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Less Collaboration, More Quiet: Building For Gen Z, The Digital Natives Coming Soon To The Workforce

In the last two years, millennials have become the largest generation in the American workforce. Developers, designers and landlords have been falling over themselves to create workplaces that will keep millennials happy to give companies a competitive edge in the war for talent.

But Generation Z — of which the oldest members are turning 22 this year, according to Pew Research — are now a reality in the workplace.


Though there are few of them in full-time employment yet (as of 2019, Pew has defined Gen Z as those born in 1997 and onward), they will begin making a meaningful mark on offices and corporate culture in the next decade.

Building and creating for a multigenerational, diverse workforce — and creating the kinds of amenities that will be attractive in the ruthless office leasing market — will all be discussed at Bisnow's New York City Office & Workplace of the Future event June 20. 

“The biggest issue for Gen Z is how they are being asked to work,” said Corey Seemiller, an associate professor at Wright State University who has written four books on the generation. “They are intrapersonal learners. They love learning, but do it on their own. If they are forced to collaborate, it’s going to be overwhelming.”

Gen Z is expected to account for around 40% of all consumers by next year, and is said to be the first truly digital-native generation.

They have been widely influenced by the impact of the Great Recession, Seemiller said, creating something of a paradox in their views of employment. While many seek flexibility and look to follow their “passion," they have learned early on to worry over money and that having a job is not a guarantee.

From a workplace point of view, however, Seemiller said millennials and Gen Z have differing approaches to the workplace. Millennials have come to focus on collaboration — think working “pods” and shared spaces, she said — while this upcoming generation does not.

“They want to have an office space, they want to have a workplace. They don’t want to be there 8 to 5 every day clocking in and clocking out,” she said, adding that this particular generation also values, and is very used to, working alone.

The glass-walled conference rooms and open-seating office spaces that have come to define the modern workplace may not work for this next generation.

“They don’t like the idea of sitting in a glass room and collaborating all day. They want independent time to work on projects," Seemiller said. "Collaborative spaces are potentially [going to be] used differently."

Convene Chief People Officer Amy Pooser said Gen Z is likely going to be looking for workplaces that allow them to work both individually and collaboratively — people in high school and college now will seek offices that support different types of workers.

“This generation is very thoughtful and sophisticated in their understanding of generational differences,” she said. “They want a workplace that really benefits and supports the diversity … [and] there is a premium on the workplace that can support continued education.”

HOK designed Teach for America's national headquarters in New York City

In New York City in particular, a flood of new office development in the past few years has raised the bar across the city. Tenants have flocked to expensive, new or renovated spaces with top-notch amenities, paying more per square foot, cramming employees into smaller, more efficient offices.

The key driver behind it is employee retention and attraction, but many landlords and designers find striking the balance between efficiency and modernity on one side and productivity and cost on the other a complex puzzle for which there is no clear answer.

With the workplace becoming increasingly diverse, and the general population changing in enormous ways over the next decade — all baby boomers will be over the age of 65 by 2030, for example, and the U.S. population will be made up of more older people than children for the first time ever — that answer may be even more elusive.

HOK principal and Director of the WorkPlace Practice Kay Sargent said in some ways, companies and developers have “overfocused” on millennials in their approach to design. Workplaces would be better served focusing on greater “demographic inclusivity,” she believes, rather than trying to pander to a particular age group.

Still, she points out that Gen Z has some defined characteristics: They are more used to communicating online, and to broadcasting their lives.

“This generation is overloaded … more so than any other generation,” said Sargent, whose company designed Teach for America's headquarters in New York City and GroupM's space at 3 World Trade Center. "We do not need to create any more chaos."

Less visually cluttered spaces and areas that can be used for both group and individual work are now going to be crucial, she said.

“[Members of Gen Z] are already being barraged online," she said. Younger workers want offices that "help them de-stress, help them make visual connections, face-to-face interactions and be able to retreat.”

888 Broadway

But she points out that beyond generational differences, there are major differences between introverts and extroverts, and workplaces need to be more nuanced in the approaches.

“We need to get to the point where we are designing for everyone,” she said.

Normandy Real Estate Partners principal Paul Teti, whose firm counts a spec office at 799 Broadway and office conversation at 888 Broadway among its projects, said developers need to keep adapting and changing to meet generational demands.

“The millennial generation and workforce has certainly informed a lot of what we see in new development, but I think [things like] the wellness aspect, the outdoor space are really, really permeated through corporate culture,” he said. "Everyone is after the same thing — that is satisfying talent.”

Hear more at Bisnow's NYC Office and Workspace of the Future event June 20 at 175 Pearl St. in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood.