04/11/2024 • 4 min read

Designing for Inclusion

How equitable businesses succeed, part 2

by Haworth, Inc.

Intentionally or not, workspace design speaks a language that conveys information about culture, norms, and commitment to well-being. 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.

Creating Legible Workspace Designs

Legible design includes a floorplan that can be easily navigated and understood by all. There is visual access throughout the space and to the outside. Landmarks help people orient themselves, while individual and group spaces communicate their intended use through inclusive design.

The Impact of Legibility on Workplace Inclusion

An illegible space sends a subtle message that says, “You can use this space, but it really isn’t for you.” This 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.

Inclusive Design Practices for Workspace Accessibility

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.

Accommodating Neurodiversity in Workspace Design

Statistics from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate up to 20% of the population qualify as neurodiverse. Therefore, it is imperative to think through their experience in a workspace.

According to a Work Design Magazine article about designing for neurodiversity and inclusion, neurodivergent individuals may have sensitivity to lights, sounds, and smells, in addition to differences in the ways they interact with others. Designing a variety of spaces that take into account the effects of these sensitivities, including 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. 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

Finding a connection with coworkers can be more challenging for remote workers. Organizations must continuously reevaluate inclusion and cultural norms for remote workers to help employees feel a sense of belonging.

“Space is just one component of how a company can reflect their culture,” says Haworth Territory Sales Manager, Carolina Roa Munoz. “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 Workplace Strategy Design Manager 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.”

Just as employees 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 strategies to help remote workers feel a sense of belonging include:

  • Ensuring everyone has the technology they need to collaborate and keep in touch
  • Subsidizing home office furniture
  • 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 North America Workplace Strategy Design Manager

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