Creating a Culture of Inclusion
In this series, we have covered how design affects a company’s image and the well being of its employees and clients. The concept of inclusion is one that is woven into a company’s day to day operations and long term planning. Inclusion goes hand in hand with image and well being. We’ll explore the intersection of these three concepts in this post. Image, well being, and inclusion are major components of a strategic design plan for any company’s office.
Companies that have existing values of innovation and community involvement are most likely promoting a culture of inclusion. As with all company values, they should be evolving and adapting as the company grows. Regular evaluations of how a company defines and acts out inclusive measures will keep that company at the forefront of “designing for all”. The idea of designing for all is formally researched and implemented across the country in varying measures. A recent webinar hosted by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) promotes designing for all humans and all the many wonderful variations in gender, socioeconomic backgrounds, race, locations, and abilities within the human race. (Link to webinar below in “Sources”.)
Nuts and Bolts of Inclusion
Inclusion, in a broad sense, is an approach that actively involves all people. It integrates into office design as a value and a guiding principle that affects the overall approach all the way to small design details and decisions.
We interact with inclusive design elements daily, perhaps without even noticing. That is the beauty of intelligently inclusive design elements that span the range of lighting, sound, paths of travel, etc. Since inclusion is intended to “include” everyone, office design must cater to a number of individual abilities, preferences, and sensitivities. While this could seem to be an overwhelming task, many inclusive design approaches are standard and often required by building code. They are also often preferable to non-inclusive design elements. For example, wide corridors with standard floor and height clearances are generally easier and safer to pass through for any person, no matter their abilities.
There is also no single prescribed method to approach inclusive design. There are also very few “one size fits all” approaches to inclusivity, since every group of humans has a wide range of needs, abilities, and preferences. The approach your company takes should be based on your employees, clients, and the community you serve as you seek to go above and beyond minimum accessibility requirements to create real inclusive environments.
Being inclusive has a lot to do with giving individual users of an office space autonomy. This comes in the form of multiple paths of travel, multiple types of places to work, meet, eat, etc., access to outdoors, and levels of lighting, sound, and temperature. Individuals with sensory considerations or disorders can benefit greatly from this level of autonomy and being able to control their working environment to an extent.
Before we go into the type or amount of furnishings an office purchases, let’s talk about the arrangement of said furniture. The thoughtful arrangement of the furniture can create easy to maneuver paths of travel as well as guide users to where they want to go. Zones can be created that delineate between standing areas, sitting areas, as well as quiet work zones and more public meeting zones.
Many offices are implementing furniture arrangements that allow for flexibility in where workers sit, stand, and meet. Doing away with assigned seating has its benefits and caters to workers who prefer to change their working location based on differing needs. On days where focused work is required, an individual desk or booth can aid in productivity. For meetings and collaborative working sessions, open desk space and meeting rooms can improve collaboration and participation.
Some workers find comfort in assigned seating and knowing where they will be working all day. They can also get “settled” in a certain desk space and may have more freedom to personalize it. The permanency of an assigned desk is preferable to some workers.
The actual furniture products purchased can add to the inclusivity of an office. Adjustability and flexibility allows for users with different needs to experiment with arrangements that work for their unique abilities and preferences. The adjustability and flexibility add to the concept of user control and autonomy. An adjustable height desk allows a worker to determine the exact height of the work surface that is suitable to their unique height, reach, and posture requirements. The adjustability allows the worker to change the height at any time, without asking for permission or adding any extra operations cost to the company budget. These types of adjustability are ideal, since they do not require someone with different height requirements to draw attention to themselves or get special permission to use suitable furnishings. Even so, an inclusive company culture still allows for special requests based on individual needs.
Most people have heard of ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act). The Act requires public buildings to provide accessible entrances, circulation paths, and facilities according to predetermined dimensions and standards. It applies to most buildings we visit on a daily basis, and additional requirements can vary depending on the location, use, and age of the building.
The accessibility movement and eventual ADA act gained renewed recognition with the 2020 release of “Crip Camp”, a documentary on the ongoing fight for recognition and rights for Americans with disabilities.
Originally, the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) published standards on accessible design in 1961. The 1964 Civil Rights Act established equal employment opportunities, then in 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed requiring accessible design standards in federally funded buildings. There was still much work to do in making our communities, cities, and buildings accessible for all. Over twenty years later, in 1990, ADA is established which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.” It also set the original standards that have since been updated but are still known as ADA.
Being in the building industry, I know that ADA is one of the first major set of requirements taught as a part of building code curriculum in architecture and design classes. Architecture and design students are often taught the history and importance of ADA and how it applies to building codes. Accessibility building codes require standard clearances, installed products, and installation heights that are accessible and useful to as many people as possible regardless of abilities. Architecture and design students sometimes get the chance to participate in an exercise in which they use a wheelchair and go about their daily lives on college campuses. Many people do not understand the perspective of life from a wheelchair in terms of accessing building entrances, public transit, or maneuvering the interior of a building. Ramps, approaches to doorways, restroom layout, and many other scenarios can be designed to create ease for a wheelchair user or someone with physical disabilities.
