Well-Design… at Work

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Well-DesignI have been interested that, on several recent occasions, the idea of designing for wellness principles has strongly come forward. For example, I was recently facilitating a change alignment session with 40 people who will move from private offices into a shared workplace. This level of change is abrupt for this group, and they have many concerns. One concern that came forward was a fear of germs, and the sharing of sickness because of more open settings and shared surfaces. The fear, though not completely logical, gained additional momentum after the session as a symbol that, “open space lessens wellness.”

I had been seeing a waning of interest in design specifically for wellness; particularly for programs like LEED, Well-building, Green Globes, etc. Upon deeper thought, I wonder what the gap is between what these standards promote, and what people need to be well in their work and workplace.

Wellness is a part of well-being, but being well is more than simply reducing exposure to germs to protect the health of the body. I recall a few years ago the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking”, which ignited a sit-to-stand desk revolution that is continuing today. While physical health has remained a core of well-design, physical health alone is incomplete. Even Well Building Standards seem short of a complete picture of what well-design could/should/would be.

Here are four well-ways to consider the value of design toward being a “well” person:

1. Physical wellness: Fitness, exercise, and aerobic health; The Body.

A few years back we designed an interior project for the new calls center with, what I would consider, an above standard fitness center for a corporate site of 1,200 people. Also, to promote stair use over elevator use, the developer of the build-to-suit core and shell built the stair towers outboard of the building core, expand the stair widths and landings, and glass enclosing the full height corners of the landings. A year later we measured the perception of people working to determine an increased drive to choose the stair over the elevator. We also built an interior strategy for design to include a “walking path” around the full outer edge of the floor plate and passed out pedometers on day one. A year later we observed people walking the path during their 15 minutes breaks from the phones.

2. Social well-being: Positive human interaction; Relationships.

It seems our design profession has centered on this reality with a design focus on collaborative environments. The idea has been sound in driving people together to share ideas and build culture. Yet, we know that ‘open’ does not equal ‘social’, and the backlash of the past few years has been resounding. Social interaction tends to happen in small social dynamics, while open expanses natural heighten the senses, causing eventual social exhaustion. There is much work for us to do in this area of designing for relationship well-being.

3. Psychologically well: Mental fortitude and reasoning ability; The Mind.

This is an area of great fascination involving workplace design. How do we, in what we design for people working, affect the nature of psychological fortitude? To be a well-minded person may best refer to feelings of emotional control and positivism. People that are generally perceived to be psychologically well tend to show themselves as secure, generally focused, and usually positive. In the workplace these individually well people seem to ‘belong’ and produce results for the benefit of others. Psychological wellness may represent alignment between the individual and the organizational culture into which they belong, generating an above average ability to think and reason in the face of complex work. Belonging comes about from shared vision, strengths-based alignment, and equitable exchanges of value within the work being created. Belonging reduces physical and social stresses so that thinking may come forward from psychological clarity. For design to add value to be psychologically well, we as designers must cross back and forth with business vision, aligning design to a branded experience in the workplace that creates mindfulness. I suggest, therefore, when we create graphic messages and images inside the workplace, the mindful actions and attitudes of the work may create psychologically well people. More work is needed on this.

4. Creatively and Intuitively well: Inspiration, aspiration, and the experience of life; The Spirit.

Of the four qualities of being well, becoming creatively and intuitively well is the most complex and difficult to conceptualize. This is spiritual in nature. Creative and intuitive well principles in work seem to connect with our inherent drive to produce results, based on our intrinsic desires, inherent strengths, and volatile passions. Every child is an artist without fear of criticism for their scribbles that tell their stories. The combination of maturing along with self-awareness and extrinsic criticism build rationalism that erodes these childhood creative and intuitive drives. Most work environments have, through trial and error, managed out creative systems in lieu of efficiency and effectiveness drivers. Teams are organized in hierarchies, and status symbols are assigned to space types. The results are an implied suppression of the intuitive nature of ideation. I believe this aspect of well-centered design remains vastly unexplored and full of potential as a design philosophy that would enhance the value of well-design.

These four key well-design criteria, to me, seem to play well in terms of space promoting a whole person experience. These four principles, in themselves complex, are an attempt to simplify and categorize the idea of abundance thinking over deficit thinking as defined by positive psychology.

