The 5G Workforce

Is it the 50-60 year-olds whom we should really be designing the workplace around?

Image courtesy of rawpixel on Unsplash

I am coming to the conclusion that all the hyperbole around Gen Z and Millennials is tosh!

So often social media catches on to some irrelevant detail and creates a ‘debate’ about nothing. In my experience, most Millennials and Gen Z’s that I have worked with are self-starting, focused and very pleasant – not the whining, narcissistic personalities they are portrayed as. They are happy working in a mixed environment with all types of personalities and are happy to share knowledge and absorb experience from older co-workers.

So actually, those of us responsible for creating the workplaces of the next 10 years need to focus more on the other end of that age spectrum – or more importantly, on an all-inclusive model.

In fact, a recent article argues that “we are heading for an economic disaster by ignoring the implications of increased life and work-life expectancy.” Economic realities mean that many can no longer afford to ‘retire’ at 65, and indeed they don’t want to as they still have a lot to offer. (By the way – this is where the 5G comes from; five generations in the same place)

In my opinion, we will see the emergence of a workplace that supports 5G Workforce dynamics, but with a ruthless focus on effectiveness and productivity. This will be a fusion of a very customized (almost ‘hive at work’) working environment – the ‘Sentient Workplace’ and the office as a place to meet and socialise – the ‘Hospitality Workspace’. Elements of the former will be needed to particularly accommodate the needs of an older worker (more control over climate, distraction etc) – although I don’t see the IoT delivering quite the joined up micro-climatic experience articulated in this vision. The latter model will be more appealing to the younger workforce as the division between ‘work’ and ‘life’ becomes ever more porous. But this will also be driven by the need for spaces in which the different generations can learn from each other. It will also show tendencies for different ‘neighborhoods’ within the workplace to develop (just as you do in housing) – allowing the generations to congregate with their peers when working solo.

In a world where knowledge is the new currency and the quest is for what is authentic, couldn’t you argue that older workers actually hold an advantage? And if so, how should we shape the working environment to support that?

At one of my recent meetings, beanbags came up for conversation. The lady I was talking to laughed at the suggestion of bean-bags in their break out area; “if we have beanbags, some of our ‘wrinklies’ would never get out of them” she laughed. She also shared her frustrations about the older generations penchant for hoarding stuff and creating mess – but then admitted that they had experience and hands-on knowledge that couldn’t be replaced.

“If we have beanbags, some of our ‘wrinklies’ would never get out of them.”

So, what does that mean for the office landscape?

Let’s start with the bean bags: it means social spaces that cater for all ages. It means having places that individuals can go for focus work, and it means environments where the experience and knowledge (which cannot be extracted with a smart algorithm) can be imparted to the younger generation – meaning better, and more varied meeting/learning spaces.

…And it may mean some retraining – meaning better, and more varied meeting/learning spaces. [Note: duplicated on purpose…]

Colin Graham, one of the directors at Facebook said recently “Apart from my own job, I’m not sure we have any jobs that existed seven years ago that still exist.” Many roles in today’s economy were only created in recent years, so our workplaces need to focus on spaces that allow our teams to upskill, cross-skill and relearn – more varied and more adaptable meeting spaces.

Image courtesy of Rob Bye on Unsplash

And for those generations who can remember life before the smartphone the future workplace will need to provide areas where an individual can get their head down (probably literally) and zone out from all the surrounding distraction to focus on a particular task. Which will likely see the return of the ‘library’ – somewhere you go for an almost zen-like experience of tranquillity sitting amongst motionless forms all equally absorbed and unaware of those around them.

“Go to the ‘library’ for an almost zen-like experience of tranquillity sitting amongst motionless forms all equally focussed and absorbed.”

The global economic slowdown will mean that the construction of new office spaces will taper off, driven in part by the fall from grace of the out-of-town office park, plus the collapse of the high street as a place to shop delivering up stock that is re-purposed as workspace.

High street shopping areas repurposed as office stock will mean our workplaces will be ‘Agile’ by necessity rather than just by design.

This will tend to mean that workers will be more used to moving from one physical place to another for different activities – ‘Agile’ by necessity rather than just by design, with spaces such as ‘town hall space’ and ‘brainstorm labs’ shared between adjacent companies. This sharing will also tend to rub out the lines between one organization and another, further accelerating the move away from the ‘office’ environment to a more comfortable and homely form of décor and layout, a move welcomed by the 5G workforce as they will also be more likely to be working a shorter week (as retirement is no longer economically viable, or welcomed).

As companies will be increasingly defined by purpose and shared vision & values rather than by place, employee attraction and retention will be driven by congruity of the individuals’ personal mission and that of the organization. This alignment will mean that co-workers will be more inclined to stay together while socializing, and there will be more evidence of ‘work families’ replacing the traditional hereditary model.


Image courtesy of rawpixel on Unsplash

You only need to take a look at the recent gender pay gap debacle to realize that the (hopefully obsolete) Old World Order focused on fit & healthy, white males, aged 25-45 to the exclusion (it seems) of just about every other life-form. While I may be a white male, I could never claim to have been very fit, and I’m perilously close to the top end of the ‘relevance band’ so, do I lose my worth or relevance in the next couple of years?

Certainly not!

Do I want to impart experience to younger players?


Do I only function as a cog in the great capitalist economic machine if stuffed into a vanilla box with a false ceiling and canned air…..?

See where this is going? We need to seriously reconsider what we regard as good places to work – and the need to be inclusive of all. As soon as we, the office designers, start creating spaces where individuals feel respect, and can understand what they are contributing to we will begin to see organizations flourishing, with strong and broader teams.

Leadership is the art of creating greatness in other people; so does that mean that corporate leadership could be defined as the art of creating places that unlock the greatness in other people?

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