Millennial Workplaces: Matches Made in Space

The workplace is changing. Meetings are held over a game of ping pong. Cubicles give way to hotel seating. Naps are fine now.

As millennials establish themselves in the workforce, they bring new perspectives on what the office is and how it facilitates work. Born between the 1980s and early 2000s, millennials have grown alongside a torrent of technological breakthroughs, making them a digitally proficient and adaptable generation.

Millennials expect more than an Internet connection at their office, though. Young professionals want to break from traditional workspaces with cubicles and florescent buzz. They want a complete overhaul of the office attitude, with open floor plans, clear communication and some excitement thrown in.

“Millennial companies, or businesses that employ and want to accommodate millennials, often look for office spaces with collaborative areas, bright colors, open space, glass walls and, increasingly, room for recreational activities, ” says Philip Currie, president of the real estate firm J.H. Berry & Gilbert Inc.

Currie and company have extensive experience finding properties that accommodate millennial demands. “Our team boasts significant market knowledge of Alabama’s real estate markets through our research and industry networks, ” he says. “We use this knowledge to find the right space that best suits each client’s needs, in Alabama and beyond.”

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While certain conditions, like the desire for sharable space and technological integration, are nearly universal, Currie tailors his firm’s services to the individual needs of the company. “Each of our clients has specific needs, or ways in which they want to use space, ” says Currie. “Some want very open, shared spaces and office environments, some want technology or access to functional outdoor space.

“I believe that having creativity and the ability to think outside of the box is helpful in recognizing when real estate is in a prime location and can be transformed into a suitable office space, ” says Currie.

The millennial affinity for innovation also plays an important role in Currie’s search. “Our team understands different spaces and the opportunities and challenges they can present, ” he says. “We always think ‘beyond the box’ to consider the different ways we can transform space into the ideal office space for a client based on its wants and needs.”

When businesses have found a space and want to design a layout to suit their millennial tastes, they turn to furnishing companies like Business Interiors. The Birmingham-based firm provides clients with advanced office products that are both functional and stylish.

Among their most popular products are the Doing It Right This Time (DIRTT) Environmental Solutions. DIRTT building installations include integration of technology into the office space through innovative designs. Sectional walls are particularly trendy in millennial offices, with tiled surfaces and glass to open up the workspace.

“In today’s work world, innovation drives everything, ” says Bud Miller, corporate account manager at Dekalb Offices. Miller and company provide furnishings for millennial groups and other businesses that desire to keep their workplaces on the cutting edge. “Our customers rely on us to help them create great spaces in which to work and grow, ” he says. “We help our customers create interior spaces that help them work, heal and learn better with innovative furniture, architectural products, technology and design solutions.”

Miller has noticed trends develop as more companies begin to employ younger staff. Many forego private space for communal areas. “Each project achieved their own uniqueness through their furniture, ” says Miller. “Most of the furniture centered around collaborative spaces in an open environment.”

Millennial-owned companies make up 15 percent of Dekalb’s business, while many other companies employ millennials in increasingly high numbers. Among Miller’s clients, millennial-heavy employers like Daxko stand out as heralds of the office space revolution.

More than half of Daxko’s 200 staff members are millennials, warranting the colorful atmosphere cultivated at the Birmingham office. Bright color schemes and geometrical décor line the software company’s scooter-friendly halls. “We believe that people are more creative and innovative when they are in a space that is visually pleasing and stimulating, as well as provides a variety of styles in which to work, ” says CEO Dave Gray. “We also believe that an emphasis on team rather than rank or hierarchy drives the desired result.”

Daxko has no private offices, opting for larger group spaces. “Without offices, we save on dedicated square footage per person, ” says Gray. “Then we are able to build out far more collaborative and multi-purpose spaces than you’d see in a typical office environment.” This allows the team to be creative with their real estate, using the space for common rooms, brainstorming areas, coffee shops and other inventive stations.

Keith Hazelrig, of the Hazelrig Realty Co., helped Gray find the right location for his Birmingham office. Gray and company sought furnishing help from Ai Corporate Interiors, Dekalb Office and Business Interiors. “We wanted to create a high-energy, attractive, enjoyable workspace to enable teamwork, innovation and fun, ” he says.

