Design for generations: Humancentric, Diverse and Inclusive workspace

Four generations in one workspace presents us with a challenge. How do we accommodate the needs of all? Baby boomers nearing or delaying retirement; mid-life Generation X; the largest cohort, millennials; and increasingly, the digital native’ Gen Z.

We hosted the first Women in Office Design event in Scotland with an expert panel from our female Architecture and Design community. Founder of Women in Office and Design, and Projects Director at K2 Space, Harsha Kotak, put the questions on Design for generations: Humancentric, Diverse and Inclusive workspace’ to Morag Dearsley, Associate at Form Design Consultants: Kim-Marie Bryce, Associate at Michael Laird Architects; Emma Flaherty, Architect at Keppie Design.

Fab Four

What challenges do businesses face in accommodating workers of different age groups in a flexible workspace?

Kim – Our recent client, had started a culture shift and moved into new offices in Glasgow in 2015 which were more open plan, with a work café and breakout space. Everyone really embraced the space, so a lot of the homework and lessons learned for designing their Edinburgh office came from the experience of the Glasgow office. What they found in Glasgow was that Managing Partners wanted to be with their workforce, and that it was easier in a social hub workspace.

Their offices are multi-generational. Young team members have come from universities which have very cool designs, and a choice of settings, which is different to the older generation’s experience. Variety in the choice of settings is key to give autonomy to the user. But the workplace culture should help people adapt so that the space isn’t segregated.

Also, I think Gen Z are more focused on well-being – biophilia, eco elements, yoga space etc and we must hear all the stakeholders that are involved. We really encourage that – getting the stakeholder group right means having everyone from the junior to the senior members involved. Our job is to tease out what they all really want.

Morag – We worked with a client that’s growing rapidly and has quite a diverse work group. We did a lot of staff engagement; we walked the spaces. I also spent some time working in the office and observing them. There were engineers who were very collaborative and then data scientists working with noise cancelling headphones.

They decided after covid that they wanted a flexible space, but the challenge was accommodating all the different needs. We looked at how we could separate the space with booths, acoustics, collaboration meeting rooms. But we also created a massive social space so that they can all come together too.

We’re still doing work for them and it’s interesting to go back and see how the space works and I think that is key. You don’t just hand it over. You learn by going back and analysing the use of space.

How do businesses encourage the different generations back to a workspace? What are their different needs?

Emma – A lot of Generation Z will never have been in an office and have come straight from university where they’ve had a flexible environment to work in. Either that or they’ve spent the last 2 years working from home. Now if we want to get them back to an office, we need to question how a hybrid, flexible workspace can be accessible for all. There are many offices that are rigid, with fixed desks, but that’s not the way we’re looking at it anymore.

Junior team members might not appreciate the amount of knowledge exchange you can get when you’re in an office. If you’re sat next to someone really experienced, you absorb everything like a sponge. You can’t get that working from home.

Then there’s the additional advantages of yoga room, gym, cafes, and extracurricular activities that make a workplace a more enjoyable place to be.

Kim – Generation Z are the most unsociable/​sociable generation from using social media. Now we want them in an office working face to face and collaborating and we need to encourage that. So, we can add the cool, funky pod but we also need them to connect. There’s been a focus on the employee needs, but we also need to meet the needs of the employer.

But also, for millennials or Generation X, they’ve been used to being in the office and life at home can be quite hectic and distracting and often coming to the office is a haven. So, you need that focused time and the tools to be able to do that. That takes us back to the engagement side to find out how we can do that best.

The new ways of hybrid working brings its own challenges and the staff now have an upper hand in saying how they want to use the workspace – as designers how do we use change management and design strategy to cater to hybrid working?

Morag – Early engagement and finding out about the company culture. If you don’t have trust and open collaboration, then hybrid working won’t work. Part of our job is to find that out. We engage with clients and get them to measure where they are and where they want to be. Sometimes stakeholders are surprised by the results.

Promoting health and wellbeing was a big part of a company we worked for. They were very hierarchical. Executives in traditional offices with secretaries sitting in a dark corridor. So, we challenged them and said if you’re serious about health and wellbeing you need to create a floor of community space, kitchen, yoga space, quiet space, and they did it. They had an outdoor terrace that had only been accessible from the Chief Executive’s office and now they’ve got planting there and tables for all the team and that’s a huge change for them.

What changes are likely as millennials become the dominant group but with Generation Z increasingly entering the workplace?

Emma – It’s about knowledge sharing and training across all four generations. We talk about inclusivity and human-centric design and there’s so much to address. Some small changes don’t have a large financial impact. It might be having individual toilet cubicles rather than segregated toilets to make them more accessible to everyone, for example.

Over the last couple of years people have become more open to talking about topics that were previously taboo like mental health. We need to get everyone involved — the more we talk the less of a taboo they become.

Kim – Generation Z are very tech savvy and can adapt to new technology in the workplace and some clients want that, but on the flip side we need the office to be seamless for everyone to use. And tech is great but if we’re thinking about wellbeing, we also need tech free spaces. So, there will be a big focus on technology in workspace but there’s a balance to be had, we also need those quiet moments.

Morag- it needs to be easy to use for everyone. I think you can use Technology to your advantage. But you can’t make assumptions because access to a building via a mobile app isn’t necessarily right for everyone.

Questions from our audience


To what extent are clients thinking about the menopause in the workplace and how can designers influence clients to consider this?

Harsha – None of my clients are speaking about it but then ten years ago no one would include a mother’s room in their office. So hopefully this will change and if we have the same conversation in two years’ time, we’ll be talking about menopause at work.

Morag – A lot of emphasis is on the younger generation but in fact menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace.

Guest — I don’t think it has to be a specific mother’s room or somewhere you go for a hot flush. If you look after health and well-being, then you make work environments more inclusive so that anyone can use a well-being’ space if they need it.

Guest – it’s a subject younger generations and males won’t understand, so we really need to focus on all the different groups which is another reason we need a flexible approach to work.

What do we do with senior team members who want to stick with their traditional way of working? Or introverts who aren’t happy with working in an open plan space?

Morag – we accept that for some people that’s the way they want to work. They might be working from home right now and they like working in a focused way.

Harsha – We’re not going to change everyone and for some people you can’t force change. Focus and privacy are needed for some roles and that is an understanding that designers need to have.

Kim – As designers you only know what you know, but it is our job to challenge and that is why we have that engagement stage.

Thank you for to Women in Office Design, our panel and all our guests for this interesting and informative discussion.

Join us at our next event. Sign up to our newsletter below!