Kim Cameron teaches from his research in organizational culture that, “Evolutionary theory suggests: If people ignore negative information, it could cost them their lives. If they ignore positive feedback, it only causes regret.”. He teaches that only through conscious effort can we overcome our learned deficit attitudes. Building on this, I wonder about the positive value of investigating the potential of well-design principles.

A focus on any one aspect, such as a fear in germ sharing, has too much potential to create an imbalance in well-design strategy. As we worked with the group of 40, we introduced the relationship, the thinking, and the creative value of the design. At the outset, the negative fears outweigh the positive imagination, but the business value was seen in the purpose of creating a well-design workplace for people. The team did decide to distribute disinfecting wipes on day one.

The Three Branches of Design: A look at history provides a glimpse of the future

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“Occasionally, in times of chaos and change, there is value in reconsidering and reevaluating foundations for a previously conceived or discussed idea. Facility design is one example of where this process applies. As work-place design continues to morph between the challenging demands of being more efficient and effective and providing a greater experience for people, everyone involved can gain value in design considerations by looking back in time.

According to the ancient Roman architect and author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (De Architectura, 15 BC), architecture consists of three requirements: strength, unity, and beauty. They were referred to as the Vitruvian Triad. While the manifestation of these three constructs may have changed over time, it’s important to evaluate how a rebalancing of strength, unity, and beauty can impact the future value of workplace design in a positive way.”

Read more.


My Transition from Hard-Goods to Professional Services continues…

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My first 60 days on the other side of the fence have proven to be enlightening. The transition from sales leadership and consulting on the manufacturing side of our workplace “eco-system” to pure consulting with an Architectural and Design firm has been rife with “Fish out of Water” moments, but educationally stimulating none the less.

I have been blessed to have worked for a global leader in workplace research and workplace effectiveness that leveraged user-centered design to manufacture some of the most innovative products in the contract furniture industry.  It was that exposure to the IDEO research methodology and the implementation of Design Thinking that provided clients with a differentiated experience and have allowed me to comfortably settle into my new role at BHDP Architecture.

In its 80-year history, BHDP has become a leader in understanding how space impacts human behavior.  We not only design beautiful, inspiring spaces, but spaces that contribute strategically to help our clients achieve their business goals. Over time, BHDP has developed a culture of curiosity, problem-solving and thoughtfulness that has endeared them to clients and forged decades-long relationships with world class companies such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Macy’s, Nationwide Insurance, Fidelity Investments, JPMorgan Chase, Dow and many more.

Our clients have told us that we are truly different primarily because:

  • We Listen
  • We engage passionately with clients
  • We thrive on complex and challenging projects
  • We work deliberately to focus on results because we want every project to be a success
  • We employ a rigorous approach and a design process that is truly different
  • We bring a deep knowledge of how spaces need to evolve and how that impacts design
  • We are comfortable with change. We know why change happens and how to embrace it
  • We perform as a team to leverage our collective strengths
  • We value our clients and often become their trusted advisors

Should you or anyone you know be considering different approaches for designing workplace environments that achieve results, please feel free to connect with us.

Chris LaPata, MCR


Designing for Behavior

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behavioral design

A private visioning session takes place with the client to understand the behaviors expected for the space. Questions like “What do you accomplish in a given day?” are asked.

There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives. -Winston Churchill, 1924 

To design an environment is to know what will likely occur in that environment. The more capably a designer is able to get in touch with the intended purpose of the space, the more likely the designer’s final plan will create value for its tenants. Knowing the actions and attitudes that will inhabit a structure means going beyond the standard designations that usually apply. For example, designing an office space for a marketing team is not the same as creating one for a law firm. The specifics and the nuances are better revealed when the design looks past workplace form and function and zeros in on the actions and attitudes of the people who will work there.

Why design for behavior

Design has been analyzed from many vantage points. There seems to be a general consensus among industry experts that the structure of a building and its interior play a big role influencing behavior. Others believe attitudinal change precedes behavioral change. Either way, the conversation about designing for behavior is happening and open for discussion. Think about it. The lives of countless people play out inside buildings. The majority of thoughts people have occur there, and it is where their daily emotions unfold. Each of those activities comprises behaviors for which design can and should play a role.

There’s no question that design affects the brain. Different adaptations might include creating spaces that are green, encourage activity, or even promote social interaction. There are numerous frameworks that will arise in the world of design. For instance, with growing urbanization in United States’ cities, it is becoming more significant and preferable to work in a structure that was built with an emphasis on mental and physical health. As time goes on, there will be greater potential for this type of adaptive design.

