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Millennial v Boomer: are work spaces for staff or clients?

In Brynne Herbert and Mrs Moneypenny’s latest Financial Times column, they debate whether office space is for the team or client. 

imgres-1.pngBrynne Herbert

We moved into new offices in London and San Francisco this month. Goodbye old cramped spaces and rowdy neighbours. Hello mini golf, PlayStation, sweet jars and excellent video conferencing.

You might wonder why office spaces today — particularly those inhabited by technology companies like us — have so many amenities.

It is because millennials look for something different in the physical spaces where they work — much as they look for something different in the culture of the companies they chose to work for.

Companies that are really great at culture bring it to life in their policies, rituals, recruiting and, yes, their physical spaces.

Millennials have a more fluid concept of work and life than older generations. At many start-up offices, days are flexible. Work and life intermingle at “chill-out” areas, where we brainstorm and gossip.

In our office, it is not uncommon to see a group of young workers playing a fiercely contested ping pong match. Between sets they invariably talk about the projects they are working on and what is happening in the office that day. More importantly, however, they are building bonds with one another that are the basis of teamwork. 

Much trust is built working side by side on business problems and opportunities. But real, deep trust is built on personal relationships — getting to know each other’s vulnerabilities, aspirations and families. When the going gets tough — as it always does in growing businesses — it is this trust that gets us through.

Investment in games consoles and table tennis help retain staff and build teams 

We start-ups are not the only companies to offer workers more than a desk and a swivel chair. Long-established employers have looked to cater to millennials, who are now often the largest section of their workforce. But there is an important distinction between our kind of office space and, for example, what investment banks and consulting firms do. Their laundry services and free food are less an embodiment of their culture than an acknowledgment that their staff need these services to be able to work the long hours expected of them.

For millennials, great office spaces are all about leading a fulfilling work life. For us employers, the investment we make in games consoles and table tennis paddles pays dividends in retaining and building good teams.

Mrs Moneypenny

We are not moving office. Our lease was up last year and we decided to renew it, despite a 50 per cent rise in our rent. I did not relish the disruption of a move and our current location — a Georgian townhouse equidistant from Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations in London’s West End — is perfect.

Did I think about whether our office premises aid staff retention when I made the decision to stay? No.

I employ lots of millennials, and I don’t believe they stay or go based on their physical environment. We have no PlayStations (and I have just got rid of the one at home as we enter the last few months before son number three’s AS levels).

For me, the office is a marketing opportunity, not a staff retention tool. It is where clients visit when looking for us to find new executives. The space needs to convey the values we hold dear every time that client, or a candidate we are looking to place, steps through the door. People who come and talk privately about their staffing needs, or their career ambitions — let alone their salary expectations — need an environment that whispers discretion and trust. Even the colour and quality of the hand towels in the bathrooms need to reassure.

The office should be a valid workplace for what you do; we are somewhere between a management consultancy and a private detective agency and that is the office that we need. So, as we prepare for the major refurbishment that we are about to undertake, the choices I need to make mean my desk is awash with Farrow & Ball colour samples (white walls are indeed a thing of the past), not price lists for ping pong tables.

Of course I want our staff to feel relaxed and “at home” but that can go a bit too far — in preparation for the decorators the project manager looked under all the desks and said that the hoarding of personal possessions — in particular, shoes (I employ a lot of women) had reached epic proportions. She said she was surprised that we had not already had a fire.

So no, I do not think staff retention has figured much in any of my interior design decisions. Cost, yes, location, sure. But our team members will stay with us because we develop them, treat them with respect, reward them appropriately and allow them to do meaningful work.

If you deliver all that, I suspect they would be happy working anywhere. Even the local café.

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