Mastering the "Language" of Digital Natives to Design Future Work Space
Natalie Engels in fifty On

Image © Gensler

I recently took my 8-year-old daughter to a project tour and watched her touch a wallcovering to see if it would change or ripple and then walk up to a LCD monitor, touch it, and be disappointed that it didn’t do more. Observing the space through her eyes, made me wonder, what will be relevant to her when she enters the workforce? How will she, and her generation, interact with space and how will space interact with them? This generation of Digital Natives thinks differently; they look beyond the surface and embrace the possibilities of both real and virtual spaces.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “Digital Native,” it was coined in 2001 by author Marc Prensky in his book, “ Teaching Digital Natives,” to describe a generation of children born into a completely digital world; children whose lives have always been integrated with technology. In contrast, “Digital Immigrants,” haven’t grown up with technology and sometimes struggle to adapt, as digital is not their "native language."

As designers, we need to look closer at this generation entering the workforce in roughly a decade and challenge ourselves to create spaces and tools for a generation that views computers and mobile devices as an extension of their bodies and minds. After all, the spaces that are being leased now and that we are about to design will be the first impression this workforce has of work environments. Understanding their ‘language’ will be key to designing spaces that support and respond to their needs.

To become versed in this generation’s "language," I went straight to the source, conducting interviews with three 8-year-olds, Hadley, Harper and Violet (full disclosure: one of them is my daughter). I asked each of them to describe their future working conditions, culture and environment. Their responses were insightful, visionary and delightful.

Q: Let’s imagine that you begin working in a corporate office in 15 years. What do you expect to see?

Q: How will you get to work?

Q: If you could design your work environment, what would it look like?

Q: On your first day, you walk in and I, as a hologram, greet you and let you now that with your small personal device, you can build the space you want out of touchable holograms. What would you make?

Q: Within that space that you have created, what would you do throughout the day?

Q: How do you think machines will help you do your job or do parts of your job for you?

Q: What if your personal device is not a physical element. What if you needed a screen, you would “draw” one with your finger while wearing glasses in this virtual reality?

Q: Will other people be in your workspace? Will they be physical or a hologram?

Impacts on Design

Blend of Real and Virtual Environments

All three children assumed that they would be working in offices with virtual software such as holograms, shaping the bulk of their environment. They expect to work in a digital/virtual world, one that blends seamlessly. To design for this type of blended space, we will need to provide areas that are blank canvases so that virtual environments can be whatever users need them to be. Virtual technology could allow for a 20-person conference room to convert into an 8-person room, a meditation room and two focus pods, depending on what is needed at the time. Spaces will need to be malleable and to accommodate both real and virtual work.

Technology Will Make Work Easier

Each child talked about different ways technology would make their jobs easier through time saving devices. Currently, integrating technology into work space can still feel added on. To truly incorporate technology into the work environment, the space may have to be technology. Designers may need to become coders, using machines to create spaces that feel human.

Customization for the Individual

The children see themselves being able to create spaces that reflect who they are. User choice and creating spaces where employees can produce their best work will always be essential for any business’ success. Future spaces could be personally curated while also maintaining boundaries. Color and material could morph depending on the neighborhood. It would be ideal to implement designs that allowed teams to decide what mode they want to be in, whether or not they want privacy or to be accessible. Spaces could simulate outdoor spaces with light shifting from indoor light quality to outdoor.

Work/Life Integration

The children expressed a desire for breaks in their work day - “resting areas” with massage chairs, technology that would allow them to have virtual lunches with friends or ottomans so they can put their feet up and relax. As Violet stated, “Not everything is about work.” Many companies today strive to offer engaging environments, where their employees support the organizations goals while also feeling like their personal needs can be met. Many of our clients achieve this by offering wellness programs and amenities like gyms, game rooms, and cafés – places that offer mental breaks from the daily grind. Holistic wellness, in the future will need to be a balance of physical wellness, social wellness, mental wellness and spiritual wellness. By using virtual technology could one room easily be customized to fit all of these needs - becoming a meditation room for one user, a quiet room for another or an exercise room?

Overall, this is an ideal time to tap into the insights this generation of Digital Natives has to offer. We can’t know all that will change in the next 10 to 15 years, but by examining this generation’s fluency in both digital and non-digital worlds and the flexibility they demonstrate in being able to effortlessly navigate between the two, it can push us to think beyond the physical limitations of the built environment. A successful designer will need to demonstrate this same type of fluency and flexibility when faced with new technology, modes of working, and user expectations to design solutions for the future, giving Digital Natives the space and the tools they will need to be successful.

Natalie Engels re-imagines the workplace experience. A Design Director and regional leader of Gensler’s Technology practice, Natalie teams with clients to improve their business by designing for the workforce of the future; helping to attract and keep the next generation of employees. Contact her at
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