Why the Modern Office Looks a Lot Like a College Campus

New grads suffer from culture shock when faced with rigid corporate offices.

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The times have changed, and office design is changing along with it. Experts have chimed in on the current state of the workplace, observing that millennials entering the work force out of college prefer the “flexibility and movability that they had during university”. Interiors have changed to meet this need, as seen in coworking spaces and open offices. The work place looks more like a college campus than ever before.

For the current generation of young workers, open offices are about more than aesthetics. There’s a legitimate culture shock in transitioning from university work spaces to corporate offices. The traditional cubicle-filled office takes a toll on those who are more accustomed to flexible, open layouts. This effect is compounded by traditional corporate culture, which is much more rigid and hierarchical than the professor/student relationship that new grads are used to.

It’s true that the culture shock is something that every college grad has to get used to, but while they’re in the process of getting used to it, the employer runs a high risk of employee churn. It’s in the employer’s best interests to soften the transition as much as possible.

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In college, students are given the choice between working in “libraries, classrooms, cafes, and their own rooms”. For an office to offer the same value, it must meet the same criteria in its own way.

Therefore, the workplace needs a little bit of everything: a place to work in small groups, an open place to do casual work and chat, and a quiet place to do focused work by yourself. In university, these needs are met by classrooms, cafes, and dorm rooms. In an office, the designer has to deliberately designate space for each of these functions.

According to Keith Perske, a director at Colliers, the real value of a work space is “encouraging the culture of the company and encouraging certain behaviors”. If we accept that an office is more than just a place to get stuff done, we can see why traditional office designs might turn off new grads and result in high employee turnover.

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Every company knows that it pays to have a strong culture, but it’s easy to forget where that culture comes from. It’s inefficient to invest in excessive benefits, amenities, and newbie orientation without acknowledging that day-to-day office use has a bigger impact on the employee’s perception of culture.

At the same time, we should expect the office to reflect the people in it, not the other way around. For older organizations with different company cultures, it might be best to stick to a cubicle-style design with spacious private offices. It’s great that college-style offices are appealing for new workers, but not everyone wants to feel like they’re in college.

As a manager, you’ll see the best ROI if your office expresses what your employees are all about. Blindly following trends never gives the returns that you expect.