ABOVE Markstein has made its 25th floor office in Birmingham’s Wells Fargo Tower into an airy, contemporary space.

The strategic communications agency Markstein has made its 25th floor office in Birmingham’s Wells Fargo Tower into an airy, contemporary space. Located by J.H. Berry & Gilbert and furnished by Business Interiors, the lofty workplace sports whiteboards for group brainstorming, a three-unit Sonos music system for inspirational music and glass walls for cohesive atmosphere and striking views of downtown Birmingham.

“We are located in the heart of the bustling central business district, which is increasingly lively, especially these days, ” says Managing Director Eileen Markstein. “All of our offices have glass walls so our team members have individual space in a highly collaborative environment. Each office has views of the city.” The windows overlook Birmingham landmarks like Vulcan and Regions Field.

The prominent law firm Baker Donelson also occupies Wells Fargo Tower, with four completely overhauled floors. “When we renovated our space in 2012, we wanted to create an environment that was fresh, providing an inviting place to work and visit, and that paid homage to our firm’s and city’s history and legacy, ” says shareholder Tim Lupinacci.

The open layout allows plenty of natural light to illuminate boldly painted walls and pieces by Alabama artists. A steel turning wheel serves as the focal point, a tribute to Birmingham’s industrial beginnings.

The boardroom was designed to honor the civil rights efforts of office founder Abe Berkowitz. Exposed beams and girders stretch across the room into clean and completed space, representing the ongoing progress of the movement.

ABOVE Kinetic Communications developed a stylish HQ on the historic cobblestones of downtown Birmingham’s Morris Avenue, with a red train car and commissioned graffiti art facing the street. Inside, repurposed boxcars serve as offices, and decorative geometry rises overhead. Outside, employees can enjoy a putting green, giant chess set or the willow-covered courtyard.

Elsewhere in downtown Birmingham, Kinetic Communications has developed a futuristic HQ on the historic cobblestone of Morris Avenue. “Imagine one of the oldest buildings in Birmingham juxtaposed with a ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ themed interior and you’ll get the idea of Kinetic’s renovated downtown building, ” says Founder and Principal Jay Brandrup.

The exterior is instantly recognizable with its red train car and commissioned graffiti art facing the street. Inside, repurposed boxcars serve as offices, and decorative geometry rises overhead. Custom construction and artwork came courtesy of Birmingham design/build firm Appleseed Workshop. Interior space has been set aside for a think tank, game room, sauna and exercise room. If employees step out, they may enjoy a putting green, giant chess set, or relax in the willow-covered courtyard to watch the trains pass by.

A pleasant environment can make a notable difference in an employee’s attitude. Strong Automotive Merchandising has incorporated fun and exciting features to keep the mood light. “The goal was to create an atmosphere for our employees to look forward to coming to work, ” says owner John Paul Strong.

The advertising and marketing company has completely renovated its Mountain Brook office, adding bright colors, circular layout and a polka-dotted floor resembling a twister game board. Employees can collaborate over a giant dry-erase wall while the sound of foosball tables and flat screen TVs blend into the background.

ABOVE At the advertising agency Red Square, in downtown Mobile, the company’s 80-member staff can unwind at a poker, craps or pool table. (The agency manages many casino brands.) They can also shoot hoops in the auditorium or retreat to the break room with outdoor patio.

Red Square Agency, in Mobile, also has used common surfaces for brainstorming. “Almost all of the walls upstairs are either dry-erase or cork, letting our employees tack up work or write ideas basically anywhere, ” says Chief Operating Officer Elena Freed.

The company’s two-story space features a fabrication lab and photography studio. As the advertising agency works with many casino brands, employees may unwind at a poker, craps or pool table. They can also shoot hoops in the auditorium or retreat to the break room with outdoor patio.

The downtown space comes with a view of the RSA Tower, conveniently located near their old stomping grounds. “Our current space is just across the street from our former office, ” says Freed. “We had our eye on the 110-year-old gem for quite some time.”

Over half of Red Square’s 80-member staff are millennials, and communication is kept strong across the open space. “The environment fosters transparency and collaboration and offers multiple options as to how and where to work, ” says Freed, “from your sit-to-stand desk to conference rooms and lounges.”

