The Ideal Work Environment for Gen X vs Gen Y

Guest Post on GAIA Insights
What Work Environment would Gen X and Y Craft for Themselves if they Could Realize their Ideals?

Do you ever wonder where some of your co-workers came from? Why do they work so differently just because they’re 10 years older or younger? How are you going to deal with them?  I’ve decided to help you figure out how, by representing one of two generational perspectives on the topic of working – the Gen X professional.  As a guest blogger for GAIA Insights, I’ll share my generation gap expertise in a 9-part series that will help workers get along with members of the other Generations. A Gen Y contributor writes her perspective.

From a Generation X….

As a Generation X professional with 20+ years working in business , I am completely amazed at how vastly the work environment has changed since the late 1990’s.  It seems like a fast and drastic shift, which is very challenging for Gen Xers who are used to rigid infrastructures. If I could craft my ideal work environment based on my Gen X comfort zone, yet addressing today’s need for speed, here is what it’d look like:

Physical Space

To Gen X, workspace is very important – they define their success in the corporation by type and location of their office. Most Gen Xers go into the office to work with their colleagues, to get things done, to talk to their manager about projects and sometimes, hide in their office. I cherished the ability to shut the door and think peacefully:  no kids, no employees and no bosses – just me and my work. But when it’s taken away, it’s like getting evicted out of your favorite hotel.

I see the perks of open seating, or “hot desking”, but it makes Gen X very nervous.  We think: “how can we talk on the phone…oh wait can we use a phone?…I don’t want to sit near that loud person…where will I put photos of my kids and pets?” Despite the need for speed, higher-level employees who manage people should have their own office:  1) to hold private conversations and 2) shut the door to create or concentrate. Let employees strive for the office title but they can no longer hide… they have to adapt to keep up with the next generation.

A traditional corporation that I recently worked with switched from rows of closed-door offices to hot desking.  Gen X employees struggle with it because they feel “exposed”, insubordinate, miss the privacy and overall, lack a sense of security. But as Gen Xers, we comply because that’s what we do.

Tools & Processes

Most Gen Xers thrive on structure vs. thrive on chaos. When we graduated college or grad school, the majority worked for large corporations or banks ruled by structure and processes, not by creativity.

Gen X performs better with some structure, or else we feel lost, ignored, frustrated and thus, unproductive. For example, as assistant brand managers for consumer products, we’d wait in line outside the Director’s office for hours to get something signed.  We’d spend 40% of our time learning or following processes and rarely did we contest the process.

Yet to be creative and competitive today, I can see the need for serendipity. Ideally, companies should have a balance of creativity and process: let employees innovate, but help employees activate.Fluid processes can be used as informal guidelines to 1) give direction to today’s independent employees and 2) help Gen X achieve their potential.


Up until recently, we Gen Xers went into the office 5 days a week from at least 9-5.  Then it became 8-7, then another 2-3 hours at night became the norm. But this doesn’t work for Gen X.  Multi-tasking without boundaries makes us overwhelmed which leads to burn out.

Today there are very few boundaries between personal and professional life… unless you create them. We need a “flexible schedule” – an individual agreement with the company specifying our general schedule for the week based on what works best for the employee and their division or boss.  I created one with my recent employer and it worked!

Gen X appreciates flexibility; we do not abuse it because we feel lucky to have it. Female breadwinners and those “co-parenting” need flexibility more than ever. I agree with Sheryl Sandbergthat women need to break barriers and change the rigidity that still exists among Gen X and Boomer leaders.

Gen X can struggle to sustain what’s familiar and comfortable, or we can adapt and remain in the workforce and, hopefully, rise as leaders at this point in our careers. An ideal work environment features each generation’s preferences, and each generation needs to be willing to adapt.



  1. Nancy says:

    Wow, your descriptions bring the article to life, thank you. I wonder if doors and walls will come back soon…or we will all learn how to tune noise out”Millennial style” as you said above. Great point about the office environment, “changing as it breaks”.

  2. Andrew says:

    Bean bag chairs?! Doesn’t that hurt?

