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Employers Aim to Appeal to Millennials

The Topeka Capital-Journal | January 2, 2016

Attracting and retaining excellent employees makes the top 10 list of the most difficult tasks for most business leaders.

As the nation expects to lose hundreds of thousands of retirees from the baby-boom generation, companies are looking to millennials - often defined as those people who became young adults at the millennium - to fill those slots.

Two national office design experts have proposed the idea that companies wanting to attract top-notch employees from the millennials might want to create an office atmosphere that mimics that generation's environment from college.

Jonathan Webb, of KI Furniture in Green Bay, Wis., and Brett Shwery, of Kansas City's HOK, were in Lawrence recently to talk about the idea of matching corporate environments to the more relaxed, collaborative environment found on university campuses.

“If you really want to boil down what millennials are looking for, you can kind of sum it up by just saying millennials want what millennials want,” Webb said. “This idea of work-life balance, and choice of workplace, flexibility, autonomy, the want for this is really unparalleled to previous generations. Organizations do have to account for it, because this is the largest working generation in the workplace now.”

Webb and Shwery spent a year talking to Top 100 companies and also new employees to see what worked in terms of office design in attracting and retaining younger workers. The result was a white paper - http://bit.ly/1d1wn8V - that explored how millennials like to work and what companies might want to consider to retain those employees.

“Eighty-six percent of our clients have told us that newly hired graduates become lost when making the transition from college to corporate,” Webb said. “To have an environment to try to get millennials to come to your company and stay at your company, it might behoove you to study where they've spent the last four to six years of their lives, and not just the work settings, but the work styles that evolve with those work settings.”

Companies need to consider the different work styles of their employees, which encompass everything from focus work to spaces that allow for interaction in a semi-private but shared environment to spaces Webb called “ideation” areas.

“Everybody works in different ways,” Webb said. “We can define 'focus work' in very different ways. For some people, they need to be boxed in; they physically need walls around them. Some people need to be plugged in. For other individuals, focused work might need to be that they can work wherever they want, as long as they're free to put headphones on.”

Webb said company leaders he spoke with said about 25 percent of recent college graduates liked to work everywhere, in what he termed a “distributive” manner, which is very much like university campuses where students work in the commons area or the union, for instance.

“Every company that we spoke with admitted to us that newly hired graduates liked to work in groups - not necessarily teams, but groups,” he said, adding that anything that allows individuals to have an audio or visual connectivity to each other throughout the workday is going to be a bonus for those employees. Google and other tech companies in Silicon Valley are doing this kind of collegiate design well, and they are the companies about whose working environments young people often talk.

Webb and Shwery aren't necessarily advocating a completely open office environment, a design popular in the past two decades that has generated some real haters. Jason Feifer at Fast Company wrote a story a couple of years ago about open office design, saying, “The open-office movement is like some gigantic experiment in willful delusion,” and critiquing the lack of privacy and work efficiency such designs create. That article got more than 29,000 shares online.

But the collegiate style advocated by Webb offers the varied environments for employees to work, and that idea certainly has a place in some design areas. Bryan Falk, an architect at ArchitectOne in Topeka, said the new Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers, referred to as T-CALC, will feature the flexibility and openness of design like that found on the Google campus.

The goal of that facility is to prepare juniors and seniors in Topeka for professional environments.

“The idea behind what Google is doing is they offer a fun workplace environment that's open, with natural light and even toys and bright colors, and it's just kind of different than your typical office environment,” Falk said. “They think that by doing that, they get the best talent, the people who are going to do the best work for them.”

There always will be a need for private areas, too, Falk said, but making changes like more connectivity and more natural light make a tremendous difference in spaces. At T-CALC, for instance, there will be outlets in the floor about 8 feet apart from each other throughout the building. Flexibility, he said, is key.

Open spaces at work may bring positives, but they also bring challenges, Falk said. If an area will have numerous conversations going on, then the designer needs to take into account acoustical challenges as well as areas where there may be the need for visual privacy.

Open areas don't always work for more traditional businesses, like banks, financial services companies or health care. It is necessary to meet privacy needs, too, and that is something Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas deals with in office design, spokeswoman Mary Beth Chambers said.

“We're looking at it in the areas that we can look at it, but there are some limitations,” she said. “I know we have had a couple of areas in our technology division where we are trying some what we call bullpens, a larger more open area where several folks can sit.”

But with numerous employees on the phone providing customer service or selling products, and keeping in mind the need to protect health information privacy, Chambers said, “In those areas, we really do look to keep our cube world.”

In addition, she said, about 22 percent of the Blue Cross workforce is made up of millennials, but 34 percent is composed of baby boomers who may not take to the open workspaces as well.

“When you have a team that's multi-generational, if you do something that one really likes, it might make the others uncomfortable,” Chambers said. But the company does provide numerous conference rooms, and there are a couple they call “collaboration rooms” that have whiteboards and other options for comfortable communications.

As Advisors Excel remodeled an existing building, pockets were created throughout that allow for informal meeting spaces, said Matt Beier, director of employee initiatives. There are “couches here and there” throughout the building and in meeting spaces, and smart boards - the electronic white boards that capture what is written - were included to help with communications, he said.

The flexibility Webb talked about has been important; in an area just finished off earlier this year, four conferences rooms can be collapsed into one large room or separated into smaller areas. Each has its own presentation access with audio-visual capabilities and integrated computer systems, Beier said.

Beier said he talks about the working environment a little bit as prospective employees tour the building, and there is even information on the working environment written into job offers.

But questions like whether the employee has a window, or a cubicle or office, don't usually come up. At this point in recruitment, he isn't sure that would be a big issue “because they want the job.”

The creative services team, which operates like an ad agency, has areas where it can collaborate, Beier said. Even in the operations area, space has been created with some openness, which allows employees to easily ask each other questions as they process paperwork and handle communications.

As with Blue Cross, though, client privacy has to take priority, which means that in other areas, employees work privately. In fact, they have even gone back to some cubicles and put an extension toward the top to offer more privacy, though those additions include a window that makes it feel more open, he said.

Although the working environment may be important to millennials, Beier said Advisors Excel has focused more on some of the other psychological elements that appear to be important to younger people. One of those, for instance, is that “they want to feel like they're part of something bigger,” he explained.

“We work in a pretty cool industry - it may seem boring from the outside, but what we do helps people retire and helps people live the lifestyle that they want to in retirement,” Beier said.

“So we try to share stories from our advisers or from their clients about what exactly it is that we're doing,” Beier said. “Our goals and objectives are very clearly communicated; there is literally a daily update via email on where we're at against these goals and objectives, keeping that line of sight on what we're trying to do. I think everybody understands how their department or specific function fits into that bigger overall goal.”

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