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Mix Roundtable: The power of the inclusive workplace

An inclusive workplace makes diverse employees feel valued, welcome, integrated and included in the workforce instead of isolated. However, it is nigh on impossible to design something that is a perfect fit for the entire population – isn’t it?


10 min read

For a business leader or interior designer to not consider the whole of the potential working population is clearly a missed opportunity. Designing an inclusive environment does not mean focusing on physical differences alone; rather there has to be an equal emphasis on different styles of working as well as on mental health. It is also important to consider that some employers might be sensitive to noise, light and air pollutants.

Thinking about your own workplace, what would make you happier?

Sarah: I would like to have more natural daylight.

Carlo: I would love to take my dog to work – that would make me very happy.

Julie: I would love to have an outdoor space – a terrace or somewhere I could escape to, even in the centre of London.

Fergus: What would make me happier is to know that our people are happy.

Matthew: I would like to see more variety – more frequent change in terms of furniture layout. I would also like to get rid of those bigger screens that create barriers between teams.

Gordon: We’ve recently turned on the music in our office – and that’s certainly made me happy. It’s made a big change for us. You begin to engage more with one another.

Beatriz: Coffee! It would be amazing to have barista coffee – and more plants.

Chris: It’s a difficult question to answer because we’ve just moved into our new space! I suppose I would like to bring more people into the office and be able to host more events in our ground floor space – to showcase the type of work we can do.

Isabelle: Coffee and plants would make me happy. I would, in an ideal world, like a retractable roof – although we have two floors above us! But I would love to be able to work in the sunshine.

Ursula: Reconnecting with my colleagues as friends. I have developed some great friendships here at Task but we are always busy – so I would like to have the time to just sit and chat with those friends.

An inclusive workplace is an environment that values the individual and group differences within its work force. An inclusive workplace makes diverse employees feel valued, welcome, integrated and included in the workforce instead of isolated.

However, it is nigh on impossible to design something that is a perfect fit for the entire population – isn’t it?

Julie: The simple answer is no. What is important is to give people the possibility to decide what is right for them. It’s not just about whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert or your gender – during the day, your needs will differ, so you might want a quiet environment in the morning and interaction in the afternoon.

Chris: It’s about providing variety and choice – and autonomy. People need to be able to go and choose environments depending upon how they feel. Sometimes it goes beyond how people feel or their mood – they can’t take really bright spaces or something visually that is going on in a space, so you need to provide more muted, subdued spaces to accommodate for those people.

So how do you go about providing these options?

Beatriz: You can customise spaces – through lighting, for example – to provide the right settings for a particular task or a particular time of day. You can do this with music as well – you can select the music to suit the task or the setting. There are certain environments that are more conducive to collaboration, therefore you select that space for teamwork, with certain light levels and music, which suit that particular way of working or task.

Sarah: If individuals want different things you can also create non-collaborative spaces that have very different looks and feels – one can be dark with no music and one can be very bright with rave music. You then get different people using the different spaces at different points in the day, depending on how they feel. Some people might never go into one of those spaces – but they still give an option to move away from a desk. Variety is key – as are spaces that flex through the day; spaces where people can meet, eat, chat…

Carlo: Never underestimate the power of food to bring people together. At CBRE, as part of our diversity initiative, we get people to bring food in from their culture – and it’s such a great thing.

Beatriz: It forces people to get away from their desks and to come together. If you go to Scandinavia – if you go to any office in Copenhagen – at 12 o’clock or one o’clock they all come together, they all completely switch off to have lunch together in the office. It’s amazing.

When we talked to them they told us that they never use these spaces because they were worried about what their bosses would say when they found that they weren’t in their offices.

Carlo: I worked in New York City for over 18 years – and that never happens. I never once had lunch with any of my co-workers in the office – outside the office, yes, but otherwise the culture was that you just worked through.

Matthew: This is about the culture of the environment – you can design a space that has multiple settings and plenty of choice, but if there’s a sense of judgement or the culture of the firm is that ‘you’re not at your desk’ then it’s not going to work – and you can’t have a culture that encourages you to do that without the spaces to support that type of work.

Carlo: And do you think that this is a leadership issue?

Matthew: Yes. We’re currently working on a project in Norway and we talk a lot about visibility throughout buildings and being able to see what’s happening throughout a space, but they have a culture where, as soon as you’re seen as not being at your desk, you’re not being productive. So they have these vast atria that simply sit as sterile environments because no one wants to use them. So how do you find that careful balance of increasing views, bringing natural daylight into the space and people being able to see beyond their immediate surroundings, but also creating little nooks where people can tuck themselves into, so they’re in a different setting but still feel sheltered – and that’s without tackling the culture of the business and the change management that goes with that.

Beatriz: We had a similar issue with a law firm we were working with. We created hubs for people to get away from their offices – they’re lawyers and so still very cellular in how they work. We wanted to encourage people to come together in these hubs – and each hub had a different function. When we talked to them they told us that they never use these spaces because they were worried about what their bosses would say when they found that they weren’t in their offices. This comes from the communication of the leadership – they weren’t telling their people that they should be using the spaces. It definitely comes from the top.