    When it comes to the desks & offices, this Gen-Y-er has to side with Gen-X’s door and walls. I have worked in an open space before, it was okay, but coding an application with a “huddle” going on in the room was extremely distracting. I often left the floor and went downstairs to find a quiet area. I didn’t get harassed by project management down there either. Often, the art director would come upstairs and we’d go into a room to nail some things out (her Gen-X idea,.) We got a lot done and the key was removing the distractions that were business analysts, project managers and such. It was time to get that module out the door, not go over wire-frames. Luckily, she was not afraid to say it. I would just try to answer the questions and focus on the code at the same time. Not a big deal for necessary situations, but I often find myself waiting until the distraction is at bay for things that require focus/processing. The peanut shaped desks were a nice touch. The second monitor to hook into the laptop was a must. For the most part, it was fine. There were ladies downstairs that had to use phones though, and the groups of four desks out in the open? It sounded like a cafeteria in there. They struggled to hear the client.

    The biggest thing that bothered me were the meeting room names. “Named after places on TV.” I didn’t recognize the names, I didn’t watch TV. Krusty Krab was the one up front. Bar from cheers, and a dozen more scattered around the building. I’d walk all over the place trying to find a meeting and end up having to call the PM to ask where that one was. I’m not going to remember the name after we leave it to. Yes, it’s cute, but AH! Such an unorganized mess… no doors had numbers, structure like that cannot be removed from a six story office built into an old brewery.

    Now.. my desk at my current job, I don’t want to talk about. It’s huge, with work stacked to the ceiling. I’m at a junction between helpdesk to the right, EHR help to the left and app admins behind me. I’m hit by 1-3 conversations at all times. Sometimes it breaks my focus so bad I run out side and smoke a cigarette. Normally, it wouldn’t work at all, but I can deal with this situation Millennial-style… headphones in and drown’em out. QHD monitor. 2600×1440 wasn’t enough, add a 24-inch. Perfect.Our secretary came up and yelled “what do you need all that for?!” I said “I’m literally in 20 people’s computers right now.” They were at lunch. I got an email from VP of finance, the Gen-X-iest Gen-X-er in all the land. She’s nice. She just asked me to move forward with the paperless billing utility without running a pilot test. I knew a couple coworkers would flip, but I got it, do now, fix anything we break. They were using so much paper. My co-worker was frightened a bit, and that’s why I rushed into those PCs and did it before she came back in, I say the VP asked, but really she told me. It was a three word email. I replied “Done”, she fired back thanks and I swear 30 seconds hadn’t passed. Sometimes I tell my boss we need new PCs. She said “oh no, how many?” This time it was 50. Again. She’ll conjure it up and walk across the hall to the CFO. I’ll remind her in a week and she’ll run back over. She probably threatened him enough and approved it and the VP generates some approval code in like 10 seconds flat, capital purchase in 10 seconds. She stopped by later that month when they had come in to get some paperwork. She asked if those were the machines we just bought, yes, I was desperate and I thank you. “I need a list of departments they’re going to, I want to assign the changes individually.” I’ve got them planned out, I’ll send you the data. “Thanks!”

    Sometime my boss will ask for some number and try to explain what I know is the VP asking her. “Do we have any way of tracking machine deployments, like how many go out monthly?” “Recurring report per month or average total?” “Oh just give me something close to tell her.”

    I keep data too. We are on the same wavelength there, Gen-X. I process huge datasets though. Marketers like to call it “big data.” Don’t worry, it’s automated, so no one has to learn it so they can keep up 🙂

    Oh, and sorry Gen-X-ers, I’m going to agree on the processes part. 🙂

    I’m going to say the office environment changes as it breaks. Especially printers. I’ll take the blame for being the token printer-thief, but if someone’s addicted to $60 toner and two reams a day, someone has to do it. You can ecocide the tools, but they’ll keep doing the same until it’s removed. And I’d have to agree with your Gen-Y friend on that too. I don’t like having to be that person but usually when I act it’s to stop waste and save money The organization is tight right now. So.. “No tree killing, you tree killing Boomers!” You can almost hear them scream in panic.


%d bloggers like this: