If You Want Millennial Employees, Then Build a Millennial Office

Feb 6th 2015
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Many accounting firms have spent a fortune trying to attract and hang on to the next generation of top talent. They’ve invested in countless hours of staff development and training, offered an exceptional benefits package, encouraged work-life balance through options like telecommuting, and, possibly, even invested in the occasional office yoga class or 15-minute chair massage during busy season. But chances are they’ve entirely overlooked one of the most significant factors in determining workplace satisfaction: the physical design of their office space and the impact it has on their employees’ happiness, productivity, and loyalty.

Brian Shapland, general manager of office furniture design company turnstone, a Steelcase brand, says employees in 2015 expect a lot more from their “office space” than a dreary, slate-grey cubicle with its push-pin walls and slice-of-window view.

“Today’s professionals want the freedom and choice to work where and how they want, which means they no longer want to be tethered to a single workstation for eight hours a day,” Shapland said. “They want spaces that inspire them, that allow them to be themselves and collaborate with others, and unlock their potential.”

Shapland said this trend is especially important to millennials who grew up with mobile technology and are used to working in optimal, not obligatory, environments.

“Mobile technology allowed millennials to develop a unique approach to seeking out the best places to study and collaborate; places, like coffee houses or college libraries, that let them to see natural light and stimulating spaces, and be seen by people to connect with socially or to study and work together,” Shapland said. “Now they want those same conditions in their work environment.”

And a recent survey from turnstone, Shapland says, indicates business owners, particularly those courting millennial talent, need to take note.

In 2014, turnstone surveyed more than 500 small business owners employing fewer than 100 people, and found that office culture is a powerful indicator of workplace satisfaction. According to turnstone, 90 percent of those surveyed identified culture as foundational to the success of their companies, while an overwhelming 80 percent believe their physical environment plays a role in fostering vibrant office culture.

 “Office culture is a critically important factor in any workplace. It influences employee well-being, affects loyalty, and aids (or detracts from) collaboration,” said Jane Graham, turnstone’s brand writer and community manager. “The kind of vibe you feel when you walk into a space directly impacts those working there, sending a stronger message than any ‘about us’ statement ever will.”

At first thought, that statement may make many CPA firm owners—some of whom are still holding on to breakroom tables from the Nixon administration—blanche.

But Shapland says office design is one area where smaller CPA firms can trump their monolithic competition when it comes to providing an inviting space for their employees.

They simply need to adopt these four elements of great office design, which Shapland outlined in a recent blog:

  • Embrace the fact that not everyone works the same. While some people thrive in open environments and embrace office buzz, others need privacy and quiet spaces for “head’s down” work so offices should provide a “palette of places” to make sure everyone can find a comfortable area to work and be productive. Create spaces that allow workers to toggle between places that off “situational privacy,” which allow them to focus on their work without distractions, and places that offer maximum openness and collaboration with people, technology, and information.
  • Offer choice and control. “All work is not the same,” Shapland says. Provide zones throughout the workspace that allow employees to move between different settings for collaborating, partner work, solo work, and socializing. Having choice and control over how and where employees work will help boost employee productivity and attitude. For example, consider going beyond the breakroom to add a lounge seating space or communal gathering area for social times to create a fun workplace where employees can build relationships.
  • Make wellbeing a priority. Give employees the opportunity to change postures and move throughout the day by providing different work settings like standing desks, walk stations, and lounge furniture. Just as employees want a “palette of places” they want a “palette of postures,” Shapland says. They want the freedom to move between various types of settings, whether it’s standing height tables, traditional desks, or lounge couches and coffee tables. “We’ve recently seen an interesting trend in the workplace. Increasingly, workers of all generations want the ability to sit at a lounge height,” Shapland said. “They love working in that posture at home or in the coffee shop, so they’re expecting (or creating) places in the office to work in lounge.”
  • Emphasize moving versus sitting. The results are in—sitting for hours at a time is far from ideal for your health. Create a positive and healthy shift in your office culture by encouraging employees to get up and move throughout the day, whether it’s by taking a walking meeting or phone call, or sitting on an active seat like the Buoy.

Shapland acknowledges that CPA offices pose a special challenge because they place a premium on private spaces, and need to convey a conservative image to their clients. But he says he has seen many creative CPA firms strike the delicate balance between offering a traditional public face as well as additional fun, collaborative spaces for employees.

“In CPA firms, there’s an understandable focus on creating an atmosphere that says they take their clients seriously, but also a desire to infuse a space with a dose of ‘startup culture.’ Oftentimes, we see it in a new phenomenon we’re calling the work café—essentially a stimulating space to eat and connect socially, but also to get work done in the hours in-between meals,” Shapland said. “Again, it comes back to having a variety of spaces with some more conservative and some more engaging, whether it be through applications or products as objects.”

If CPAs want to adopt a relatively quick and easy fix to brighten up their bland office spaces Shapland suggests they begin with small-scale prototyping and experiments. “Businesses can take one individual workspace and experiment with different applications that allow users to get into flow and focus on their work while controlling their privacy,” Shapland said. “You can also prototype some informal collaborative spaces using lounge posture or standing posture pieces and see how workers react and engage with the furniture.”

Ultimately, Shapland said, great office design is all about authenticity. “You want to create places that balance the authenticity of the brand, yet allow individual employees to feel comfortable,” Shapland said.

And while this “office renaissance,” as turnstone has taken to calling it, is not necessarily a case of repaint or perish the accounting industry, firm owners who ignore the role office design and office culture have on their bottom line do so at their own risk.

“Part of running a successful organization is about attracting, retaining, and engaging the best talent. With an improving economy and a wave of millennials joining the workforce, employers need to create inspiring offices,” Shapland said. “If they don’t, they may see millennials seeking out another company with a more stimulating environment.”


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