A Futurist Predicts How Generation Z-ers Will Work (Hint: The Cubicle Is Their Friend)

Dr. Michael O’Neill, senior research strategist at Haworth, on the future of the office, the demographics dilemma, and the emerging need for clarity in workplace design

In keeping with present office trends, the Lumosity offices in San Francisco prizes lounge-like work environments, both informal and easy to personalize.

Courtesy Matthew Millman/Lumosity

In the past five years or so, we’ve seen the traditional office—the Dilbert world of fixed cubicles, all lined up in numbing monotony—begin to disappear. We have left the Baby Boomer era of office design behind and are well on our way into the work world of Generation Y. Part of this change is due to how rapidly technology has untethered us from traditional office space. But change has also been driven by the preferred work style of Generation Y, which is much more collaborative and motivated by the need for social connection. At the office, they demand choice—over the location of their work and the options of spaces to use.

In response, companies are adding an increasing variety of individual and interactive venues for work, ranging from rooftop gardens, intimate lounge areas, and cafés to game rooms and meditation centers. This generation deliberately blurs traditional spheres of life and work (home/office, work/ play, private/public), which has led to a design philosophy that celebrates surprise and complexity—and ambiguity in the intention for how work spaces should be used.

Courtesy Metropolis Archives


A prescient historic essay, written by Susan S. Szenasy and Christopher Wilk, predicted the coming age of the “electronic” office.

Courtesy WeWork


A typical WeWork office space. O’Neill predicts that such “ambiguous” offices are likely to confuse the next generation entering the workforce by decade’s end.

But in about five or six years, I predict we’ll see the need to shift that model to one that emphasizes “legibility” of space. By that I mean spaces where the layouts are easy to understand, easy to navigate, and where the spaces’ intended uses are clear and obvious. Why this shift? Changing demographics. These current ambiguous spaces are very much inspired by Generation Y. But there’s another generation behind them—Generation Z, the kids of Gen X-ers—who will be coming into the office workforce at the end of the decade. Now in high school and middle school, these kids have two defining characteristics: they highly value order and predictability (their Gen X parents were latchkey kids in the seventies, determined to counteract the chaos in their own childhoods by raising intact families and kids who value clarity and certainty), and they are almost congenitally distracted. They are heroic multitaskers, glued to their smartphones and tablets—and guess what? They’re terrible at it.

So picture them on their first day of work, walking into the Generation Y office environment, seeking structure, consistency, and order—and refuge from distraction—and instead encountering complexity, ambiguity, and chaos. They’re going to want to run away and hide: Can I sit here? What is this space for? And the visual confusion and overwhelming choices will simply add to their distraction and make it harder to get their work done.

At the same time, a significant number of Baby Boomers will be at work; many will still be years away from retirement age. And the older of these “aging in place” workers will have struggles of their own, based on physical challenges like declining vision, hearing, and mobility. Today, they complain because the workplace is shifting away from their familiar comfort zone, but in five or ten years’ time they may have real complaints. They won’t see, hear, or perceive as acutely, and the ambiguous and complex Generation Y work space around them will aggravate the problem. So this idea of legible space will take on critical importance for many office workers—young and old. It should be thought of as a universal design principle for the four-generation office of the future.

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