Gen Z: Coming to a Workplace Near You

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What is the Aim

Workplace design continues to change or evolve as quickly as the generations that pass through them.  And often the work style preferences of tomorrow’s talent pool rarely match the spaces created for them today by corporate management. With the Gen Z population on a trajectory to be 30% of the U.S. workforce by 2025 and significant disruptions to the concept and context of “work,” we’re at the intersection for another wave of change in workplace design. It’s more than “will there be desks?” but rather, “what will be considered work and what kind of spaces and experiences support those activities?”

This study sought to anticipate generational preferences; identifying and prioritizing design solutions for this population as it enters and establishes the next generation within the workplace over the next decade.

  • Who is Gen Z and how do their characteristics compare to other generations in the workplace?
  • What are the top priority workplace needs for Gen Z?
  • How can we address these via design solutions?
  • To what extent do Gen Z’s current, expected and desired workplace experiences vary?

What We Did 

We took an inductive approach to questioning by exploring “work” and “working” and differentiating experience both in and outside of class time. The idea is to use academic behavior as a proxy indicator of preferences for knowledge workers. Many questions differentiated current and ideal/future work environments and experiences. Findings intentionally highlight factors able to be influenced directly by design.

From September 2015 to July 2016, an international and interdisciplinary team of HKS designers and researchers conducted an extensive review of previous research to inform the development and deployment of an online panel survey of 452 Generation Z-aged students (born between 1995 and 2000) with respondent representation from 47 U.S. states.

It’s more than “will there be desks?” but rather, “what will be considered work and what kind of spaces and experiences support those activities?”

What We Found

Preliminary Generation Z preferences highlight the following emerging (and surprising) insights:

  • Gen Z self-identify as social, tech-savvy, independent, adventurous and status-focused. Reserved, altruistic, intuitive and sustainable were the least common attributes (less than 3% of respondents selected) and suggest that the workplace is expected to be more about work experience and professional development.
  • Flexible work hours is the most significant factor impacting work productivity (79%) and overall satisfaction (83%).
  • Face-to-face collaboration is the main reason to come on-site (on campus/in the office) when they could otherwise work remotely (88.3% of Gen Z reported). Gen Z reported wanting the flexibility of work location (54%), flexible work hours (55%), and work-life balance (59%).
  • While many Gen Z would prefer an entrepreneurial employment style, they still look to have 2-4 employers in their career (30%). Only 22% said they’d prefer “one, if I find the right fit” and fewer than 7% would choose to be a free-agent/self-employed.
  • More than 20% of our respondents said they “don’t care” if they have an assigned seat; this generally mirrors another 20% of respondents who would prefer to work from home.
  • The remaining majority of our respondents looking for traditional employment in a typical office setting voiced a desire for workplaces with assigned seating.
  • No matter the location, overall, ideal work settings are described as open, clean, comfortable, calm, spacious, at home (69%), and organized (51%); they are not elegant/lavish (<1%), utilitarian (<1%), or loud (<1%).
  • Common distractions include others conversations (85%) and (electronic) device alerts (50%). The most common way they deal with these distractions is to move to a different space.
  • Common collaboration challenges highlight spatial constraints: lack of space for teaming (23%), rooms/areas too small (21%) and work surface too small (16%).
  • Privacy and focus spaces are prioritized over collaboration—most likely, a result of collaboration being an ingrained part of their educational experience and vocabulary. Privacy was selected the most frequently as a factor for productivity, suggesting Gen Z equate privacy with focused work.
Quiet and focused space at Bell Textron Advanced Vertical Lift Business Center in Arlington, Virginia

This project resulted in an executive summary, overall research report and two recorded presentations. View project summary.

What the Findings Mean

Some conservative and inconsistent responses suggest Gen Z isn’t as radical in their views of an ideal workplace or employment style as expected in terms of a low number of employers throughout their career. Flexibility appears to be a key issue as 20% of respondents would prefer to work from home and responses were nearly evenly split between preferring an assigned vs. unassigned seat. Providing spaces to retreat for focus will be a crucial satisfier. They voice a strong desire for employment certainty but with more generous work policies related to remote working and flexible location and/or hours.

Preferences illuminate a work experience (rather than a workplace) ecosystem starting with factors that directly impact recruitment and hiring: high priority intangible, organizational characteristics of employers (e.g., talented employees, good culture, flexible work hours, workplace cleanliness and acoustics). These relate to and must be supported by equally high priority, physical elements (e.g., network speed, hardware/software, in-office mobility) that may relate to work satisfaction and retention.

Preferences illuminate a work experience (rather than a workplace) ecosystem starting with factors that directly impact recruitment and hiring.

Workplace design should celebrate diverse employee identities. Gen Z is still discovering itself in terms of life stage and workplace presence. Fewer than 6% of survey respondents identified explicitly as Gen Z while 28% identified as a Millennial, the second most frequent choice behind “I don’t know” (44%).

Be sure to provide rather than sell basic expectations as benefits, e.g., collaboration, laptops, high-speed Wi-Fi, etc. Selling these things as perks can come across as out-of-touch. On the other hand, don’t focus on just the fun stuff with outrageous amenities. Gen Z isn’t looking for the lavish (<1% of respondents).

While our survey respondents would prefer to come to work to be with others—they find aspects of a collaborative workspace enjoyable—they prefer to work both independently and privately. Virtual connectivity has led our future generations into a nearly constant state of virtual connectivity, but the virtual realm is best realized in quiet, private settings. Perhaps this is why among our top descriptors of an ideal workspace were “calm, quiet and comfortable.” Our survey revealed that, just like everyone else, it is difficult for them to curb distractions in a chaotic, open workspace environment.

Gen Z value and, to some degree, expect variety and mobility. They value being present in their workplace and in-person communication, but they also need quiet focused space. Position the concept of focus to meet their self-reported needs for privacy. These can be phone (1-person) and focus (1-2 people) rooms shared within the workplace rather than private offices or working from home.

Show value by investing in orientation and onboarding experiences. This helps set the tone and workplace experience for all the organizational values that they came to the company. Similarly, provide programmed professional development opportunities. This more on-demand and pre-arranged model allows for new employees to work on their work and instead of extra-curricular efforts.

For OneSource Virtual in Dallas, Texas, we designed the space to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce. The environment supports a variety of work styles and balances a need for customer privacy with open-door access for employees.

Top 10 Workplace Priorities for Generation Z*

  1. Fast Network
  2. Talented Employees
  3. Hardware/Software
  4. Competitive Benefits
  5. Flexible Schedule
  6. Good Culture
  7. Daylight Access
  8. Cutting-edge Technology
  9. Environmentally Responsible
  10. Short Commute

*Of the 19 attributes assessed within Physical, Organizational or Amenity categories, surprisingly on-site wellness facilities, on-site fitness, health features and urban location did not make it on the Top 10 list as part of the Physical and Amenity features category.

What fuels the fire of Gen Z? Ethics, sustainability and philanthropy will play an increasingly important role in competitively recruiting top talent as this generation expects the values of their future organization to align with their own. Based on our survey findings, if Gen Z workers are not able to find an employer offering matching values and practices, they may decide to go off on their own.

Understand that professional development will most likely involve a diverse range of experiences beyond traditional classroom training, conferences and networking happy hours. Consider offering or encouraging more experiential learning opportunities like pro-bono work in the community or external boot camp technical training.

Also, consider further study of educational environments from which these new hires have as experience as they will use as a reference when gauging the success of their transition into the workplace environment.


Team Members:
Angela Ramer
Donna Sharpe
Lisa Adams
Elisa LaPaglia 
Josh Tooill

HKS Idea Fellowship