The importance of inclusive workplace design
By Jo Faragher on 30 May 2022
As organisations slowly get used to new ways of working, many of them are thinking about how the physical side of their workplace is set up. Offices that were designed for lone working at desks with the occasional gathering in a meeting room no longer seem fit for purpose, as managers consider how to get the best out of the times people are at work rather than home.
Ed Warner, founder and CEO of Motionspot, a workspace design company, argues that there is no better time to embrace inclusive design. Also known as universal design, this is the process of creating products, services or spaces that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics. Given the current challenges employers face in terms of attracting talent, they need to ensure their workplaces are accommodating to all pools of potential candidates, and that they help them to retain their current workforce. “To fill this gap, employers need to be looking at pools of talent they haven’t previously considered such as the 14.1 million people in the UK who are disabled, only 53% of whom were in employment pre-pandemic according to the ONS,” says Warner. “However, for businesses to start seriously considering employing people with a range of physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments, their workplaces have got to be accessible.”
Blessing Buraimoh, head of diversity & inclusion for Work Dynamics, the workplace solutions arm of real estate company JLL, says the pandemic showed employees that different ways of working are possible. “They’ve tested it out and it’s working, but maybe not for everyone. There are some people who still prefer to have that face-time with colleagues and to be out and about interacting with people. But I think the major shift on a larger scale is that we have seen that people now want to be able to work a lot more flexibly and not have to physically be in an office all the time. Not have to sit in a certain location, every day, all week round,” she says. This flexibility also opens up the world of work for a broader range of people, she adds. “Those with children or other caring responsibilities, for example, or health/disability issues, who are able to balance work and life a little better. We’re seeing more people ‘included’ and therefore engaged in the workforce.”
Warner advocates for a consultation process before committing to long-term physical or policy changes. He adds: “Designing inclusively starts with an engagement process to understand people’s current experiences and predicting how they may evolve. Planning this into the design process at the outset is significantly more cost effective and environmentally sustainable than retrofitting, and we see that when people are prioritised from the outset and inclusive features are incorporated in an aesthetically appealing way, inclusive workplaces are not only enjoyed by minority groups, but by everyone.” Buraimoh agrees: “There are some people who are more productive in a quiet space at home; they now know that even much better than they did before. And people have started asking questions and want to discover themselves even more.”
She adds: ”When designing a building now, you need to make sure you have different types of space. Not just your traditional desk and chair type spaces. You need to have quiet spaces; you might also need to have a meditation room or a prayer room. Lighting is also important. In the different spaces that you’ve got you may need to adapt the brightness and colour of the light. People have adjusted over the past two years and adapted their home workspace to suit them; how can the work/office environment also be adjusted to ensure maximum personal comfort and productivity?” Offering a variety of spaces means people can choose where to situate themselves based on what they’re trying to achieve that day – this could be a quiet pod in which to carry out focused work, or a collaborative break-out area for team working.
Not just physical
However, because legislation tends to focus on providing access for people with physical disabilities, cognitive and sensory impairments can be forgotten, Warner adds. Employers also need to consider an ageing workforce – a third of workers are now 50 or over, according to the Centre for Ageing Better. “Contemporary workspaces are often open-plan to increase social engagement, which while beneficial for some can negatively impact neurodivergent and older people,” he explains. “Building in separation zoning, acoustic screens, moveable furniture, adjustable lighting and temperature controls, and dedicated rooms for recalibration and focussed work into the overall design will help to accommodate a more diverse workforce.” Companies could also think about level access, wider doors and passageways, accessible toilet facilities and small details such as easy to use door handles or sensory waymarkers to help people find their way.
Thinking about the workplace experience holistically can also build inclusion. US-based software development company CloudBees has more than 500 people across more than 20 countries, for example. Recognising that employees need to feel comfortable at any of the company’s four offices or at home, its onboarding programme focuses on individualised support. “Our onboarding program, Flight School, encourages new employees to be themselves and bring their unique perspectives to work from day one,” explains Kyndal Dattani, Employee Experience Manager. “It combines standard self-paced, live and actionable learning with personalised role-based flexibility.
In that way, we ensure that every employee has exactly what they need to confidently navigate the company on their first day, with customisable touchpoints set by the new employee and their manager to fit their specific needs.” The focus is on what needs to get done, rather than how to do it, she adds. “While no two onboarding journeys are the same, every team member is empowered with the resources and support to get up to speed – no matter where they are located, or whether they work from home or from a dedicated office.”
It’s not just about your space working effectively, taking an inclusive design approach can also support your wider D&I goals, Warner concludes: “For D&I strategies to succeed, physical barriers within workplaces need to be overcome via smart inclusive design. Companies can’t just focus their D&I strategies around recruitment and retention of a more diverse workforce without considering how their employees respond to the built environment. A 360-degree approach to getting this right will create truly inclusive workplaces for everyone.”
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.