The PLACEmaking blog

Why is the ‘office’ a big turn off for 18-24 year olds?


Alison White


April 12, 2018
According to research by Mindspace, 21% of 18-24 years olds have turned down a job offer because of the design of the employer’s offices and/or lack of amenities.

That will be a surprise to some (possibly many) who might assume that when jobs are hard to come by, young people should just be grateful for any opportunity – and anyway, what’s wrong with our offices? Everyone knows what an office looks like don’t they, why would anyone be so put off by ‘superficial’ design and what exactly are these amenities that are missing? After all, office are places to ‘work’, and amenities are surely just a distraction from concentration and productivity.

If this is your reaction, then you really do need a rethink. If this is your reaction and you are recruiting, then you need more than a rethink, you need a total rewire of your perception not just about modern office design, but of what the purpose of an office is and why redesigning the office as a workplace is one of the best motivation investments an organisation can make.

First of all, let’s look at the design of the typical office on offer and the reasons why so many younger people don’t want to work in them. Very often it all starts to go wrong even before they’ve got inside the building. Whilst there are of course still some quirky buildings around, the average commercial office developer, property advisor and city planner still assume that all aspiring organisations need the same thing: large scale glass, concrete and steel buildings clustered together in business districts of a city centre. The blue print for these buildings is pretty much the same as in the 1980s – big open plan floorplates with management offices peppered around the perimeter, flat suspended ceilings, artificial lighting and commercial furniture and furnishings.

Clean, clear and generic. But individuality and personal needs have to be abandoned at the front door of such buildings, and explicit dress codes set aside those that work in such buildings from everyone else. This smacks of the corporate culture that is such a turn-off for younger generations.

Not much has really changed in the interior design of these offices either. The lighting is artificial, the air is recycled and one office interior looks very, very similar to the other next door. Hierarchy is strongly reinforced by how the space is laid out: management grades have offices around the perimeter window walls and all other ranks sit in row after row of desks in anonymous open plan space. Senior managers are corralled separately, jockeying for the corner office with the best possible views. Offices look broadly the same with pale colour schemes and the odd ‘pop’ of bright or primary colours on statement furniture pieces in branded reception areas. The overall impression is of supervised control and hierarchy and the message is clear: the office is a factory with people still expected to adopt the same principles as working in the workhouses of the past – to be at your ‘loom’ at the same time and for the same hours each working day.

Nothing wrong with that you might say, and in the 80s, 90s and early 00s those that wanted to join the apparent safety and job security of the corporate world would have recognised such buildings as cathedrals of opportunity that met their expectations. The question is do their own children, now entering the world of work, want the same thing? Some do but clearly one fifth don’t and those that exercise that choice are opting for very different solutions.

Then there’s the whole topic of technology, and this is where the real themes of hierarchy and control are really played out. Ask almost anyone under the age of 25 and they will tell you that the technology their employers provide is terrible. Anyone over 25 and under 35 is so ground down by the frustration of trying to get the terrible technology to work that they have either:

a) bought their own and found undetectable ‘work arounds’ to avoid having anything to do with internal ICT support, or
b) given up the will to live, accepted that they can only function at 25% of their capacity and fill the rest of the time optimistically applying for jobs elsewhere, anywhere where they pray the ICT will be better (it won’t).

Over 35s are so out of step with what’s going on elsewhere that they assume the ICT is “fine”, and over 45s don’t know how to use it anyway so accept that whatever the internal ICT department tells them is actually the truth.

At some point along the career roadmap these same people become managers, at which point bizarrely they are asked to specify what sorts of systems or devices and what levels of remote access their juniors colleagues will need to function. For some reason they imagine they know all the answers without ever consulting ‘downwards’. Even worse, the SLA that determines how technology performs as a key business tool is regarded as a procurement activity (shorthand for cost savings). In reality ICT has fallen into the same trap as office interior design. It’s all too generic. What you’re going to get is what the ICT department are contracted to give you and only what they are prepared to support. That’s almost never what you want or what you need but the world of technology is shrouded in technical mystique and frequently involves a language mere mortals simply don’t understand, so in reality no one really can challenge them.

The one fifth of young people who reject working for organisations that tolerate this approach are clearly demonstrating that they don’t intend to hand over control and passively just accept whatever minimal solution is on offer. They want to use their initiative, keep up their technology awareness and develop their own ICT skills so that they avoid being put in the same position as their elders, forced to hand over control of a major business tool and asset to others who are only marginally aligned to the business’s objectives, ambitions and opportunities.

And what of the amenities that this fifth of young people say is missing in employers’ offices? Well, almost all offices have meeting rooms for those senior enough to be invited to meetings and the odd kitchenette possibly with “breakout space” for everyone to enjoy when they escape from their desk. Larger organisations might justify a little more, maybe a staff café, showers and bike storage are at the top of the added amenities list. But is that really what young people are looking for in terms of these added features?

Have a look at the types of places those that reject jobs in offices do chose to work in. They are often the polar opposite of the generic office with standard amenities. They are quirky, informal and personal spaces often clustered in mixed communities juxtaposing, for example, small scale tech-based entrepreneurs with professional services, creative studios and craft workshops. They often occupy only tiny bits of their own space but share common resources and exchange information and initiatives without the boundaries of corporate confidentiality. They reject being ‘branded’, instead creating their own ‘mark’ and their brand is expressed by their behaviours and actions. They are quick to market and stay nimble to new trends and challenges. They mix together eclectic bits of furniture, artefacts and fittings and put their investment into the best technology, tools and equipment they can afford, happily tolerating small inconveniences as the price for freedom from the constraints of the corporate world.

The local community is important to them, and not only as a resource. By choosing to be based outside a city centre corporate zone and often local to where they live, this emphasises the desire for a better balance of work and life and the rejection of a need to commute in and out of city centres. They want to dip in and out of work mode and balance other aspects of their life and interests. They want to work around things and be not be dictated to by timetables, delays and cancellations.

In reality many larger organisations are committed to their big city centre-based office buildings and workplace-related legislation prevents such enterprises adopting the same characteristics of small scale start-up enterprises. But what they could and should recognise is that whilst in the past the promise of job security persuaded many to accept that compromising their personal desires and accepting corporate working styles, patterns and way of life was worth it, younger people today are well aware that there is no such thing as job security. They remember the images of suited young professionals carrying their boxes of personal possessions on the day of their sudden redundancy from one of the world’s largest banks, and many of them will have witnessed their middle-aged parents being made redundant from previously safe professions following the 2009 recession.

Maybe the fifth of 18-24 year olds that reject job offers because of the quality of the office design and lack of amenities are really rejecting what they regard as failed model of employment, and instead preferring to embark on their own adventure – taking control of their own careers and clearly expressing that in the bespoke designed places where they chose to work, developing their own interpretation of what an ‘amenity’ is. Larger employers can rest easy that four fifths of young people will accept jobs with them despite their outdated office design and limited amenities.

Unless, that is, the one fifth that do reject these jobs are indeed the very people they need to attract.

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