Orcutt Winslow
Influencers of Environment and Culture in Education

Influencers of Environment and Culture in Education: What Does this Mean to GenZ Entering the Workspace? 

On track to be one of the most diverse generations in U.S. history, Gen Z is about to make their presence known in the workplace in a major way. With jobs undergoing change and with a shrinking workforce, competition for talent will be fierce. Companies need to think and prepare— differently–to win in the talent market.  

The rush to embrace the latest generation to come of age is manifested in different ways as the employer, educator or designer.  Yet, we can learn lessons from each other and apply design strategies across project types from workspaces to classrooms to meet the needs of GenZ.  Employers are already faced with the redesign of positions that can both attract and engage. Educators are looking for new and innovative ways to cultivate confident young men and women for a workspace that embraces what they value most. Designers are challenged to create environments that are social and emotional promoters of confidence.  

As employers, we are living our own contagious beliefs  to help launch new citizens from the learning lab into the workspace and to encourage connections between all generations. 

First, what does the DNA of a Gen Zer look like and how does it impact how they want to work? Like many generations before them, Gen Z refuses to fit into neat little boxes and there are specific differentiators commonly associated with this generation: 

  • Prefer to work in industries they interact with in their personal lives 
  • Seek learning opportunities 
  • Interactions have been shaped by social media 
  • Seek entrepreneurial opportunities but with the safety of stable environments 
  • Form opinions of companies based on ethics, practice, social impact and culture, not necessarily product 
  • Seek independence in the workplace, but not isolation 
  • Are considered the “most anxious” generation 
  • Prefer High Touch/High Tech in daily workflow 
  • Evolved approaches to Learning and Development 


In the following paragraphs, we will break down some strategies for nurturing Gen Zers into a greater future and show how some of these same concepts can be applied to the design of the spaces they occupy. 


1 Narrow the Options 

This generation is overwhelmed by all of the options in front of them. They might even say they are drowning. It is our job as designers and culture-makers to help them narrow those options into solid decisions.  The myth of “you can be whatever you want to be,” may be just that, a myth.  To help prioritize the myriad of options that are implied in the phrase “whatever you want to be” individuals need to take into account the facts of their circumstances and the interests and history that got them this far.  The real options in life are based on some basic life facts such as an individual’s likes, dislikes, personal experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Knowing one’s foundation gives one a way to rule out the options that just don’t make sense, and a better understanding of what skills or experiences one may need to build in order to achieve one’s goals.  It doesn’t make sense to be overwhelmed with 24 options when an individual can realistically look at six that are most well-suited for their own situation.  We are not suggesting killing a dream.  What we are saying is, an individual should narrow their options to all of the wonderful opportunities that are in their sphere, and focus on those instead of drowning in a wide world of “how can I choose, how do I move forward.”   


When thinking about the design of your spaces, this same principal can be very helpful.  The current trend in office and educational space is to provide flexible space with multiple options of furniture configurations, sometimes with moveable walls, or many varieties of room types and sizes.  These strategies provide invigorating environments where the occupants can manipulate them to serve their own work habits.  However, just like endless options in life, choices can be paralyzing and too many options can inhibit your occupants.  Teachers may find that they choose not to move desks around to fit their lesson plan if they also have to find a place for standing desks, sitting desks, bean bag chairs, and whether or not, the moveable wall is opened or closed.  Exercising a little restraint in design, not only helps you meet your budget, but also helps everyone to make the most of the environment designed instead of becoming overwhelmed.   


Which brings us to a parallel… 


2 Building Identity Capital 

In today’s world, a piece of paper with a job list won’t get you very far.  It is far more important to build your own story and brand identity.  Identity capital is not just a list of accomplishments and experiences; it is the story that weaves your list together into an expression of what makes you unique.  A starter job may just be a way to get gas money, but it can also be an experience that helps you to build skills or connections into a field that you may be interested in.  It all depends if the job is one that helps to build on your identity capital, or if it is unrelated. GenZers are (or should be) looking for ways to add to this collection of experiences in school, in the workspace, and otherwise.  As designers, we use the unique attributes of our patrons to create environments that support and promote their identity.  A great way to help GenZers find experiences that will build their identity capital and help your organization test out spaces, resources and options for its identity capital is to seek out workspace partnerships.  

3 Gather Workspace Partnerships-find spheres of influence in the community 

There’s a lot of talk about disruption in the marketplace and what the “next great thing” will be. In fact, Google’s Chief Education Evangelist, Jaime Cassup tells us that the question is not “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but to today’s GenZer it is, “What problem do you want to solve?”   When we change the question, there are immediate opportunities that come to mind—one of them being, how do we use our resources? The rise in partnerships across all industries, generations and culture allow us to not get stifled at an answer.  Of course, we are seeing cross pollination at the university level with makerspaces or learning laboratory sponsorships or program partnerships with private companies, and a trickle-down effect is happening within secondary, and even elementary level education, through career and technical education (CTE) opportunities.  We are seeing early engagement as a new trend in providing students with the necessary skillsets that are needed in not only today’s workforce but those in the future as well.  STEM (disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination)programs that promote college and career readiness from kindergarten on, are a staple in most schools.  Academy based learning and hands-on programs are offering more areas of influence for community partners.  As collaboration becomes more and more of the norm, we are allowing for less stress and more familiarity to filter into the lives of a generation that is anxious in and of its generational DNA. As designers, this opens up discussion regarding access, security, and how spaces will be able to respond in a traditional school setting.   


