Why the Office of the Future Will Be Like a Coffee Shop

Coffee shop or office? Yes. (Photo: Urban Station)

Ten years from now, most of the baby boomers will be retired and millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, will make up 75 percent of the workforce. Even now they make up a third of it. A new study from Bentley University, The Millennial Mind Goes to Work, looks at "how millennial preferences will shape the future of the modern workplace."

The conclusions are surprising, and they question many of the cliches about the generation. They are also sometimes contradictory. Some of the points directly affect the physical form of the office:

Text or talk?

talking in person photo
They love their phones, but face time is important too. (Photo: Bentley University)

Given the purported love for texting (and my love for our Skype virtual water cooler) I was surprised by the survey’s conclusion that 51 percent of millennials prefer to talk in person, 19 percent email, 21 percent chat or text and the phone is so dead at only 9 percent. But according to Ian Cross of Bentley, it depends:

Particularly at the beginning of their career, millennials need more validation than previous generations. They like praise, and they want clear direction as to what a manager may be asking of them, which explains their desire to speak to a colleague in person. Even so, says Cross, don’t be surprised to find millennials communicating with friends by text, which is still their primary vehicle for social interacting.

Which all seems to contradict the next big finding:

9 to 5? Home or office?

the end of 9 to five
As Dolly would say: Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin'. (Photo: Bentley University)

About 77 percent of the millennials surveyed say that flexible hours would make them more productive, while 39 percent of them want more remote working. I was surprised at how low the remote working number was, but the study also notes that "31 percent of millennials do worry that their desire for workplace flexibility is often mistaken for a poor work ethic." There's probably some worry that if they're out of sight, they're out of mind, and they want to keep up that face time with the manager noted above.

And what about that work ethic?

There's a complaint in the study that millennials don't have that good old work ethic, aren't willing to put in the hours and devote their lives to the office. But is this a bad thing or an opportunity? Leslie Doolittle of Bentley notes:

"While older generations think of their job as a large part of who they are, millennials see work as a piece of their life but not everything," says Doolittle. "In other words, work doesn't define them. Family, friends and making a difference in their community are much more central to them than previous generations." As a result, millennials seek to have more work-life balance. "Frankly," says Doolittle, "I see this as a healthy adjustment to our world view of work."

The office is becoming a coffee shop again

Lloyds of London
Edward Lloyd's coffee shop was the first office. (Photo: Maritime Museum)

So what we appear to have with the millennials are workers who:

  • want to be part of their community and have a better work/life balance,
  • want more flexibility in work hours and location,
  • also want to retain the ability to have real face time with their managers and co-workers.

You get together when you want or need to talk, hang out if you want to be seen, but otherwise generally work where and when you want. This sounds familiar.

A few years ago I noted that "the major purpose of an office now is to interact, to get around a table and talk, to schmooze. Just what you do in a coffee shop." That's how the office started 400 years ago in Edward Lloyd's coffee shop in London (now Lloyd's of London) and it's probably the way we should be designing our offices for the millennial generation.