ABOVE Intermark Group’s downtown Birmingham loft was designed to maximize collaboration and creative thinking. The advertising agency’s office received a cool, modern buildout with concrete floors and sleek, segmented walls. Conferences are held in a refurbished Airstream trailer or the surrounding gym-style bleachers.

The need for easy communication inspired Intermark Group’s open floor plan. The downtown Birmingham loft was designed to maximize collaboration and creative thinking. “Research shows that people collaborate more when there are no doors to offices and when meeting spaces are easy to come by, ” says Intermark CEO Jack McKenzie. “It gets people talking and working together.”

The advertising agency’s office received a cool, modern buildout with concrete floors and sleek, segmented walls. The central hub is lined with giant cubes, functioning as sectioned office quarters amid the common space. Sunshine pours in through skylights and reflects off the ubiquitous silver surfaces.

Conferences are held in a refurbished airstream trailer or the surrounding gym-style bleachers. More casual exchanges occur over a game of pool. On break, employees help themselves to the office’s popcorn machine, escape for a moment on a video game system or simply step outside onto the covered patio.

Many millennials gravitate towards technology fields. The tech-savvy generation comprises the bulk of API Digital’s staff and has greatly influenced the Huntsville office’s location and design. Last September, the communication/technical support provider moved from an industrial park venue to its current space in Huntsville’s burgeoning downtown. “There’s been a big resurgence downtown, ” says CEO Greg Engle. “The location provides our employees some diversion.”

API’s park-side office is loaded with repurposed industrial parts, including cable spools for tables, seating made from pallets and poured concrete throughout. Dealing with a standard office size in their 10-story building, API avoids feeling closed in with high ceilings and panoramic views of the city. Unique features like the glass “fishbowl” walls and foosball table keep the atmosphere bright. “As a tech company, so much of our work can seem dry, ” says Engle. “We wanted a laid-back feel in the office, something to bring out the personality.”

The office operates around the clock, 365 days per year. Engle understands that the rigorous tech focus puts high demands on the staff but tries to make their environment as relaxed as possible. “We do have a conference room, but it doesn’t get too much use, ” he says. “There are plenty of couches and places to put your feet up and talk over coffee.”

Many tech jobs involve a constant connection to the Internet. Employers have realized that this does not require their staff to report to a brick-and-mortar location to get the job done. In light of this, many millennials have taken to working remotely. Their offices are their homes, coffee shops and local Wi-Fi hotspots.

DealNews, of Huntsville, has embraced this remote office approach, allowing their employees the freedom to choose their own commute. “We’re a work-from-home company, ” says director of PR Mark LoCastro.

The Web-based company started in 1999, the project of bargain hunters sharing deals on consumer electronics, computers and other gadgets. They posted the bargain information on a website, which grew into an international enterprise. “By 2000, DealNews had grown to about eight employees working in a small space in Huntsville’s BizTech, ” says LoCastro. “Today, DealNews operates in more than 12, 000 square feet of office space in Huntsville, plus offices in New York City and Dublin, Ireland.”

Millennial employees at DealNews consider the company’s culture of freedom and accountability to be its greatest quality. “More than 50 percent of the millennials we employ in Huntsville choose to work from home 100 percent of the time, ” says LoCastro. “Our team ranks this flexibility as their number two reason they love working at DealNews when we surveyed them.”

As offices evolve beyond the traditional workspaces of previous generations, some may wonder how millennial employees stay focused in such open environments. How much work can possibly be done around pool tables and lounge sofas?

Millennial companies have found that these selective diversions can actually improve productivity. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but research has shown that employees are most creative when it’s not too quiet, ” says McKenzie. “It helps to drown out distractions and actually improves focus.”

“There is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that these type of work environments, in addition to short breaks at work, increase productivity and creativity, ” says Currie. “I guess one can be amazed at the ideas that come from a quick game of ping pong.”

Ultimately, taking time during the workday to connect with coworkers can strengthen the team. A few minutes away from the computer screen can stave off fatigue and let the mind rest from the constant taxing.

“We ask a lot from our people, ” says API Digital’s Engle. “Hours can be crazy, and everybody needs to take some time to blow off some steam. We understand that, so we allow space for fellowship and camaraderie.”

Thomas Little and Cary Norton are freelancers for Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

text by Thomas M. Little • photos by Cary Norton

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