We move on to ask whether, despite these examples, our experts feel that, overall, clients are becoming more knowledgeable.

Isabelle: They are a lot more educated, definitely. The change over the last 20 years has been huge. Today, you have hard data to help you. We work with the Crown Estate, for example, and they wanted the WELL Standard and certification and we also worked with Cundall. What really clinched it was when Cundall told them that they could get ‘platinum’ – but if you want to get ‘platinum’ then you have to do all this and if you do all this it will cost you this much money! There’s now so much research about wellness and inclusivity – which is another thing altogether, but they do start to link together – so when they put all these things together they end up with the fit-out itself, which represents not a lot in their annual costs, but which can make or break future of the business. So data really does help!

Chris: I think it’s also about the expectations of the employee. People are now thinking that there are so many opportunities and choices to go elsewhere, so if their employer wants to retain the talent, they have to meet these expectations. They are now changing and progressing. This whole sense of people sharing more – talking out about things and saying that they’re not going to stand for certain things – helps raise the bar.

Gordon: Two things that have really changed things are Instagram and Pinterest. I’ve been shocked at times when a client has come to me with a mood board that I would be proud of! Very nice, very stylish, thanks very much – that’s my job done! Seriously though, for me, that’s just giving me a sense of what the client is actually looking for. The benchmark used to be Google. Now it’s anything but Google – they don’t want swings, they don’t want slides. Our clients talk more about a blurring of boundaries between hospitality and work.

Julie: We talk about ‘space fusion’ – which is mixing these sectors together. Coworking is also becoming very inspiring for many organisations – that sense of community.

Matthew: I think a lot of clients want to be perceived as more knowledgeable, but when there’s a cost associated with it…with the WELL Standard, for instance. We recently completed a job that achieved WELL Gold but the costs just spiralled out of control. To be honest, they weren’t educated enough to deal with the financial impact. Yes, guaranteed over a 20-year plan, you start getting that money back – but this is about here and now. They’ve got a budget for the year and they’re not factoring that in for the future. So I think clients do still need to be educated from a cost perspective.

Sarah: I think that will feed through in the next five, 10, 15 years, as better business cases start to come out. If you look at how much literature has come out on wellness, inclusivity and all these things – but the bottom line for CEO’s and businesses is still productivity. Now they’re starting to think about how these things come together and how, from a purely business point of view, their people will be more productive if they’re able to work in the best way possible – and that might be in five different places throughout the day – if they’re happy and healthy. Then they’ll get the best out of their people. The most forward thinking and progressive businesses will see this as the way forward.

Beatriz: It’s important that this isn’t just a box ticking exercise. You have to look at what you, as a company, want to achieve, what you want the end result to be – and then you work backwards from there. You shouldn’t just start going through certifications just because people tell you that you will be able recruit better people. People don’t look for certifications – they look for the end results. Go back to the basics and understand what you want and need. If you want your people to be healthier or happier, you need to look at which initiatives you need to look at to achieve that. For me, the beauty of WELL as a certification is that it puts a lot of decisions on the client side – and, actually, you have to continue to work on it.

Of course, WELL and other major initiatives do address a number of the issues surrounding wellbeing and inclusivity – but are clients actually talking about inclusivity as part of a brief?

Chris: We’ve had a client who has specifically mentioned inclusivity and neurodiversity – although I’m not sure they’ve fully fleshed out exactly what that means in terms of their space. What it does mean is they’re showing consideration for different people, with many different needs. I do think that it’s starting to be at the forefront of people’s minds.

Some of our clients are now being challenged by prospective hires – they’re being asked about their stance on single-use plastics, about their stance on inclusivity. A few years ago, people were less likely to be comfortable when it comes to saying things such as ‘I don’t identify as male or female’ or ‘I suffer from depression’ or ‘I suffer from anxiety’ – because they felt that they would come across as less of a valued employee or less appealing as prospective employee. Now, people are able to stand up and speak out about who they truly are – and are respected for who they are.

Julie: We’ve just released a report on neurodiversity. What was really interesting was that whatever applies to a neurodiverse population actually benefits everyone. It’s about providing choice and flexibility in how and where you work. One in eight people are on the neurodiverse spectrum – and only half of those people actually know it! There are a lot of invisible disabilities and things that people are not aware of – and there’s still a lot education to be done in this area. What we did find is that it’s really about welcoming everyone. So when you think about designing a space, you should already be thinking about what needs it can fulfill.

Isabelle: It’s all about care. 25 years ago, most CEO’s wouldn’t care about their staff or their wellbeing – they just wanted people to get work done! Even today, most clients confuse diversity with inclusivity. You can have a diverse workforce – but do your people feel as though they are heard? We can certainly help – but more than half of the job has to come through the culture and through your client.

We think Isabelle has summed it up quite perfectly. A truly inclusive workspace can only be achieved when the culture of the business, from the top down, is right. Inclusivity isn’t a box ticking exercise – it’s about giving everyone choice, flexibility, trust and a voice. As Sarah points out, however, it’s not easy to achieve this and there’s plenty more work still to de done if we want to create a society where inclusivity is the norm.

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