ADA standards make buildings safer and of course more accessible for wheelchair users and those with vision impairments. These standards also leave certain demographics and unique needs to question.
Fitting Client Needs
If your office workers have ideal furnishings and arrangements, do you then consider the visitors and clients that will spend time in your office? Do they fit a certain demographic with unique needs?
For example, if your office is a children’s behavioral health center or after school daycare, your clientele will mostly be children. ADA has established many clearances and installation heights for children. You may consider if your workers or clients will include nursing mothers and make room in your budget for a room, booth, or pod for mothers to have a clean, quiet, sanitary area to nurse.
Additionally, if your workers or clientele are wheelchair users or have physical disabilities, you should ensure that your designs include ample room to approach, enter and exit rooms, as well as access building amenities with as much ease as possible. This includes seemingly small details like door and cabinet hardware. Levers are generally considered the most accessible hardware, since a majority of people can use levers despite hand strength or ability.
Those with vision impairment are included in many ADA requirements. Room signage is required to have Braille, and other elements like high contrast and large fonts are helpful for those with impaired vision.
If your clientele fits the bariatric category, if for example, your office is a weight loss center, your furniture can cater to this demographic by providing standard furnishings as well as furnishings that fit standard bariatric measurements.
As another example, if your office is a financial planning firm that specializes in retirement, wills, and trusts, your clientele may fit the geriatric category. Folks in the geriatric category can generally benefit from high contrast signage, minimal changes in floor height, and seating that is comfortable but easy to get in and out of.
Remote Workers & Technology
A growing demographic is remote workers. These workers, while they can work from anywhere, may feel excluded from meetings and gatherings of their coworkers who are physically in the office. A thoughtful design approach to technology helps include these remote workers and can be accomplished in many ways. Conference and meeting rooms can include technology that is easy to set up and connect to online meeting services. Tech issues, poor volume control, and poor connectivity hinders worker productivity and collaboration. Appropriately sized screens and smart microphone and camera placement can help in-person and remote workers connect with each other more easily and be more productive overall.
Something that can go unnoticed is your clients’ access to your website and online products. Visibility, readability, and scrolling requirements should be considered, since some website users will have difficulty with some of these elements. A web designer can give you tools and tips on making your website more accessible.
So, some of these design elements are not necessarily required by code. Even so, these thoughtful decisions can benefit your workers and clients as well as make them more comfortable. Keep in mind that your workers or clients may not notice or appreciate certain design elements, and that is ok. What would be much worse is if the space was not designed with them in mind and is difficult to maneuver or is a pain to visit for whatever reason. Even if you made smart design decisions guided by the concept of inclusion, you may still receive requests for changes to the space. As our work forces and technologies evolve, so will the needs of our workers and clients. The requests for change you may receive are valuable feedback for how you can better be of service.
It is easy to think of your building as a stand alone piece of property, but in fact, it is a connecting point along the daily journeys of your employees and clients. The way your employees, clients, and even the general public interact with your office space is largely in your control.
The entrance to your office can be made to be as welcoming and appealing as possible. This can be achieved in many ways depending on the services you offer and how you want your company to be portrayed.
You can contribute to the general public and bolster your company’s image by adding seating, greenery, or other upgrades to the lobby and/or exterior of your building. This adds value to passerby as well as visitors to your office and is a great way to add value to your community.
You should also consider how individuals find and approach your office. Someone may have to navigate parking lots, sidewalks, lobbies, hallways, multiple levels to access your office. Are there ways to make this journey easier, more accessible, and more pleasurable? The last thing any company wants is someone to stop using their products or services just because they cannot easily access their office.
Future of Inclusion
Our offices can and should include everyone. We can use existing standards like ADA as a starting point, then consider the unique needs of your employees and clients to create inclusive office environments. If the idea is overwhelming, you can seek expert guidance from an accessibility consultant, an architect, and/or an interior designer.
The concepts of accessibility and inclusion will continue to evolve over our lifetimes, as it should. We can also gain more understanding of inclusive practices by staying up to date with latest publications and standards set by code authorities, activist organizations, and the building industry as a whole.
Link to Article: Accessibility Training
Link to Article: Americans with Disabilities Act
Link to Article: History Of Accessible Facility Design
Link to Article: Sensory Processing Disorder
Tech Inclusion LinkedIn Article: 8 Dos and Don’ts for Hybrid Working
Link to IWBI Webcast: Human-centered design: Creating inclusive communities
Link to Crip Camp Documentary on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81001496
Link to IWBI Webcast: “Designing for All”: The Next Frontier of Inclusive Design