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What Does Gen Z Want in a Workplace?

February 4, 2020

When someone mentions Generation Z, you might envision teenagers endlessly scrolling through their smartphone. Maybe TikTok or Snapchat comes to mind.

But Gen Z -- defined by the Pew Research Center as those born in 1997 and after -- are entering the workforce. Millions of these young people are currently on college campuses or have recently graduated. Millennials and their workplace preferences have been the hot topics in workplace design in recent years, but that conversation is changing. Employers now want to know what it will take to attract and retain a new generation of workers.

Our recommendation to employers is to head back to school -- to look at the college campuses where many members of Gen Z have spent the last few years of their lives. The way that higher education students work and study can provide insight into their workplace preferences.

College to Corporate: The New Driver for Workplace Design

We’ve been investigating how collegiate design can influence corporate design since 2012, when we partnered with AECOM on a research project. Our hypothesis? Corporations should take design concepts and cues from higher education because of the influence these learning environments have had on new graduates entering the workforce.

Our first two phases of research revealed that very few corporations were taking collegiate design into consideration when designing office spaces. We interviewed companies from numerous industries and found that:

  • Ninety-one percent of companies saw no similarities between the workstyles of the students they observed on a college campus and their firm’s work environment.
  • Nine of every 10 recently-hired college graduates felt “lost in transition” when making the jump from college to a corporate workplace.

We used this research and student observation to help employers learn what millennials -- the crop of newly minted graduates entering the workforce at the time – wanted out of their workplace. Student observation revealed a variety of work and study habits:

  • They work and study everywhere.
  • They use outdoor spaces for work and socialization.
  • They simultaneously work, socialize, and use technology.
  • They view technology as integral to every work style.

Snapshot of a Snapchat Generation

We had a hunch that what millennials want may not be equally appealing to what Gen Z wants. We turned to Gen Z in the third phase of our research. To explore how Gen Z works in college and what they expect from their employers, we surveyed more than 500 upcoming college graduates across nearly 70 schools in 40 different states from late 2018 through 2019.

Many of us think of college students as working just about anywhere. They’ll pull out their laptop, pop in some headphones, and get to work at a café, in the student commons, under a tree on the quad or on the floor next to an outlet. This was definitely true for millennials.

Our research on Gen Z suggests the opposite. Here’s what we found:

  • No more coffee shop study spots? Gen Z students named their bedroom or dorm room as their favorite place to work. The school library and commons came in second and third, respectively.
  • Quiet is king. The top three qualities Gen Z students look for in a work or study spot are quiet, easy access to power outlets and an ability to personalize their space. No wonder their favorite place to study is their dorm room.

But the members of Gen Z are not loners. Eighty-five percent of Gen Z students say they prefer to work in multiple spaces and environments. And they still turn to school libraries and common areas to work while socializing with friends.

What can employers learn from this survey data? The members of Gen Z want a workspace of their own -- one that feels familiar, offers privacy and reflects their personality.

Gen Z Design Strategies

Our research indicates that some workplace trends -- like unassigned seating and activity-based work -- are not in line with what Gen Z is looking for.

Gen Z’s workplace wish list includes the following, according to our survey data:

  • An individual workstation.
  • Large and open work areas.
  • Spaces to collaborate.

Given Gen Z’s preference for quiet, private and personal spaces, it’s no surprise that they prioritize individual workstations over an open floorplan. Just 8 percent of Gen Zers are looking for completely open offices. This is in stark contrast with the rise of open plan offices we’re seeing across the country.

Gen Z wants work-life balance just like everyone else, but they also want to establish a clear distinction between the two. When asked to rank the workplace attributes they preferred, Gen Zers put amenities like gyms, locker rooms and laundry facilities last. When designing for Gen Z in the office, employers should prioritize personal workspaces over buzzworthy amenities like ping pong tables and on-site yoga.

A smart approach is Choice-based work, a design strategy that offers each employee an individual workstation as well as flexible, open work areas like lounges or cafés where people can socialize or collaborate with their colleagues.

Furniture solutions like KI’s Tattoo Collection accommodate workspace change and support individual work styles. Employees can easily arrange and rearrange elements like screens, dividers and storage as they shift roles and responsibilities. Employees have exceptional flexibility to configure their space any way they want.

Looking Ahead

There’s a stark difference between how Gen Z likes to work and how employers approach workplace design. Just 45 percent of the students we surveyed said that prospective employers asked them what type of environment they like to work in.

Nearly nine in 10 students told us that the look and feel of a workplace influences their decision whether or not to take a job. This statistic should be a wake-up call to employers as they recruit young talent. Open, collaborative conversations between employers, employees and potential workers would serve organizations well.

What worked to attract top millennials won’t necessarily win over the best and brightest Gen Z has to offer. If employers ask the right questions and accommodate their staff, Gen Z will have a place to call home.

Stay tuned for additional information and resources regarding Generation Z and their workplace preferences!

by Jonathan Webb  Director - Workplace

Jonathan Webb leads KI’s strategic business unit, serving the business market. Jonathan studies workplace trends, uncovers product gaps and develops solutions with the KI team. Jonathan takes part in advanced workplace strategies and documents his findings through white papers, articles and other publications. His recent publications, Understanding Active Design: The Rise of Human Sustainability and Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design, have put Jonathan in the media spotlight. Partnering with thought leaders like AECOM, his publications cover diverse subjects including sit/stand benefits, designing training environments and defining work styles. Jonathan holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh School of Business and is a LEED accredited professional.

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