Space and connectivity were the overriding design goals for Vestas’s new American headquarters in Portland, Ore. The 133,258-square-foot space for the Danish wind-turbine manufacturer is cut open by a five-story atrium, which is flanked by open offices and glass-enclosed meeting rooms. “The only thing between you and the person sitting across from you is your monitor,” says Sabine O’Halloran, a principal at Portland-based Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, which designed the Vestas' interiors. (Local firm GBD Architects oversaw the building’s core and shell restoration.)
Along with an abundance of natural light, Vestas’s employees—many of whom are young professionals—have access to an in-house gym and a rooftop dining area, along with typical office support spaces such as conference rooms. “You have your zone of focused work at your desk, but you really are encouraged to access different spaces in the building depending on the need,” O’Halloran says.
The shift in office design to open planning stems from changes in how we work and who is working. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center noted that people born between 1980 and 2000—the Millennial generation or Gen Y—are more mobile and collaborative, and less hierarchical than Baby Boomers and Gen X. When asked for the top five qualities that distinguish their generation, 24 percent of Gen Y respondents rated technology use first, as compared to 12 percent of Gen X. Work ethic was first for Boomers and second for Gen X, but it did not make the cut for Gen Y. Gen Y’s lifestyle priorities also included “musical/pop culture tastes” and “liberal/tolerant outlook,” which did not make the top five for Gen X or Boomers.
All of this suggests that the office is not just a place for Gen Y to hunker down at a desk, crunching numbers and composing memos. Instead, work can be a place to surf the web and listen to music just as easily as home can be a place to work.
“When I started 20 years ago, you had to be at your desk,” O’Halloran says. “That’s a big difference between Generation X and Gen Y.” Whereas technology has previously served as a tool, she says, “for the new generation, it’s an extension of who they are. They can work anytime, and that’s normal.”
The demographic shift has changed office design dramatically, she says. “It’s forced us to create these multifunctional spaces…. It’s not as much about what you can claim as your own versus what you share with everybody else.”
Most offices are a mix of open and private offices, says Birmingham-based Gresham, Smith and Partners interior designer Julie Roquemore, who recently designed Nissan’s North American headquarters in a Nashville suburb. “They’re using both open and closed offices, shared and enclosed spaces,” she says. “They have a few private offices, but they’re all glass. The doors are rarely closed, but they’re there in case they need to be.”
For companies that can’t afford the internal gyms and cafés, technology has enabled and even necessitated offices to be sited in dense, pedestrian-oriented communities chock full of amenities. Take the New York startup 29th Street Publishing, which is developing an iPad magazine platform. Occupying 1,000 square feet in Manhattan, the 10-person office has “rows of desks in half our space” along with a few chairs and file cabinets, cofounder David Jacobs says. “Everyone is working on the same problem every day, and there are no secrets.”
The lack of support spaces is made up by the company’s deliberate location in Silicon Alley, a cluster of tech companies along Broadway between Greenwich Village and Midtown. Down the street from the office are the Ace Hotel and entrepreneurial hubs such as Dog Patch Labs, where employees can hold private meetings.
Though 29th Street cofounder Blake Eskin had enjoyed the privacy of his own office at a past employer, he’s embraced sharing his current workspace with four other people. “Beyond the explicit communication and reconciliation of understanding, there are the nonverbal cues—the music, the shared snacks, the putting furniture together and reconfiguring it as we change and grow,” he says. “These all help create a sense of complicity and shared purpose.”
Still, designers can’t draw conclusions about their clientele solely by generation. A 2012 study by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies found that “older generations tended to view younger workers as valuing professionalism, involvement, formal authority, face-to-face communication, and continuous learning to a significantly lesser extent than Generation Y professed to (emphasis added).” Gen Y, in turn, actually overestimated how much Gen X valued professionalism.
Boomers also erroneously overestimated how much Gen X valued technology and social media. In short, the researchers note, older workers can be mistakenly regarded as “rigid and inflexible,” younger workers as “irresponsible and entitled, and the workers in the ‘middle’ are misunderstood by both younger and older generations.”
As every architect knows, office design requires a thorough assessment of their clients’ operations, culture, and vision. While open, shared offices may not be suitable for every company, replacing Dilbert-style cube farms with spontaneous collaborative areas sounds like a win-win for everyone.