BUDGETS DRIVE HOW TO “MILLENNIALIZE” THE OFFICE

It’s pretty easy to “millennialize” the office, at least when it comes to design concept. Why wouldn’t it be? Millennials are the most studied and observed age group in American history. Besides, designers “ize” spaces for myriad office cultures and specialized industries every day. That’s the essence of the profession, after all. A company’s office design should represent the culture and drive the brand. Right?

Theoretically, yes. But the budget also drives the brand, and drives it hard. Quite often, the bottom line supersedes design intent, and the challenge becomes not what the client wants, but what the client can afford. No news flash there. So for those clients who don’t have the luxury of huge tenant improvement dollars, any type of “izing” can be a challenge. But there are ways to adapt a smaller budget to both new space and existing space.

YET ANOTHER WORD ABOUT THE OPEN PLAN OFFICE

All matter of publications from the nation’s preeminent daily newspapers to the design industry’s most esoteric trade journals are still stuck on the notion that millennials thrive in a purely open plan office. Not so. The “boundary-less” workplace is as disruptive to millennials as it is to any other group. Indeed, studies show that millennials will use earbuds, seek refuge in quiet areas of the office, and even leave the space altogether to fend off the relentless chatter of co-workers. In fact, The Journal of Environment Psychology points to several recent studies that claim as much as 40% of employees in open office environments—including millennials– clamor for more privacy, are less focused on their primary work, and show higher levels of stress. Clearly, even millennials want barriers and boundaries that offer alternatives to the vastness of the office without walls.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a balanced office that provides wide open workspaces with key areas of collaboration and enclosed quiet zones for individual work, one-on- one meetings and simple decompression. The challenge is getting there when money is most certainly an object. Starting from scratch with bare space and a nearly unlimited design budget is surely the way to go when planning a millennial-style office. Of course, for the vast majority of businesses, this  just isn’t going to happen. What of the small firm with a modest tenant finish allowance relocating to a new building? Or how about the company that’s ensconced in an existing space, mid-lease, with an influx of new employees, all millennials? There are options for this majority that don’t require grandiose design plans and the budgets that go with them.

OPEN DESIGN IS FLEXIBLE DESIGN

Open plan spaces can take on any number of characteristics, but in general the most coveted seem to consist of twelve-foot ceilings (or higher), exposed ductwork, perimeter windows– if available– very low or no walls, and concrete slab or other hard-surface flooring. It costs approximately $20 per square foot to convert a 10,000 square foot office suite with standard grid into what most of us would term an open plan space. For tenants seeking space in a new building or even in an existing building with a landlord willing to rip out the standard office grid, even a portion of open plan design can suffice very nicely at a fraction of the cost of opening up—or building out– the entire suite.

Limiting the amount of open square footage without a suspended ceiling grid will certainly minimize noise from the suite’s HVAC system and other sources while providing aesthetic appeal from varied ceiling heights. Adding accent and indirect lighting in a limited open plan space can significantly boost design appeal while saving money on the overall infrastructure budget.

A human resources on-line magazine recently noted in a piece about millennializing the office that a “spare conference room” could be used as a “war room” or other gathering area in which to bounce around creative ideas. Spare conference room? Who has those? It’s a nice notion, but that kind of square footage is just too valuable to cast off as “spare.” A more likely scenario could involve the demolition of one or two existing hard walls that yield two or four multi-use “focus” or “huddle” rooms within the suite. The demo cost is usually manageable, and enclosed or even semi-enclosed spaces like these could accommodate small-group meetings or designated quiet areas.

The liberal use of color and alternative seating have been millennial hot points since the term was coined, and compared to major construction within the suite, these add-ons are both economical and effective. This could begin with paint and carpet which are considered tenant finish basics, but also transformative with a low price tag.

GROUP SPACES ARE HAPPY SPACES

The all-company or “all-hands” area, very popular among the millennial set is by nature an open zone in the office which can see double or triple duty as work, play, and break space. This type of area can act as an open canvas in which structure and organization are not primary issues. That is, all-hands space can define what a small company with limited resources can do to embrace the millennial culture, which certainly prioritizes a spirit of community, collaboration, work, health and relaxation all happening at the same time.

This space might include a mix of hard and soft seating, lounge-style tables, stools, sofas and mobile soft-sided “bleachers” in vivid colors. With nifty design and smart furniture choices, even very small offices can adopt a space like this when both square footage and funds come at a premium.

Similarly, a company’s commitment to a healthy workplace does not have to include a dedicated fitness room within a suite or even within a building. Sometimes a combination of healthy snacks, a break space and a bike rack, for example are enough to assure all employees that an active effort is being made to support their collective wellness.

One metro Denver building owner is employing “bike labs” in their remodel budgets. In addition to the bikes themselves, the space is outfitted with tools and parts when on-the- fly repairs are required.

For tenant spaces, even as little as 150 square feet of dedicated wall racks and vertical storage can satisfy the millennial preference for bikes over cars. Again, although sacrificing valuable square footage, simple bike racks and storage are cheap ways to advance one very important method of employee-based wellness. It’s a relatively small dollar commitment on the part of the business owner that can reap significant benefits in good will.

Abbey Lyon is a Senior Project Manager at KIEDING. She can be reached at alyon@kieding.com. This work originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of the Colorado Real Estate Journal’s Office Properties Quarterly.