The Workplace: The Weapon of Choice in the Arms Race for Millennial Talent

To be successful in the face of changing demographics, leaders must have clear visions for what their cultures and workplaces need to feel like to support success.

Whatever the approach, finding the right workplace balance is the key to attracting top talent
Whatever the approach, finding the right workplace balance is the key to attracting top talent

Workplace experience and design have become essential weapons in the war for today’s top talent. Accordingly, conversations about office amenities and services are moving from facilities management to the board room and from niche publications to the headlines of The Telegraph, Fortune, and the like.

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While these articles typically highlight the cool factor of the future office, they usually fail to dig in past the superficial — like LEGO’s slides or Google’s free food — and don’t address the underlying business motivations and drivers that transform the role of built environments.

To recruit the next generation of top talent, businesses need to embrace new workplace cultures.

Millennials: Perks and Recreation

More than 83 million Millennials live in the U.S., and in 2015, they surpassed Generation X as the largest group in the American workforce. Unlike the demographics before them, this generation makes career decisions around workplace design. Millennials care as much about having fun and finding purpose at the office as previous generations care about compensation.

Accordingly, workplace design is becoming an executive-level conversation in every company vying for Millennial market share and talent. As demographics continue their inevitable evolution, they will progressively change where and how we work.

If you want a crystal-ball view of the workplace of the future, then your best bet is in Millennial-led companies such as Google and Facebook. From nap rooms, gyms, and food halls to car washes and laundry services, Google and Facebook offer full-service office environments. Google’s core value “Don’t be evil” is tested and supported every day as the company extends its employees unlimited perks like free food and open access to expensive IT equipment.

If you’re shaking your head at the ridiculousness of it all, then you’re not alone. Plenty of traditional industries, like finance, have struggled with this change, and they have lost their brightest talent as a result. Just 5 percent of Harvard Business School’s graduating class followed the path to investment banking in 2014, opting instead for the startup lifestyle.

Perks are infiltrating even the most mundane industries. Alterra, a pest-control company, offers its employees a TruGolf simulator, a 90-inch TV screen, and an NCAA regulation-sized basketball court onsite. You might not associate pest control with trendy Millennials, but Alterra tailors its workplace to their requirements. To remain competitive recruiters, enterprise companies must follow suit and redesign and reexamine their office cultures.

Design, Aesthetics, and Function

The key to forging a new workplace lies at the intersection of design, aesthetics, and function. Design is more than a look — it’s the body language of an organization. To get it right, businesses must closely define and align their aesthetics with their brands and organize the workplace to support productivity. Google branded its employees as smart creatives and, accordingly, designed inspiring spaces to make employees feel at home.

While the design encompasses the basis of the brand, the aesthetic must reinforce the image, look, and feel of it. TM Advertising, for instance, used bright colors and open spaces to foster imaginative collaboration and make the company appear innovative to potential clients.

Perhaps most important, however, companies must consider how employees actually use their space. For some organizations, this has required trial and error. When Capital One bought out ING Direct in 2012, it took over the company’s San Francisco officesand made some changes. It brought in foam boards covered in sticky notes for sharing ideas, introduced a “treehouse” for workers seeking solitude, and built flexible meeting rooms to meet every need.

Changes don’t need to be drastic. As then-CEO of Telenor Group, Jon Fredrik Baksaas adopted a design and redesign approach to create a workplace where form follows function. He didn’t install slides everywhere or built sleeping pods. But by adopting policies like “hot desking” and introducing adaptable spaces that can be continuously reconfigured, Baksaas let employees work from whichever space suited them best at that time — sitting next to marketing one day and accounting the next — in a design that helped drive the company’s success.

These businesses aren’t leading this transformation just through design and capital improvements, though. They are also changing the soft elements to align with the Millennial mindset.

Shift the Culture

The workplace is not a simple collection of physical furnishings; it’s a culture, too. By leaving little to be wanted, the best companies ensure that productivity and creativity remain the core focus.

A huge outlay isn’t always required. Great workplaces are communities, and fostering that community spirit can be as simple as ensuring that employees break bread together. There’s a reason why eating is such a permanent social fixture in human culture: Relationships are built around food-sharing rituals.

Google may have its onsite eateries, but a company could do worse than buying a few six packs on a Friday, stepping offsite for happy hour, or instituting one work-family meal a week. Communal dining areas are particularly welcome because they provide opportunities for employees to get to know one another, rather than concentrating on workplace politics.

Whether you like it or not, the workplace is changing, and you can’t bet against demographics. Millennials don’t just want to work for the biggest and most successful companies; they want to work for the ones that foster the right environments, create feelings of place and belonging, and establish meaningful senses of purpose.

To be successful in the face of changing demographics, leaders must have clear visions for what their cultures and workplaces need to feel like to support success. The difference between their current environments and that future reality is an urgent gap that needs to be measured, prioritized, and closed to the fullest extent possible.

It could involve a total physical redesign, an overhaul of company culture, or something as simple as a little spring cleaning. Whatever the approach, finding the right workplace balance is the key to attracting top talent and keeping your arrow tip pointed more decisively and precisely toward its goal.

Christopher Kelly is the president and co-founder of Convene, a company that integrates service, culinary, technology, and human-centered design to transform the workplace experience. It was named one of Forbes’ 100 most promising companies in 2014 and one of Inc.’s fastest-growing companies. In his role as president, Chris is responsible for innovation, new growth initiatives, and brand development while jointly developing company values, culture, and strategy.

The Workplace: The Weapon of Choice in the Arms Race for Millennial Talent