Connectivity between action and attitude

One way to understand designing for behavior is by first answering the question, “What is a behavior?” A summary of the definition follows: “Human behavior is a function of the actions and attitudes of people within an environment.” Then, break that down further:

  • An action is “a sensory and cognitive process that is measurable and observable.”
  • An attitude is an “emotive and intuitive response that requires relationship and story.”

By looking directly at the actions and attitudes of people, a correlation can be drawn. For example, imagine a workplace with no doors. No conference rooms doors, no office doors, no storage closet doors, nor bathroom doors. From this dramatic point-of-view, the nature of a door drives behavior. Doors mean instant privacy, necessary confidentiality, solitude for focus, as well as for designation and status. Asking questions about built elements, like doors, allows designers to probe into just exactly who someone is. By gaining a feel for people’s attitudes, design can anticipate what actions will be taken as a result of those attitudes. For example, if a company is evolving toward flatter operation systems, doors assigned to individuals based on their status may drive the wrong behaviors in the future.

Additional attitudinal questions might include, “What do you accomplish in a given day?” “What do you look forward to most about your job?” or “What is it about your work that excites you?” Not surprisingly, the answers may be more tangible to design than those that come from asking questions like, “Which behaviors do you need from your people to generate better results?” What evolves from focusing more on attitudes and actions can be studied using a formula: Human Behavior = f (Action x Attitude) Environment—or “Human behavior is a function of the actions and attitudes of people within an environment.”

The “Environment” variable can then materialize through the design thinking process. Since one of the tasks of design is to create human environments, then one responsibility of the designer is to guide compassion, imagination, and mental power—all while making evident the relationship between physical parameters and the human response.

open space

An open environment with a variety of spacial elements encourages collaboration, imagination, and mental power. This space was designed with physical parameters and human responses in mind.

Gathering the data

Until now, relatively few studies have been conducted on the psychological implications of architecture. However, recently there’s been an upsurge of interest to determine if there is an ideal architectural structure for different types of thinking, or if one form of space influences behavior differently than another.

One experiment, conducted by Joan Meyers-Levy, professor emeritus in marketing from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, examined the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. Levy learned some interesting facts. Low-ceiling rooms favored those whose need was to focus on the details of a subject or object. By contrast, lofty ceilings were conducive to abstract styles of thinking, brainstorming, creative solutions, and zooming out to see the panoramic perspective. Experiments like this say a lot about the effects of environment, and research on the subject is still in its infancy. The good news is that it seems to be a universally accepted notion that architecture has actual cognitive consequences that need to be exposed.

Some of the bonds that have been forged to study designing for behavior are certain to reveal significant outcomes. For instance, a research group of neuroscientists and psychologists has teamed up with group of architects and designers to examine the way spaces have psychological impact on inhabitants and why it’s vital to study them. The more the results of these studies continue to confirm the significant degree to which design affects the brain, the more the industry can count on the development of new design tools and methods that will be conducive to changing the built world that is the environment.

Industry support

Multiple associations and organizations are being established in an effort to improve the way buildings are inhabited. For example, Itai Palti, Director of Architecture and Design at Bartlett School of Architecture’s Centric Lab in London, used the science of developmental psychology to inform the design of Urban Thinkscape, a set of playful learning installations focused on language and math that can be placed among urban settings families are likely to encounter. Palti has recently teamed up with Bar-Ilan University neuroscientist Dr. Moshe Bar, to examine “conscious cities,” which Palti founded. These are built environments that apply the findings of behavioral and cognitive sciences to more actively respond to their users.

Another example comes from Colin Ellard, who is an expert in the movement of people. For more than 10 years he has studied how people make their way to places and how different types of environments impact their brains. Ellard is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he serves as director of the Urban Realities Laboratory where he studies the impact of urban design on human psychology. The laboratory uses a wide variety of methods ranging from field studies of behavior in urban and architectural settings to the use of immersive virtual reality to test predictions about urban behavior in simulations. For instance, the lab analyzed responses to common cityscapes such as heavily traveled intersections, hiking paths, and downtown layout. From this data, they were equipped to draw conclusions about what causes a person’s fear and anxiety in an urban setting.

Another organization studying human response to architecture and design is ANFA, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. ANFA’s mission is to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment. It is the only organization in the world devoted to the goal of building intellectual bridges between neuroscience and architecture.

