01/07/2020 • 12 min read

How Equitable Businesses Succeed

Honoring diverse opinions, ideas, and individuals

by Haworth, Inc.

We know from our own research that diversity in the workforce leads to greater business success, sparking creativity, innovation, and engagement. Different backgrounds and life experiences lead to a breadth of opinion and exchange of ideas.

Painting by the numbers, the benefits are quite tangible. According to McKinsey & Co.’s Diversity Matters research, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, while companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to experience above median returns.

It’s not enough to simply hire a diverse workforce. It’s important that all employees feel comfortable in sharing their different experiences, opinions, and ideas—and in fact, are encouraged to do so. A Work Design Magazine article notes companies that do not value inclusion are unlikely to retain talent or maximize their contributions. The article goes on to say that inclusion can help organizations recoup their investments in building a diverse workforce.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
While often used interchangeably in the business world, the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” are quite different. Diversity is determined by varied characteristics, attributes, experiences, and beliefs of people—while inclusion is recognizing and honoring those differences, welcoming them into the workplace, and building a culture of equity. Work Design Magazine likens the relationship to attending a party, stating that diversity is about being invited, and inclusion is about being asked to dance.

In short, diversity needs inclusion to be beneficial, and vice versa.

For a diverse workforce to truly thrive, it’s imperative to consider their differences and the barriers—both physical and perceived—to interaction between different groups and individuals. Everyone deserves to be valued and included—to have a voice and be heard. Woven together, those varied life experiences will net the most creative ideas, innovative solutions, and mutually beneficial relationships.


"Diversity and inclusion don’t just happen; they need leadership involvement from the C-Suite down."

Sharon Netto-Lipsky
Haworth Director – Talent Attraction & Development


Acknowledging Life Experience
Recent events have shone a harsh spotlight on inequality, highlighting the vast range of ways in which different groups and individuals experience the same events and timelines.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately ravaged black communities in terms of both health and job loss. Coupled with a new wave of tension over police brutality and systemic racism, it highlights some of the socioeconomic conditions that have been bolstered by inequality for decades—lower incomes for black Americans, less access to quality healthcare, lack of quality housing, structural racial bias, and judicial prejudice.

It’s painful times like these that provide us with opportunities to open doors to communication—whether in the office or our personal lives. Working with one another to make change is one of the most important things we can do. Bringing that same openness and collaboration into the office to drive equity and inclusion will be an enduring challenge. However, the results can only be beneficial for your people and your business.

When discussing diversity and inclusion, racial equity is just the tip of the iceberg. People are often excluded or marginalized based on gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, neurodivergence, their role as single parents, health conditions, mental health, trauma, veteran status/military experience, domestic safety, and even genetic information. It would be in any organization’s best interest to involve people who have these diverse life experiences and points of view, because together, we all represent the wholeness of society.
There are equal opportunity laws designed to protect the employment rights of certain groups. In the US, these include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under which the US Supreme Court recently ruled that protection extends to sexual orientation and transgender identity. However—as illustrated by this need for clarification—these laws are not all-encompassing, nor do they reach deeper to ensure inclusion and equity. That is often left up to businesses themselves to sort out, causing many of the world’s organizational leaders to ask, “How can we better support workplace equality and create a work experience inclusive to all?”

The answer is: Through workplace design, culture, leadership, and policies—created with careful consideration and conversation, and adapted as the workplace and workforce change over time.

Designing for Inclusion and Legibility
Intentionally or not, workspace design speaks a language that conveys information about culture, work norms, and acceptable behaviors. People who understand the language can use and make their way around the space without much difficulty or stress. They are readily able to locate other people and the resources they need to work effectively. We call this the “legibility” of the workspace.

Legible design includes a floorplan that can be easily navigated, with visual access throughout the space and to the outside, landmarks that help people orient themselves, and individual and group spaces that communicate their intended use through design.

For organizations with a homogenous workforce, legible design would be simple—everyone understands the design’s language in the same way. However, when diverse members are introduced into a workspace that caters only to the understanding and experience of the mainstream workforce, overall legibility suffers.

