How companies are designing spaces that promote inclusivity and equality

Quiet zones, amenities for parents and gender-neutral facilities are increasingly common for companies seeking to nurture a diverse range of employees.

March 06, 2020

As more companies set their sights on creating inclusive workplaces, there’s a growing focus on design that accommodates a wide range of physical, mental and emotional needs to enable all employees to do their job to the best of their abilities.  

While some aspects of inclusive design – such as wheelchair ramps or accessible restrooms – are legal requirements, many corporations are also implementing features like automatic doors or lever-style handles that help all employees move around easily.

Gender-neutral toilets and showers are now found in growing numbers of offices, while height-adjustable tables can make desk work more comfortable for everyone, regardless of body type, age or mobility. Indeed, several European countries are now legally required to provide sit-stand workstations to employees with sedentary jobs.

“In designing for inclusion, companies are thinking beyond the legal requirements to create an accessible and appealing environment where people can be themselves, without calling special attention to anyone with particular needs,” says Tish Scott, Senior Designer at Tétris, a JLL subsidiary.

Offices that work for all

Many companies are designing their workspace to cater for different working styles, enabling employees to work in their personal optimum conditions.

At Shopify headquarters, coworking areas offer space for more extroverted workers, while quiet rooms cater for introverts or those who may find the office hubbub distracting.

Individual light and temperature controls – as in Deloitte’s Netherlands headquarters – help make workstations more comfortable for those sensitive to brightness, heat or cold, while sound-insulated phone rooms offer privacy.

And many companies are recognising the productivity benefits of downtime by creating spaces such as recreational rooms for socialising, indoor sports or meditation.

“Given the right environment for their particular working style, employees can thrive – and that can be the key for employers to retain talent, particularly millennial workers who are more inclined to change jobs,” says Scott.

More than a workplace  

For many companies, inclusive design supports employees’ needs outside their jobs.

On-site childcare – like the subsidised creches and nurseries in the offices of Goldman Sachs and Cisco – helps working parents manage their responsibilities, while lactation rooms offer tranquil space for new mothers. Facebook and Google provide additional peace of mind by requiring female employees to book rooms in advance and enter using their badge. Equally, appropriate use of discreet glazing and blinds in such rooms is paramount.

“Companies want their office to be a destination, where people want to come to. Inclusive design facilitates this by creating an inviting space that empowers all employees,” says Scott.

Planning for how inclusive spaces will be used is key, notes Scott.

Quiet zones need to be insulated from other spaces, for example, while in lactation rooms where women are likely to be still for periods of time, motion-activated lighting – energy-savers in other parts of the office – should be eschewed for manual switches.

“Inclusive design is about accommodating diverse needs – and that means thinking through how these spaces will be experienced,” says Scott. “What’s required from a space can equally change over time or as new employees join. Spaces should be able to adapt to not only keep employees feeling as if their needs are being met but also to make sure real estate is used to its maximum capacity – can a recreation space support multiple activities, for example?”

Tomorrow’s workplace

With workplace wellbeing having a clear impact on productivity, today’s firms are investing more than ever in policies that enable employees to work the way that suits them best.  

“Inclusive design is embedded in the culture and working conditions a company creates,” says Scott. “There are constantly new technologies and building capabilities emerging, enabling companies to translate their equality and inclusivity aims into the workspace itself.”

Agile working, which reduces the number of desks needed, allows more space to be given to inclusive areas such as multifaith rooms, for example, while the growing use of flexible space might enable the creation or expansion of meeting rooms and breakout zones through movable walls.

Indeed, as companies continue to prioritise employee wellbeing and engagement, the workplaces of the future will be about adapting more to individual needs and preferences, rather than people trying to make the best of traditional spaces.

As Scott concludes: “If companies are to succeed in a highly competitive environment, they must hire and retain the best people for the job - and one size doesn’t always fit all. It’s only though inclusive design that a diverse range of people in the same office can be comfortable, confident and productive at work.”