As design evolves

It’s interesting to watch the evolution of design as it relates to workplace behavior. There are more mature management systems, higher degrees of agility and flexibility, and stronger emphasis on innovation grown from collaboration. As work transforms to meet this progress, the demands on the workplace will evolve to accommodate renewed behavioral actions and attitudes. Each variable plays an important role in bringing the industry to its current way of thinking. What can be gained by focusing on workplace behaviors, reflected in people’s attitudes and actions, will become an increasingly vital part of a designer’s planning process.

Article originally published in Work Design magazine

The Future of Work: Anticipating the Architecture of the Future Workplace

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Teams At Work

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Work has changed. Teams and their leaders have tried to keep up. The way organizations form and manage teams in the future will provide the foundation for high-performing teams. The issue is important because working in teams is no longer an option: business complexity relies on new levels of expertise and interdependence upon individuals’ strengths and diversity to create results. Work has become too unpredictable and constantly changing between centralized and decentralized models. As the correlating team dynamics shift from collaboration toward innovation, from tactical to strategic, and from transactional to relationship-based work, management faces a challenge in how to measure and lead the moving targets. The default settings of “teams” must adjust, but how? To what? Where will teams actually do their work? What will workspaces of the future look like, if we have them at all?

Read our latest white paper that answers these questions here.

Remote Working: A Work In Progress

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IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy, among others, have felt the sting of criticism in recent years for requiring remote workers to come back to work full-time at company offices. Critics said these past innovators failed their teleworkers, who preferred the autonomy outside the office. Plus, research by organizations ranging from the London Business School to Gallup have suggested that teleworkers are more productive and engaged than their office counterparts.

Remote WorkingBut executives at Big Blue and other progressive companies counter that these benefits must be balanced with the need to create a company work culture that fosters innovation and collaboration.

Remote work is far from an all-or-nothing proposition. The recent retrenchments may in fact mark the start of the next wave of virtual work. Applying the lessons from their initial efforts, companies are training employees to get the most out of a technology-enabled world which allows team members to contribute from home, from co-work environments in the office as well as from traditional workspaces.

Remote Work Won’t Go Away

The pullbacks by Big Blue and others probably don’t reflect the future. A wide range of studies find remote work is increasing.

The Society for Human Resource Management says 60% of employers in 2016 were offered telework options compared to 20% in 1996. The federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics also found the share of people doing some or all of their work from home grew from 19% in 2003 to 22% in 2016. As long as statistics show that workers get more done at home — and appreciate the added flexibility — companies will look for ways to make it work.

Refocus On Results — and Relationships

The key is results. As the critics noted, IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy all pulled workers back into offices as the companies stayed stuck in prolonged slumps. They weren’t getting the overall returns in company growth and profitability they needed, a function of much more than worker productivity. Their moves suggest that the most viable remote work programs require company cultures focused on a variety of business metrics — and that balance employee choice with overall company strategy.

Crafting a results-oriented workplace depends on establishing clear goals that everyone embraces. A good place to start may be the “Balanced Scorecard” popularized by Harvard Business School professors in the early 1990s. The approach calls for setting objectives based on a company’s strategy, in collaboration with employees. Work is then tracked using rational, measurable performance indicators that are agreed upon upfront. This allows employees to see how they’re contributing to the big picture.

Not every company is well-suited for this approach. Before launching any virtual work program, a close examination of your company culture and processes is recommended. Draft a change management plan based on a shared vision for strategic results. Bring together departments like human resources and information technology to scrutinize how the processes will work.

Above all, a commitment to connectedness and respect will deliver results in a remote work environment far better than barking orders and monitoring activity. If your managers work with their direct reports to establish clear expectations based on common goals, they will have less need to see them. But how do you get to that level of understanding and agreement?

Step 1: Build Understanding And Trust

First, managers and employees need to get to know each other. Each should grasp the other’s strengths, weaknesses, and work style before they’re opposite each other on a Skype call. In some cases, managers will learn their employees would rather work in the office, because they enjoy the workplace and its social nature. This “getting to you know you” step is especially important with new employees, so they get a sense of the company culture.

It’s also essential that a common language and vision be established before remote work commences. For large projects, start with in-person collaboration and team building, so the full group contributes to and understands the plan for the work to be completed.

After this groundwork is complete, offer employees choices — in how they communicate, where they work, and even when they work. That degree of autonomy breeds employee trust and their performance, in turn, will build management confidence.

