Diversity and Inclusion Strategy: Can You Really Design Space for All?

To attract the best talent, retain them and ensure that you are getting the best from them, they need to be in a workspace that supports their productivity, well-being and happiness. In this hybrid era, mobile and remote employees need a positive reason to turn up at the office; they need to feel it is worth the time and hassle of the commute. The office needs to be attractive and welcoming to all.

We know a highly motivated and stable workforce is the key to high productivity, innovation and business success. Their workplace experience is a critical factor in employees’ satisfaction and comfort, which directly impacts their performance.

The challenge of diversity

However, creating an office space supporting all your employees is challenging. We are not all the same. We humans come in different shapes, sizes, ages, sensibilities and challenges. Having a uniform office layout with rows of similar desks and identical meeting rooms will not be optimal for the majority of your workforce. If you fail to recognise diversity and ignore accessibility and inclusivity, your workforce will fail to perform to your expectations. Furthermore, it is increasingly recognised that neurodiverse employees can contribute their unique talents and strengths to a business’s success – provided they are working within a supportive environment.

A key statistic to bear in mind is that around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent, with around 25% of CEOs being dyslexic.

A modern office would be a workspace that suits the needs and sensibilities of all employees. But this is complicated by the fact that many of these needs are in opposition.

Managing sensory input 

Take sensory input, for example. Some people need sensory input in order to function – they are hyposensitive and crave noise, bustle, music, sounds, light, and movement and will struggle if the environment is too lifeless or too quiet. On the other hand, another significant portion of people are hypersensitive and prefer peacefulness to get work done. They get overwhelmed by sensory input. They prefer environments that let them concentrate on the work at hand and remove all distractions, such as movement or sound.

So, can you really design spaces for all? Let’s take a look at some of the challenges. 

Financial implications of the inclusive workplace

With the best will in the world, the biggest challenge is likely to be the capital budget. Creating uniform regular workspaces will always be cheaper in the short term than providing adaptive, flexible multiple workspaces. Remember, though, that this is short-term thinking; having lovely sets of matching desks and cubicles may be nice and cost less, but it won’t see you get the best from your employees. In the long run, it will cost you more in lower productivity and staff turnover than you will save.

Social versus personal

For some people, well-being is about feeling connected and being part of a group or tribe. It’s about the many small social interactions with others during the working day. It may be about participating in groups where they feel part of a team. However, for others, well-being might mean personal time; it might mean getting away from people for a while and working on their own. Some employees may even feel awkward socialising and find it tiring. 


Spaces for all

Providing a range of group spaces and personal spaces is essential. As well as traditional office spaces, comfortable breakout areas with suitable seating and a softer design aesthetic will help to support employees and make them feel more relaxed. These could follow the idea of a WorkCafé, a separate small meeting room or a booth, for example, the Steelcase Umami. Personal workspaces that are enclosed to reduce distractions and noise, such as the Silen Space or the Orangebox On the QT, will help other employees to focus.

There may even be employees who like quiet, personal space but have claustrophobia, so a fully enclosed pod would not work for them. Ways to isolate them from the noise and distractions of the office include partitions like Steelcase Divisio Acoustic Screens or pods that are open on one or two sides, such as the Steelcase Pod Tent. Also important are areas where individuals can get away from the bustle of the office for a time – well-being areas or respite rooms – allowing personnel to recharge and refresh.

Staying connected

Having such a diverse range of office spaces creates a challenge when certain business activities need to encompass large groups or even all employees. How can you include the less social members of staff in those without making them feel uncomfortable?

This could be addressed by having these different spaces all connected by technology. So employees who are happy to be in a group can meet together in a large meeting room, and less social staff can participate from their personal workspace or in much smaller groups of two or three in a more relaxed social area via video links.


Affirming culture

It can also be a cultural challenge. Organisations often focus on team-building, social events, and bringing people together to forge close-knit teams. These activities can often be an anathema to staff who feel uncomfortable in overly social environments. The challenge here will be to make everybody feel valued and part of the same organisation without making them uncomfortable. Management needs to lead by not applying pressure for everyone to join in. Company values and culture need to be communicated to all in ways that are inclusive and take account of people’s diversity. This puts the focus firmly on management to engender culture by taking a more active role. In addition to traditional generic group briefings, they will need to engage in one-to-one conversations and informal chats.

Flexibility demands of hybrid and remote working

As well as the issues of a diverse workforce, today’s organisations often heavily feature hybrid working and fast-changing markets. Both of these factors demand flexibility, reconfiguring areas and furniture to meet demands and changing needs.

However, this can be confusing and challenging for many people who like predictability. So, managing and signalling these changes can be a demanding and ongoing task. Some organisations have appointed Workplace Experience Managers to curate the changing workplace. As well as facilitating change and optimising the workplace experience based on data-driven monitoring, they are also responsible for creating a welcoming environment for work and making the office an attractive place to be – a destination office


With all these overlapping and conflicting factors, where does this leave us? 

When designing spaces for all, you need to provide for a range of different types of spaces: communal and personal, busy and quiet, social and individual. Flexibility is crucial, too, so mobile, multi-purpose and rapidly reconfigurable solutions are needed. 

There are three final elements to this design challenge. 

  • The first is getting input from all staff. They are best placed to know what would make them more productive, happier and motivated in the workplace. And they will undoubtedly have suggestions and ideas that you would never have thought of. New employees should also be consulted, and their views taken into account at the next iteration of the office layout.

  • The second is a choice. Creating a set of different spaces is great, but allowing people to choose where and how they work is vital. When they come into the office, they should be able to quickly identify the options for working that exist and be able to choose to work in the area and in the way they are most comfortable with.

  • The third is monitoring and feedback. Keeping all your employees happy in their office space is no easy task. You may go through several iterations of space arrangements before you have an optimal solution for all. So, getting and listening to feedback and suggestions throughout the process of office optimisation is essential to its success. 

Designing a space for all has challenges and will take time to happen. Starting with a fixed design solution is unlikely to result in a successful workplace. But setting up many options and allowing employees choice gives you the best chance of creating an inclusive workplace with productive and happy employees. 

Designing Better Futures

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