Inclusivity consultant and behavioral scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal states in an article for Forbes, “Inclusive design is all about putting users at the heart of the design process, and it is about usability and efficiency. Reducing effort and segregation creates a happier workplace.” She goes on to say that while designing the perfect space for everyone is impossible, it’s important to consider as many needs as possible. A collaborative design process that brings employees in as consultants is one of the best ways to do this. Solicit their input from the very start, have them try out the spaces, and carry out an evaluation based on feedback and observation.

People with limited exposure to corporate environments, neurodiverse employees, and others who are often marginalized, may not experience the space as legible or understandable, based on their unique experiences. They may not be familiar with the rules of behavior and norms that the space is communicating.

Illegible space sends a subtle message that says, “You can use this space, but it really isn’t for you.” Illegible space can lead to a situation of “haves vs. have-nots” in terms of access to “soft” resources that the office provides, such as relationships, social capital, and influence. The space can unintentionally reduce inclusion and equity for some groups. It can also lead to potentially damaging higher stress levels for some groups.

"The workplace is a venue for social impact, and it's important to have spaces that are legible to all for psychological safety. We need to be inclusive of diverse individuals by creating spaces together," says Haworth’s Director of Talent Attraction & Development Sharon Netto-Lipsky.

“Neurodiverse individuals are our largest population, Sharon states, citing a World Economic Forum article, which mentions that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent or neurodiverse. “It's important to design spaces to accommodate their needs.”

According to a Work Design Magazine article about designing for neurodiversity and inclusion, neurodivergent individuals may have sensitivity to lights, sounds, smells, in addition to differences in the ways they interact with others. Designing a variety of spaces that take into account the effects of noise, smell, sights, and even color choices can make a big difference.

A legible space has a common language of intention that offers equity in access to resources, a sense of personal comfort, and shared understanding for all people—those with visible and invisible differences—and especially now, for people with a heightened awareness and sensitivity to their surroundings, who are returning to the workplace amid the COVID-19 crisis. Using universal, or inclusive design concepts can help everyone contribute fully and thrive. Some of these include:

  • Providing choice in spaces and tools
  • Eliminating unnecessary complexity and manipulation of items in the workspace
  • Arranging tools, reference materials, and information based on importance
  • Using pictorial, verbal, or tactile presentation of essential information
  • Providing a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations
  • Arranging elements to eliminate physical hazards and barriers
  • Providing warnings of potential hazards and failsafe features
  • Ensuring tools can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum repetitive actions and physical effort
  • Providing a clear line of sight to important elements and keeping tools within reach of any seated or standing user
  • Providing adequate space for assistive devices or personal assistance

Fostering Culture for Remote Workers
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the remote work experience has been under close scrutiny. With more people working from home than ever before, this time has given us an opportunity to reevaluate inclusion and cultural norms for remote workers, as well.

“Space is just one component of how a company can reflect their culture,” says Haworth Senior Workplace Strategist Carolina Roa. “But there are other components that can reflect culture, like leadership style, behaviors, collaboration, policy, and more. These are things that come through to remote workers too. Companies will need to put more emphasis on those elements than space.”

Haworth’s North America Strategy Manager and Senior Workplace Strategist Brad Burrows adds, “In the office, personal affirmation and behaviors are easy to pick up on, and we use our friends and colleagues to gauge success or failure in the workplace. However, in a remote working situation, virtual collaboration has become how work gets done. This is much more difficult to manage as employee affirmation is much more difficult to provide, and employees start to doubt themselves and their skill set.”

As in the office, remote workers all have different life experiences. It’s important to maintain the same sense of cultural inclusiveness and personal worth people would get from an office environment. Some things that can help people feel like they belong while working remotely include:

  • Ensuring everyone has the technology they need to collaborate and keep in touch
  • Subsidizing home office furniture and technology bills 
  • Setting norms among colleagues to have regularly occurring virtual touch-base meetings or check-ins
  • Scheduling time for casual conversation and catching up


“As we move forward, the virtual workplace will be a part of the working ecosystem. Leaders and managers need to work to support the organization’s culture in both the office and virtual realm.”

