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Bridging the Generation Gap in the Open Office

by Pam Kendall / May 4, 2017


By Pam Kendall, Senior Analyst

The world we live in today often lends itself to an “us versus them” mindset, a “me versus everyone else” attitude. Rather than being celebrated, differences are often used to divide. While race, gender, and political affiliation (just to name a few) typically receive the most attention, we often forget about another very common division… age. And this division is never more apparent than in an open office. Baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials all trying to co-exist and thrive in a workplace where they are expected to share space. Is it even possible?

Before you continue reading, I should probably come clean about one important fact. I know a woman never reveals her age (a rule that is a little outdated, in my opinion), but I’m 34 (born in 1983) which technically makes me a millennial. I admit that reluctantly because there are a lot of negative characteristics that typically get associated with the millennial generation. Maybe they (I mean… we) are simply getting a bad rap from the generation that came before us. I’m almost certain Generation Xers would say they got a bad rap from the baby boomers and the baby boomers would say they got a bad rap from “the greatest generation,” and so on.

Perhaps it’s time we start looking at the similarities between generations rather than focusing on the differences. Better yet, let’s look at how our differences can actually help us work together to make the open office a more productive, better balanced workplace.

Different Generations...Different Workplace Norms

The workforce in a professional setting is typically made up of people between the ages of 22 and 65. That means people born in 1952 could be working alongside people born in 1995, encompassing three different generations! Generations that have grown up in different economic times, under different parenting styles, with vastly different technologies. How could anyone expect them not to be different in their personal lives and especially in the workplace?

How can you expect all these different walks of life to come together and work in a professional situation? How can you expect the older generations to un-learn the workplace norms from their earlier careers and embrace new workplace norms?

A good place to start is by simply recognizing the differences.

Generational Differences... Yes, there are a Few

Baby Boomers in the Workplace

For those of you born between 1946 and 1964, you fall into the baby boomer generation. You tend to be very work-centric, goal-oriented, and self-reliant. You're approaching the end of your career and have most likely spent a good bit of time in a private office or cubicle. You can’t quite get on board with this whole “open office” concept. Sound about right?

Generation X in the Workplace

For those of you born between 1965 and 1976, you are part of Generation X. You tend to adapt well to change, work well problem-solving with others, and value work/life balance. You're well established in your career with neither the beginning nor the end really in sight at this point. While you’ve spent most of your time behind the walls of a traditional office, you catch yourself thinking about how different and cool things might be if your company were to transition to an open office. Your ability to develop personal relationships, your willingness to learn new technology, and your tendency to adapt well to change might just be the key when it comes to bridging the gap between the baby boomers and the millennials in an open office.

Millennials in the Workplace

For those of you born between 1977 and 1995, you typically get put into the millennial generation. You tend to be extremely enthusiastic, tech savvy, and confident. Whether you’re a millennial like me (closer in age to some of the Generation Xers) or you are just starting out in the workforce, I think we’re all thinking the same thing… how did people ever work in a cubicle?!

Bridging the Gap

It’s important to point out that when discussing characteristics of the different generations, we are really discussing stereotypes. Obviously, there are some characteristics I did not mention, and not all those I did mention will accurately describe every single person within a generation, but I’m going for a “big picture” idea here. Work/life balance and communication styles seem to be the biggest differences when it comes to the generations. Baby boomers “live to work” while Xers and millennials “work to live.” Baby boomers most likely prefer communicating face-to-face while millennials don’t appear to know how to communicate if it isn’t through social media or text. Generation Xers probably fall somewhere in between as they do in a lot of workplace areas.

OK. Now that we have confirmed that there really are differences between the generations, how do we get them to cooperate in today’s workplace? This brings me back to my idea of bridging the generation gap, as well as a short story about a well-preserved baby boomer I work with.

Here’s the story. At the end of a recent meeting, as we began to confirm dates for a future meeting, most of us pulled out our laptops and smartphones to view our calendars. Not so for our beloved baby boomer, who pulled out what I can only describe as a biblical-era scroll. I later learned this scroll was a 40-year-old calendar recorded on several hundred sheets of yellow paper taped together – and still actively used. Here it is, pictured below. I knew you’d have to see it to believe it. 

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While the millennials in the room looked completely perplexed as to why someone had brought the Dead Sea Scrolls to a meeting, the Generation Xers in the room were more impressed and even slightly envious of such a comprehensive written record. The Generation Xers grasped perhaps better than anyone both the value of the smartphone and the reliability of the hard copy calendar. As one Generation Xer said to our baby boomer friend, “I bet this scroll is one of your most prized possessions.” She was right.

In reality, the three generations are not abruptly divided. They are just stages along a continuum. Stuck in the middle, Generation X encompasses a little bit of both the boomers and millennial generations. Can those who fall into that middle ground of Generation X play a positive role in communicating in both directions? Can they help baby boomers and millennials (possibly the two most polarizing generations) successfully work together?

I think so! And when it comes to relying on Generation Xers to bridge the gap, I can’t think of a better environment for building bridges than the open office.

Why the Open Office?

The most important thing to anyone who has ever worked a day in their life is respect. On one hand, baby boomers want respect because they have worked hard and they have the experience that demands it. On the other hand, millennials want respect because they feel as though they have a lot to offer when they first enter the workforce. They just haven’t had a chance to prove it yet like their counterparts. The open office is the perfect design to generate respect for all employees. No private offices, which means less intimidation for new employees and less entitlement for those in upper management.  

Baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials working together requires communication and learning from all sides. It’s a textbook combination when you think about it. What baby boomers lack in tech savviness, they more than make up for with experience and work ethic. What millennials lack in experience and focus (not a fact, just word on the street), they more than make up for with enthusiasm to learn and technology know-how. As for the middle generation, the Generation Xers help to bridge the distance between the other two generations. They’re able to use and understand enough technology which allows them to communicate with millennials and teach the baby boomers.

And what better environment to encourage increased communications? In an open office, communication takes on a lot of different forms: in-person meetings, phone calls, and instant messages, just to name a few. Whether you are principally engaged in in-person meetings or instant messaging, it doesn’t matter. The important part is that communication is constantly taking place in an open office. You can just as easily walk over to the person you want to discuss something with as shoot them an instant message. Communication is an integral part of the open office.

No Walls, No Gaps

At the core of every baby boomer is experience and at the core of every millennial is potential. Throw in some Generation Xers with their “work hard, play hard” attitude and their willingness to change and you have a winning combination for an open office. If we can break down the barriers between work spaces, shouldn’t we be able to break down the barriers between generations?

Tags: Open Office Design

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Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall is a statistical data analyst and web developer who likes to spend her free time playing guitar, hanging out with friends, and traveling.