Step 2: Communicate – The Inverse Proportion Theory

So what frequency of communication is appropriate once the foundation for remote work is in place, and everyone has agreed on clear goals and performance measures? It’s a case of inverse proportionality. The farther apart employees work, the more they need to communicate. This is especially true if remote workers are relatively distant from the office and won’t be visiting on a regular basis.

Successful work-from-home programs also leverage the variety of communication vehicles available from email to Slack to GoToMeeting, letting teams use the tools that work for them and are most effective. But it’s important to stay disciplined about frequent meetings, because that’s what keeps employees and managers trusting each other.

Step 3: Make The Workplace A “Magnet”, And Design for Collaboration

Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace Report”, based on data from 195,600 U.S. employers, found that while workers enjoy the autonomy of remote work, they also desire to feel part of something larger — something employers obviously want as well.

Productive remote work, somewhat paradoxically, depends on well-designed physical workplaces. The office needs to be a magnet, so virtual workers feel excited about about visiting with its cool and inviting feel. Inside should be a variety of workspaces that match the diversity of your workforce and their work styles.

Consider at least three to five options, blending everything from sheltered rooms and open spaces to stand-up areas and lounges. Employ a mix of quiet zones and active rooms. Vary the lighting and furniture. Every space should be designed so it’s easy for employees to connect their laptops, phones, and other devices. The food, drink, and educational areas should also encourage conversation.

The Delta Sky Lounge is an excellent model for how to serve the needs of a variety of users. With a similar approach, your workplace can transform from the closed offices and cubicles of the past to a vibrant space that promotes collaboration and an egalitarian feel.

Step 4: Be Sympathetic To Those Stuck In The Middle

As noted above, the biggest risk to a successful remote work initiative is related to people, not technology. And middle managers are the linchpin — from collaborating with their direct reports to maintaining communication. Since they may also be the one most skeptical of the advantages of a remote work program, facility management and other workplace design stakeholders will need to engage them carefully.

In many cases, it’s simply because middle managers are not used to remote work since they’ve never had the opportunity to do it. They may suspect they’ll be held responsible if things don’t go well, which contributes to a fear of change.

It’s important that the C-suite invests in middle managers to help them through the process and emphasize how it will benefit them. Training on managing to results rather than effort will be necessary in many cases. Also, it’ll be important for middle managers to understand that it’s relatively easy to adapt quickly to the technology that serves as the foundation for successful remote work.

Remote Work Research With Millennials

In conjunction with the four steps discussed above, the sidebar below share insights BHDP Architecture gleaned from recent research at the University of Cincinnati.

(Editor’s Note: Read Donnelly’s recent article for FacilityExecutive.com on designing the workplace based on the influx of employees from the millennial generation. His advice? Stop!)

(Virtual) Work In Process

As remote work continues to evolve, examine whether it makes sense for your company to re-evaluate your program annually. There are many pitfalls to sidestep that otherwise will have lasting implications across all areas of your business. And, just as you shouldn’t start a virtual work program hastily, you shouldn’t end one without a close review, either.


Originally published in Facility Executive.

Right Responses: What construction managers need to know about working with women architects

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Women architects understand the challenges associated with their profession, but what makes it worse are the biases they encounter from a male-dominated discipline. While times are changing, women in architecture and construction have had to overcome reservations that their gender might in some way limit their knowledge, competence, expertise and creativity.

The challenges women in the industry face are not limited to the politics of the architectural office environment. They extend to construction sites as well. Here, their trials become even more complicated. The primary issue is not necessarily overt and unacceptable comments by just a few workers. Those occur less frequently as the industry learns to accept increasing numbers of women in a previously male-dominated world. The bigger problem involves a patronizing attitude and mindset from executives who mean well, but mistakenly feel that gender must be a factor in how they respond when the expertise they seek is rendered by a female representative.

Professionalism v. Gender

New York Times article on this very subject sums up the quandary facing women architects. Its title: “I Am Not the Decorator.” The Oct. 2016 piece surveyed several female architects about the challenges they face, including those on construction jobsites. Among the responses were:

• “Every new jobsite means a contractor who will assume I am the assistant, decorator or intern.”

• “Many subcontractors seem very surprised when I give them solutions.”

• “Every single day I have to remind someone that I am, in fact, an architect.”

