How can inclusive building design support all people at work?
By Jo Faragher on 29 January 2024
How we design working spaces to be accessible and inclusive has changed dramatically in recent years. “Traditionally buildings have been designed to meet minimum standards and building regulations, and to meet accessibility requirements such as ramps for wheelchair users,” says Ed Warner, co-founder of inclusive design company Motionspot. “Now businesses are thinking about designing for neurodiversity and sensory needs, considering lighting levels, acoustics, and the types of materials they use. We’re seeing a mindset shift in this area that’s being driven by employees.”
The pandemic has accelerated this trend, he continues. “It made us realise we’re all vulnerable and to acknowledge how we’re affected by the environment around us. If employers are going to encourage us all back to the office, it needs to be as comfortable and safe as our home environments.” Motionspot has recently worked with Barclays on its northern European headquarters in Glasgow. The aim was to make the new workplace a barrier-free space that promotes wellbeing and productivity for all employees and visitors.
There was a particular focus on designing for neurodiversity and autism, but the space has won plaudits for creating a welcoming and inclusive campus for all of its 5,000 employees and visitors. The award-winning design includes rest points and ‘quiet’ routes externally and internally; recalibration rooms and toilet areas with reduced decibel hand dryers (which are neurodivergent friendly); wheelchair and ambulant accessible toilets and Changing Places facilities and ‘biophilic’ office design, which brings nature into the space.
Pareisse Wilson, Inclusive Design Strategy Lead at Motionspot, says finding the baseline of what employees want is a crucial first step when approaching inclusive design. With clients, she often works with business resource groups and employee networks to establish pain points such as noise distractions and lighting.
“As an inclusive design consultancy, our advice is always informed by talking to people with lived experience of different protected human characteristics, which is so important.” Co-designing workspaces and thinking long-term can also help to overcome the concerns about cost that many businesses have when it comes to inclusive design. Warner adds: “If inclusive design is considered early enough, the cost can be minimal and return on investment significant. Our client Barclays calculated that every £1 they spent on inclusive design during the design phase saved them £100 in retrofits later. This demonstrates that inclusive design makes financial sense as well as being the right thing to do.”
Failing to cater for all employees’ needs can negatively impact recruitment and retention. Motionspot recently completed some research which found that 22% of neurodivergent applicants have declined a job offer due to certain features in workplaces compared to just 8% of neurotypical individuals, while 15% have left a job due to the design of the workplace.
Alongside supporting and retaining neurodivergent employees, the benefits of a fully inclusive design approach can have a positive impact on other groups. Motionspot’s research shows that half of all workplaces lack the features to support employees suffering symptoms of menstruation or menopause, for example. Some of the features that would support employees in this regard include a quiet room where they can manage anxiety or pain, screens between desks for privacy, or an open space where they could move freely to ease discomfort. There is a clear intersection here between adjustments that will support other groups, explains Warner: “Inclusive design means you’re not designing for one group in isolation. It’s also forward-looking, as many businesses say ‘we don’t need XYZ because we don’t have anyone with those needs’, but what about who you recruit in the future? You’re future-proofing your business to attract the best talent going forward,” he adds.
The Institution of Structural Engineers has recently published a guide to inclusive design for engineers. Tanya de Hoog, the organisation’s incoming President, says that when she spent time designing educational spaces during her career, it really made her think about her physical response to her environment. “If we have no awareness of this it’s a missed opportunity,” she says. “Everything in design is about integrating concepts that are complementary. It’s not about bringing something in that impacts the rest of the design or makes it a compromise or means it costs more.” She believes that for each of our five senses there are building examples and considerations to which people of any group will respond positively or negatively.
She explains: “We need to understand the importance of choice for people, design for adaptability and flexibility, and ensure all stakeholders are involved from pre-design to delivery.” Designing spaces that are adaptable is particularly important not just from a diversity and inclusion perspective, but also for sustainability. Choices of material or design that increase longevity or are adaptable can save energy and costs in the long run, she insists.
Bringing the human side of inclusion together with long-term ESG goals on the environment and sustainability will ultimately pay dividends, says Warner from Motionspot: “In some businesses, D&I policies focus on the people and the culture, but not the built environment,” he concludes. “Others have an inclusive environment, but do not communicate it properly. You can’t have an inclusive business if you don’t focus on both.”
Looking forward, businesses increasingly understand that inclusively designed workplaces do not just support their equality, diversity and inclusion goals, but are great for sustainability and business.
To find out more about inclusive design, Motionspot offers this free white paper for D&I professionals click below to download.
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