planning for reflective space rather than simply allocating vast amounts of space. The architects see better collaboration between the generations as basically a matter of creating as many ways as possible for people to meet, formally or otherwise.

Different generations don't always see eye-to-eye on how exactly they define significant work, what they want to learn, or in what ways they like to collaborate. But they do at least agree on the importance of these different areas. And that, if nothing else, gives design firms a starting point from which to develop their strategies, Gensler concluded.

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