Designing inclusive workspaces

Sandra Garcia is an applied research consultant at Steelcase. She works with global clients, architects and designers on projects aiming to develop new work experiences that drive employee engagement, organizational resiliency and employee well-being.

What is the connection between diversity and the physical workspace ?

The complexity of inclusivity lies precisely in its broadness. It can (and does) mean different things to different people, and therefore, to organizations. At Steelcase, we are committed to building diversity within our teams, and we recognize that gender and race are not the only identifiers that need to be addressed.

Focusing only on bringing diverse employees into a company limits progress; it is only one part of the equation. You have to give employees access to career and growth opportunities that will help them thrive, and build a company culture that makes them feel like they belong.

Diversity, inclusion and equity cannot be attained and maintained by one-time campaigns or initiatives. Diversity must be a constant in the employee experience — one that is embedded in company culture, mirrored by all levels of leadership, and present along an employee’s journey through an organization. And this is where the office, the physical space, comes into play. It is the most salient, persistent and tangible element of company culture, and in many ways, it is very well positioned to support diversity, inclusion and equity.

As an increasing number of employees choose remote work, do traditional office spaces belong to the past?

The « home office experiment » imposed on us by the current pandemic has shown to have worked relatively well. Granted, this “experiment” lasted 12 weeks in most scenarios. Nevertheless, employees and organizations have said that productivity was fairly kept. For individual contributors, it was almost business as usual, depending on the quality of their work setup and personal situation at home.

However, employees who generally rely on teamwork and collaboration were only able to accomplish their tasks because they already had trusting relationships with coworkers; effective team dynamics already existed. Although the digital space can maintain strong working relationships, they cannot be built from scratch. You cannot reach the same level of trust with a coworker if you have never met them in person (i.e., in the physical workspace).

Our social networks are comprised of “strong ties,” “absent ties” and “weak ties.” Strong ties are the people physically closest to us, with whom we have a lot in common and interact often; absent or invisible ties are the people who are far away but are nevertheless close to us; and weak ties are the people whom we do not know very well and only interact with on occasion.

The danger is believing that the digital space expands our world; multiple studies have confirmed otherwise. It can actually make us become more isolated. We end up privileging our strong ties and letting weak ties fade away, and with them, the opportunity of accessing new information, ideas, and connections. Having only “strong ties” in a social network can create an echo chamber of sorts.

Therefore, the physical space cannot go away; it cannot become a thing of the past. The physical space has a direct effect on diversity and inclusion because it expands our social network and allows new perspectives to be exchanged.

What can a well-designed workspace do for a company?

A well-planned and inclusive space provides a great employee experience. It gives them choice and control, and considers their well-being (physical, emotional and cognitive). It also allows for the serendipity of bumping into coworkers (including those you don’t know that well), which is ultimately how new ideas are generated and how perspectives change. The physical space is a place for coming together — a place to experiment, be creative, solve problems, and innovate. All of this should be reflected in the design of the workspace. Even if remote work becomes a part of our lives, there is still immense value in meeting in the same room.

What should companies consider moving forward?

To remain competitive, enterprises need more than ever to design spaces that create a diverse and inclusive culture — spaces that allow people to cross paths, teams to connect, individuals to learn from others, and in general, create social connections. This is not only in the best interest of companies, but also individuals and society as a whole.

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