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What can Generation Z teach workplaces about design?

From libraries decked out with the latest tech to meditation rooms to buzzing, multi-functional student centers, college campuses are designing environments to win the battle for the best students.

March 02, 2018
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As Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s) starts to move through to the workplace, today’s campuses will hold valuable clues on how Corporate America will need to design workspaces to keep the next generation of talent happy.

In addition to being true digital natives, members of Gen Z are better than older generations at multi-tasking, they have an entrepreneurial mindset and prize independence, yet they also come with high expectations of how companies will treat them and expect health and wellness amenities that may have been considered luxuries by earlier generations.

“Successful campus leaders work hard to understand the nuances of changing generational preferences, so it’s only fitting that their facility strategies would serve as inspiration for businesses aiming to attract their graduates,” says Ron Gregory, Executive Vice President, Higher Education Integrated Facility Management at JLL. “Today’s undergrads won’t be happy tomorrow with a 9-5 job in a gray-walled cubicle. They want settings that, like their alma mater, provide a mix of environments where they can feel independent.”

The always-on, Gen Z-friendly campus

Good connectivity, flexible space which can be adapted for collaborative projects or individual study, and on-demand facilities are key to a successful modern college campus for good reason, says Amanda Kross, Senior Vice President, Workplace Strategy at JLL.

“There’s two big drivers behind today’s campus design trends—the movement towards active learning teaching methods and growing industry demand for employees who can bring together multiple disciplines on the job. Interdisciplinary programs have become the fastest growing type of degree program,” she says. “With Gen Z students increasingly working together across disciplines, group work is no longer something you’ll find only at business schools; it’s on every campus, and campus designers have been taking note.”

Today’s students often don’t have to walk far to find the collaborative, first-class experiences they want. Universities are building multi-purpose facilities such as state-of-the-art innovation buildings, dining halls and cafes with outlets to plug in laptops, and residence halls incorporating study rooms as well as classrooms—all with reliable WiFi, of course. Meanwhile, libraries are no longer just a place to store books. The North Carolina State University and other leading institutions are building in social areas and interactive technology such as smartboards and video walls to visualize data.

Many campuses are also striving to support the broader student experience in a 24-hour day, from a broader range of food options tapping into today’s eating trends for nutrition and choice, to fitness and mindfulness facilities.

“Student health is another area where college campuses can really shine,” says Gregory. “All schools are upgrading their gyms and athletic departments, but they’re also adding in smaller workout areas throughout campus, making it easier for students to stay fit.”

The University of North Dakota Wellness Center, for example, earned top-spot in U.S. college gym rankings, according to College Magazine, not just for its quality exercise equipment, but also for its ‘extras’ like new meditation room and kitchen, which offers healthy cooking classes.

Mental health is an important piece of this, too. “Social media’s ascent has made it possible for students to learn about national or global tragedies the minute they happen,” says Kross. “So universities are making sure students have greater access to counselors and safe places where they can sit down and talk, like fireside chats.”

From campus to corporate workplace

Workplace environments are already changing, thanks to Millennials who have reshaped the very concept of work. But Gen Z will spur its own workplace revolution.

“Corporations will need to keep in mind that newly minted graduates are not coming from an environment where they sit in one place for hours at time, the work location is dictated and every place looks the same,” says Dean Monnin, Senior Vice President, JLL. “The changes we see in the student experience can be directly translated into the need for corporate workplaces to support the highly interactive, tech-enabled activities recent graduates are used to. Corporations should make certain to provide a variety of workplace sizes and styles accessible 24/7. Choice and individuality rule with Gen Z.”

To future-proof for generational change, corporate leaders should consider how to update amenities with these soon-to-be-employees in mind.

“A tech-enabled workplace is critical to attracting talent from the ‘iGeneration,’” says Gregory. “But tech is just one element. As higher education leaders know, Gen Z demands a free-flowing environment that supports all their needs, from great workout rooms and places to blow off stress to workspaces perfectly designed for the type of work they do on any given day. If a company can’t offer that, they’ll just keep job hopping until they find what they want.”

Corporate offices should also continue their quest to create spaces that build community and collaboration.

“The great workplace of tomorrow is one where, like a great college campus today, a strong community thrives,” says Kross. “Have you hired a ‘vibe manager’ yet? Probably not, but it may eventually become standard practice to designate a role entirely devoted to creating an environment where people connect, in person and through technology.”

While only the oldest members of Gen Z are currently entering the workforce, younger digital natives will soon join them. In the meantime, many companies have plenty to learn from today’s campuses to get the best out of their newest recruits.

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