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To Attract Millennial Workers, Ditch The Cubicles

Photo: Wikimedia Commons; Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch
Credit Photo: Wikimedia Commons; Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch

As you head to work this morning, your workspace sits empty, awaiting your return. Maybe it’s a cubicle, a windowless box, or a corner office with a view of Boston harbor. Whatever it is, that may change soon, in order to not only accommodate but attract a younger workforce.

It comes down to millennials — the 20-somethings with a rep for being as lazy and wayward as they are tech savvy and enterprising — so enterprising that they leave a trail of jobs behind them. The turnover rate among them is high — employees leave after about four years, which can be costly for companies who want to retain talent. But one approach to reeling them in is changing the office space. Over the past several years, the office has been morphing into something less geometric, and interior designer Jeff Tompkins, of Boston firm Spagnolo Gisness & Associates, says it’s because millennials don’t want to work in a box.

"For the most part, millennials are looking for varied spaces where they can interact with other people in their organization to come to collaborative solutions on problems they are trying to solve for their companies," Tompkins said.

Meaning the majority of the space is an open layout, with a few private spaces and offices thrown in — but those private offices are not for the people you’d think they’d be for.

"They’re not for the CEO," he said. "They’re for the head of HR or for R&D developers, privacy issues, you know, to protect secrets. They’re job function-based, not authority or celebrity."

And while all of this might sound warm and fuzzy, workplace-practice consultant Richard Kadzis says you can have a cool office space with rivers of free café mochas, scooters and nap rooms, but it doesn’t mean anything if the progressiveness isn’t reflected in how the office is run.

"If you don’t give your employees the power to think and express themselves, and listen to them and actually use the advice they’re giving you, then open, progressive workplaces, healthy materials, great lighting, becomes secondary," Kadzis said.

There are companies that do it right. Google and Zappos, with their young workforces, almost invented this kind of culture. And while this is something you primarily find in the high-tech sectors, other industries are taking on this approach physically and philosophically: food service, hospitality, and health care.

However, be warned.

"If you have a top-down, hierarchical, paternalistic management style, and you superimpose that over an open, progressive contemporary workplace design, you’re mixing gasoline and fire," Kadzis said. "That’s a prescription for really bad productivity and loss of employees."

Millennials may be sparkplugs of innovation, but they can become incendiary if not managed with care.

Copyright 2014 GBH

Cristina Quinn is a reporter and news anchor for WGBH-FM.
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