Gen Y and the Incredible Shrinking Office

As Boomers gradually retire and your organization hires more young workers, your office may change. The median age will drop, the average wardrobe alter and, with team-happy young people filling the cubicles, the place may be a bit chattier, but these are all relatively cosmetic shifts. Are there any more fundamental ways that Gen Y is changing the office?

Perhaps, suggest some experts, they may shrink it. Forget Hollywood style miniaturizing rays, the ability of young people to decrease the real estate footprint of corporate America has nothing to do with special effects or far out science. Instead, it has everything to do with Gen Y’s familiarity and comfort with communication tech and location independence.

Telecommuting natives

Young people raised online and with a cell phone in their pockets are nearly as at ease with connectivity as they are with breathing, surveys find, and this may mean an uptick in remote work in the future, Katie Morell recently predicted on the American Express OPEN Forum blog, citing a prominent commentator on Gen Y as evidence:

According to Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career, office environments will be mighty quiet in the next few years. “People will work at desks a lot less often; instead they will work from home, a coffee shop or a shared space,” she says.

In addition, companies will seamlessly expand to global locations without meeting co-workers in person. “We will have a lot more virtual workers who never come into the office at all,” she adds.

Technology will be at the heart of these changes. According to Pollak, companies will have the ability to purchase affordable technology that will allow for near 3-D teleconferencing.

And Pollak isn’t alone in thinking Gen Y are telecommuting natives as well as digital natives. Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs.com, has claimed the same thing.

“I think the recent graduates from the last few years have really been putting a priority on flexibility and have a much higher comfort level for freelance work than prior generations,” says Sutton Fell. “They just don’t see a building as a defining structure of where you do things. They can be anywhere, so the boundaries that older generations grew up with, thinking this is where you have to do something, isn’t present at all in this generation.”

A shift in office design

This tendency to work well away from the office may not only affect the habits of young employees, it may affect companies’ real estate decisions as well. A report from flexible office space company Regus and Unwired released earlier this year found that even now 55 percent of cubicles sit vacant at any given time (while employees tussle for meeting rooms).

These findings suggest that the move towards increased acceptance of remote work will result in a decrease in the size of many corporate campuses as companies look to take advantage of the trend to save money, as well as a reallocation of space from mostly cubes to more areas for collaboration. Third spaces in communities like coworking spaces, coffee shops and libraries (and, of course, spaces from the likes of Regus) would pick up the slack, providing work space for flexible workers.

Do you see these changes coming to your office?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user stevoarnold, CC 2.0)

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for BNET.com.