These experiences are not uncommon. Despite having the same educational credentials and proven-track record of working with clients as their male counterparts, some women find a pink hardhat waiting for them when they arrive at the job site (I happened to have been one of them). In addition, women with professional certifications have been called “baby” or “sweetie” by executives who should know better. Their comments and actions are not necessarily mean spirited, but they are patronizing — the ultimate denigration of the architect’s professionalism and expertise. They occur because some executives or managers think they should emphasize the obvious: the architect happens to be a woman.

Construction management requires an environment of professionalism on every jobsite and that environment includes the licensed architect. That means an individual’s contribution is based on expertise, personal conduct and people skills, and is recognized and accepted exclusive of gender, which neither requires nor deserves recognition.

Respecting Qualifications

The increase in women joining the ranks of architects presages more appearances on construction jobsites, which should make their presence less extraordinary for executives. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards headquartered in Washington, D.C., reports that in 2016, “women accounted for 36 percent of newly licensed architects” and that “nearly two in five new architects are women.”

Architects, whether specializing in design or other disciplines, have undergone intensive study and experience before they can earn licensure. The NCARB reports that licensing of architects marks the culmination of more than 12 years of education and experience “from the time a student enrolls in school to the moment they receive the license.” Architects regardless of gender bring that experience and expertise along with creativity to the jobsite, and deserve respect for it.

At times, there may be a difference of opinion between the architect and executive over issues arising during construction. Women architects understand that they may have to handle resolution of such problems differently than their male counterparts. In a male-dominated environment, an “in-your-face” mentality is likely to be counterproductive especially if that attitude is expressed by a female. Yet the architect knows there will be times when she should stand her ground. When that happens, the challenge will be to state the case when necessary without being offensive. That’s good advice for both genders, but especially for women, who sense the pejoratives often associated with members of their sex who speak their minds. Diplomatic resolution is essential.

Build a professional relationship

Women architects understand the importance of looking past gender issues at the office and on construction sites. To move forward, construction management needs to develop productive working relationships with architects, regardless of whether the person on the other side of the table is a man or a woman. For those executives unaccustomed to dealing with the latter in an architect design capacity, consider the following suggestions:

1.  Start with respect – Remember that standing across from you is a licensed professional who has spent years honing her design and other architectural skills.

2.  Don’t be dismissive of her opinions – She is as much a professional as you are.

3.  Don’t patronize – Please — no pink hardhats or affectionate terms such as “baby” or “sweetheart.”

4.  Remember you’re on the same team – Construction management and architects bring so much to the table. Don’t allow awkward feelings about working with a woman architect to impede a project’s progress.

Regardless of the level of experience, architects and executives can learn from each other, especially when both recognize each other as knowledgeable professionals and treat one another with mutual respect. In that way, biases about gender should never get in the way.

Amy Hood, RA, LEED AP BD+C is a sustainability leader and senior architect with BHDP Architecture.


Originally published in Construction Today.

Thinking About Designing Your Workplace Around Millennials? Stop!

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Based on its research and experience, BHDP Architecture finds that the best way to think about Millennials and their impact on workplace design may be to think about them a lot less.
A lot of ink has been spilled about Millennials, their “unique” characteristics, and how best to attract, engage, and support them in the workplace The research is vast, and viewpoints are abundant. We at BHDP Architecture have done our own deep-dive, engaging Millennials in a semester-long “self-discovery” class at the University of Cincinnati (see the sidebar below for details).Based on our research and experience, we have come to believe the best way to think about Millennials, their needs, and their impact on workplace design is to think about them a lot less. To us, it makes more sense, instead, to look at employees overall and develop strategies for engaging them based on where they are in life. As Adrienne Rowe, workplace strategists at Fidelity Investment, asserts, “Generations can be a useful conversation starter in many cases, but these definitions are less useful for much of the practical work of real estate and meeting associates’ life needs.”

A Life Stage Strategy

Demographers like to uncover, classify, and name groups: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials. It’s what they do. But it’s not what corporate real estate, human resources, and workplace design people do. We deal with living, breathing, changing organisms called organizations — made up of all kinds of individuals, juggling all kinds of life events, needs, and desires.

The “perfect” workplace would understand this and be able, via sensors and other technology, to “see” how employees are interacting with their environment, then be amenable to modification in close-to real time. (See: “The office experiment: Can science build the perfect workspace?”, from Nature, 2016)

We’re not there yet. But we do know that employees at certain stages of life have typical requirements and expectations of work, and face predictable work/life challenges. Some of the more obvious, according to Rowe of Fidelity, are single employees who want ways to socialize at and after work, or new mothers who have specific needs such as mother’s rooms. And, these life stages do not necessarily align with arbitrary generational groupings.