4 Personalize the EncounterNo one wants to feel like a number.  Even in the 1980’s we wanted to go to a bar “where everyone knows your name…” what does that look like in this decade?  Gen Z wants to identify with the companies they work with, they value feeling like something was chosen just for them, even if it includes the “masses” (think FabFitFun or Orangetheory) and companies that have a mission they believe in (Madewell donates old jeans or Outdoor Voices encourages adventure), or understand their personal style (FIGS, a company that took uniform scrubs and gave them an identity). There are lots of great examples of companies that provide opportunities to give back to their communities and the causes that their employees are interested in.  


Renewed strategies like two-way feedback loops and cross pollination of ideas are taking a forefront in all environments.  What can you do to engage someone in a decision process or project?  What can architectural design do to personalize the environment for a student?  What about workspace?  One tangible application of personalization has to do with this generation’s desire for high touch/high tech.  Students and employees alike want frequent and small feedback on their work and performance.  Report cards and yearly reviews are seen as too infrequent and the stakes are too high by the time this feedback is given.  There are many high-tech solutions that help with this, most of them being apps that allow for a constant two way feedback.  However, we cannot ignore the high touch part of this equation.  We find that in providing for multiple “touchdown” spaces throughout a building (whether in an educational or workplace setting) where two or three people can meet, have brief conversation or cup of coffee, away from their work area, people naturally have more frequent casual feedback moments.  These areas might be a standing height perch counter in a hallway or a small collection of seats outside a classroom or office.  They do not need to be complex, just readily available.  In an educational facility, areas such as this provide spaces where teachers can have a one on one conversation with a student without any concern about there being behind a closed door.  Again, space is defined differently, with much more adaptability for encounters of one or many. 


5 Pursue WellnessYou cannot go two steps (literally) without the buzz of wellness.  This one is at the forefront of our world, work life balance is old news, harmony is the new demand.  Schools and workspaces alike are joining the bandwagon with healthier food choices, fitness and exercise programs, Zen rooms or amenities galore.  And, understand it or not, the social media world is a part of the daily routine and plays a role in the wellness of today and future generations.  We are on a quest to replace the balancing and juggling act of the past work life combos to something that looks more like harmony.  In a learner centric world this takes the form of collaborative spaces, autonomy, choice and purpose and even time/use/movement/tandem flexibility.   


Our design can contribute to wellness by incorporating daylight into spaces, appropriate acoustical environments and incorporating the principals of biophilic design into our work.  As humans our wake/sleep cycles and energy levels are greatly influenced by the diurnal cycle (night and day).  If we lock ourselves away from the sun, we lose touch with this cycle and have trouble regulating our sleep and feel tired.  Having natural light in building provides that vital connection.   


In our quest for more open, flexible and collaborative spaces, we can quickly lose track of the acoustic environment we create.  Unwanted noise can be a distraction, and in an educational setting, it prevents students from hearing the teacher, generally requiring more energy to stay focused and adds more stress to learning.  By controlling the acoustic environment, we can provide places where noise and vibrancy are appropriate as well as places where quiet and focus rule.   


Biophilic design is design that takes cues from nature.  This can include views to the outdoors, living plants inside a building, and also colors, lighting styles and even imagery and patterns like leaves on flooring, that are inspired by natural things.  This connection to nature, even while indoors, helps to reduce stress and absenteeism.  Sometimes simple changes can help the wellness of everyone in a space.     

Finally, it’s not Rocket Science, Embrace Uncertainty.    

As design professionals in K-12 and higher education faciilties, we are constantly looking for the compelling qualities the young men and women of GenZ will bring to our workspaces and how they will be re-engineered to meet the competencies and demands they stand for. Help us explore ideas and offer some potential solutions from everyday scenarios that are being tested in the living and learning preferences of this subset of anxious, but independent emerging leaders. Tell us what you see, we would love to talk more at marketing@owp.com. 



Kristine Millar is a Principal at Orcutt | Winslow with a passion for culture advancement and how her firm can excel in creating dynamic relationships and engaging experiences for those she encounters in both her personal and professional spheres of influence.  She lives with eight of her own GenZers in a real-life living laboratory. Though, not an expert on the subject, the practice of launching emerging adults into world-wide citizenship, has given her great insight into her own workspace and the perspective she can offer her clients. 


Sarah Dexheimer is an architect at Orcutt | Winslow with a focus is on educational spaces from daycare through doctorate degrees.  She is motivated by the challenges of the ever-changing student population demands and the solutions that bring an ROI on campus’ with 100-year building needs. 


Tara Grenier is a registered interior designer and Principal at Orcutt | Winslow with a focus in in educational facility planning and workplace design for over 25 years.  Her focus has always been to create functional yet inspiring environments that support and engage its building occupants in their own personal pursuits of learning, career, and wellbeing. 




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