Brad Burrows
Haworth’s North America Strategy Manager and Senior Workplace Specialist


Equitable Leadership Improves ROI
According to a research report from Accenture, 68% of leaders believe that they create environments where employees can be themselves, raise concerns, and innovate without fear of failure. But interestingly, just 36% of employees agree. Additionally, Accenture estimates that if the leadership/employee perception gap is narrowed by 50%, global profits would be higher by 33%--equivalent to $3.7 trillion.

So, how can leaders bridge the gap and foster a diverse culture?

Every person deserves equal opportunities and the support it takes to get there. Creating an inclusive culture has to be a top leadership priority. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t seem to be. The Accenture report indicates that just 21% of leaders identify culture as a top priority, and only 23% have set a related target or goal. Additionally, only 34% of leaders say that diversity is a top priority.

Organizations that are more successful with cultural inclusion tend to take three actions that help provide a safe place for employees to speak up and leaders to spearhead changes that inspire all members of the workforce.

1. They build a diverse leadership team.
These bold leaders are more in tune with the workforce, and recognize the importance of cultural factors like pay transparency, the availability of family leave, and the freedom to be creative in helping employees thrive. They identify change as a personal goal and reward their people for building a more inclusive culture.

In a broad cultural transformation, part of which addresses diversity and inclusion, Microsoft has seen a rise of 56% in women executives, and the number of women executives in technical positions has doubled since 2016. Additionally, they reported that in technical roles alone, there were 49% more women, 48% more Hispanic/Latinx, and 67% more African American/Black employees than just three years ago.

Myriad experiences and insights from diverse thinkers led to some of Microsoft’s most creative solutions, including:

  • An Xbox Adaptive Controller, which allows wounded veterans with a wide range of physical disabilities to play the games they love
  • The Blur feature on Microsoft Teams and Skype, developed by a deaf-from-birth employee who found it hard to read lips on video chats when bright lights were in the background
  • Seeing AI, which reads menus and documents, identifies currency, and recognizes people for users with impaired vision, literacy issues, and other disabilities

2. They take comprehensive action, creating policies and practices that are family-friendly, support all genders, and are bias-free in attracting and retaining people. Leadership sets, shares, and measures equity targets openly.

Management services company Sodexo set a goal of having 40% of its top leadership positions occupied by women by 2025. To get there, they created the “SoTogether” Gender Advisory Board which drives the company’s gender equality strategy (one of their top five global priorities, which also include disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity, cultures and origins, and generations) and provides development opportunities to increase the women’s leadership pipeline through mentoring, sponsorship, HR processes, internal programs, and active advocacy.

In the US, Sodexo has also developed a Balanced Scorecard for Diversity, which links a Diversity Index with an annual incentive. The scorecard’s quantitative measures focus on the distribution of women and people of color within hiring, promotions, and terminations. The qualitative section measures managers’ inclusion behaviors, such as diversity training attendance and mentoring of diverse employees.

3. They create an empowering environment—one that trusts employees, respects individuals, and offers the freedom to be creative, as well as train and work flexibly.

In a 2019 equality report, customer relationship management company Salesforce set a new goal of 50% of their workforce to be made up of Underrepresented Groups (Women, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Multiracial, LGBTQ+, People with Disabilities, and Veterans) by 2023. The report is highly transparent, laying out numbers as well as opportunities for improvement.

Salesforce notes that to move forward they are taking a comprehensive data-driven approach to build strategies that empower their people. Senior leaders are provided a monthly scorecard, detailing headcount, hiring, attrition, and promotion data by gender and race to inform decisions. Their largest organizations are paired with an Equality Board made up of their Recruiting, Employee Success, and Equality partners, as well as senior leaders to drive prescriptive actions based on data.

Salesforce also empowers employees to drive equality. Through employee-led Equality Groups, colleagues build allies, empathy, and understanding as they support underrepresented communities. Employees are provided with 56 hours of paid time to volunteer, as well. The Equality Mentorship program helps to ensure the success of future diverse leaders; and the company is committed to Equal Pay for Equal Work, Inclusive Leadership, and Inclusive Marketing programs.

No two people are the same—and neither are their experiences. Inviting the richness of those experiences into the workplace, embracing differences, and supporting an inclusive culture can have unbounded benefits for all. It starts with hospitality—the willingness to listen. How will you improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within your organization?


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