Here are five distinct, easily recognizable life stages of workers, with brief descriptions of each and a list of workplace characteristics:

These groupings shown above are functional, characterized by action, rather than assumed generational preferences. Five groups may be too few. The list doesn’t include non-traditional workers such as parents entering or re-entering the workplace after raising a family or those seeking the flexibility of part-time work because of other commitments.

It also important to remember that life stages don’t have to be linear progression. As Rowe of Fidelity points out, some parents of grown children may have grandchildren living in the home. They may have the needs of older employees closing in on retirement as well as a young family. The challenge for a truly successful life stage approach to workplace design is dedicating the necessary resources to identify and understand the typical life stages that exist uniquely in each organization.

Implications For Workplace Design

If we focus on employees according to their life stages, not their generations, what are the consequences for workplace design? First, flexibility and choice move to the fore. If you’re trying to create spaces that engage and empower people who are focused on everything from self-definition to balancing commitments (work, family, community) to workplace stability, environmental versatility is key.

Versatility doesn’t just mean providing different types of workstations and meeting spaces with various furniture configurations. It’s a business strategy that must be integrated across human resources, information technology, and operations.

The Perils Of Obsessing About Millennials

Because Millennials have been joining the workplace in force over the past 15 years, it’s natural for real estate and human resources professionals to focus on them. But, in addition to not being the optimal approach to workplace design, we think this emphasis on Millennials actually presents long-term organizational risks.

As we’ve noted above, the generational focus can obscure the fact that employees have lives, and life experiences influence how people engage at work. Also, fixating on one generational group has the danger of skewing workplace designs, making them more inflexible, and alienating other groups of employees in the process.

Consider the latest and greatest tech workplaces. We’ve all read the articles about the play areas and assortment of social spaces, the themed conference rooms, the gourmet cafeterias, the lavish perks, the design-your-own workstation, and work-from-where-you-want approach. (See this article.) There are a lot of good things happening in these spaces, especially all of the flexibility and data-driven elements. There are also limitations. These workplaces are built to recruit, retain, engage, and empower two primary kinds of employees: software engineers and ad sales people. They emphasize younger workers — how many 50-year-old software engineers do you know? And, they’re designed to capture and keep employees on site.

That’s fine when workers are primarily young, single, and interested in experimenting with their jobs and building a community at work. But what about 20 years from now when these same workers are more interested in stability and order and commitments outside of work such as family and community. How will these spaces work for them? And can they evolve as their workers do?

Our Research On Millennials

At BHDP, we realize that no matter how much we stress the importance of thinking about life stages, Millennials will still be a concern for our clients. After all, by 2020, they will account for half of the workforce. So, what did our research with undergraduates at the University of Cincinnati actually tell us about them and the key strategies for meeting their needs?

Common Ground In Workplace Design

While conducting our research to characterize Millennials, what struck us most was not how different they are from older generations of young people entering the workplace but how similar. They seek fulfillment at work, connection to a greater good, and a sense of community and collaboration, just as their parents did at that stage in life. Millennials may be more passionate and outspoken about these values, but those are difference of quantity, not of kind.

As Fidelity’s Rowe says, “With respect to designing spaces and amenities in the workplace, we observe that most individuals have the same essential priorities. They want places to collaborate, focus and socialize with colleagues. Flexibility and autonomy are universally important. Everyone loves an airy, naturally lit environment. They all want to learn, adapt and perform their best work.” Generational definitions can get in the way of this commonality.

Even the Millennials’ oft-noted familiarity with and immersion in communications, media, and digital technologies is hardly a unique generational trait. The rise of technology and the speed and ready access to information has impacted everyone, allowing all workers to stay connected like never before, unbounded by location. This is a fundamental change with huge consequences for the future of work. The rise of more agile, and mobile, workplaces — and the challenges and strategies for making them really function — will be the topic of our next article.


Donnelly is an architect, owner, and client leader with BHDP Architecture, headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. Established in 1937, BHDP designs environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results for clients by thinking creatively, staying curious, fostering collaboration, and delivering excellence. Donnelly can be reached at tdonnelly@bhdp.com.

Are your facilities planned around Millennials’ and their perceived workplace design preferences? If so, are there recognized benefits or downsides? Are you a Millennial? What do you think?


Originally published in Facility Executive.