Designing the office space, for everyone

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Andy Levy

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Andy Levy

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We recently had the pleasure to host the BCO NextGen’s Designing for Diversity webinar with key speaker, Neil Smith, Inclusive Design Lead for HS2.  If anyone is well placed to advise on diversity and inclusion within the built environment it is Neil, who is one of the Mayor of London’s Design Advocates and Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation’s Built Environment Access Panel (BEAP).

The overriding message was that we are not designing for ‘others’ when it comes to diversity but for ‘all of us’. The conversation encouraged everyone in the industry to take responsibility for this and not just specialist consultants or designers.

Diversity & Inclusion policy in the built environment

When the Equality Act of 2010 replaced the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, it was an important move in acknowledging diversity as wider than disability. It now covers age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sex and sexual orientation. However, although policy has recognised that the right for equality is relevant for more than just those registered as disabled, the built environment still has a long way to go and is mostly still only meeting basic requirements without any real thought into what inclusion really means.

It is evidenced by both McKinsey and in the CLC’s Roadmap for Change that diversity in companies not only increases performance and profitability but also enhances culture and helps organisations attract and retain talent. “The business case for Inclusion and Diversity is stronger than ever.  For diverse companies, the likelihood of outperforming industry peers on profitability has increased over time, while the penalties are getting steeper for those lacking diversity.[1]” Having different ways of thinking sparks innovation, new ways of working and helps challenge the norm, often raising the bar to practice and process. 

In 2006 CABE (Chartered Association of Built Environment) defined inclusive design as:

  • Inclusive: so, everyone can use them safely, easily and with dignity
  • Responsive: taking account of what people say they want and need
  • Flexible: so, different people can use them in different ways
  • Convenient: so, everyone can use them without too much effort or separation
  • Accommodating: for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility, ethnicity or circumstances
  • Welcoming: with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people
  • Realistic: offering more than one solution to help balance everyone’s need and recognising that one solution may not work for all.

Reflecting on this in 2021, we are still a long way from many of these principles being met. For example, in offices where lifts have been moved to the back of reception areas to encourage people to use the stairs, this could signal to those who cannot use stairs that they are secondary and, therefore, will have a different experience of the building.  Or main entrance revolving doors that exclude those who use wheelchairs or guide dogs, meaning they are often left to push a button and/or request to access through a secondary door, negating their experience of the entrance.

Neil carefully explained that those modern offices with ‘work, rest and play’ areas need to be carefully thought out to ensure they are accessible and inclusive to all. Kitchen or breakout areas with bar stools and high cupboards can discriminate. As can smell, noise and colours that affect neurodiverse team members who learn and process information differently such as those with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and dyspraxia.

So, what does good look like?

With the pandemic resetting the way we work practically overnight; we now have the opportunity to do things differently. With many organisations opting for hybrid ways of working and less capacity in the workspace, now should be the time to challenge the norm, and challenge if there really is a norm at all.

How do we as professionals who work in the built environment ensure that D&I is not just on the agenda but integral to the design and build process across our projects?

Neil advised the key to diversity is, unsurprisingly, about being diverse. There is no one solution fits all. It is about a mindset of trying to understand the design implications for different groups of people. It is about collaborating with the intent towards equity.  As well as designing spaces to ensure accessibility, we need to ensure that equality comes into the process. We can all picture a disabled toilet, yet how many of us have seen one that doesn’t look institutionalised, where the aesthetics still have a role to play alongside the accessibility? Many organisations are moving to ‘inclusive’ toilets that are gender neutral, but we need to think about those who might feel uncomfortable with this option too.

At RLB, we are not only working with our clients to recognise the breadth of Diversity and Inclusion that is needed in the commercial space but to listen to those we work with to ensure we get it right in our own offices. Our Diversity & Inclusion Working Community is integral in advising how we should operate as a business and the spaces we work in. Our aim is to create an inclusive workplace where everyone is recognised, valued and rewarded for their contribution, one where those who work within listen to alternative thoughts and approaches.

When it comes to our role in supporting those looking to either build or refurbish commercial space (be they developers, contractors, clients, architects or other stakeholders), we want to be part of the collective education and empowerment in the project team to challenge the brief and raise the importance of the Diversity & Inclusion agenda. 

However, bringing so many different choices for different groups is often not commercially viable. There is no simple solution but a matrix of different priorities. For example, for every prayer room or breastfeeding area brings the hard cost loss of commercially lettable space. The different factors and priorities need to be considered to ensure a project is actually commercially feasible and it is important we ensure they are considered in each individual project and the compromise is right for all stakeholders, including those who will be working in these spaces. We need to challenge how we see productivity and realise that diversity in the workplace means people being able to bring their best version of their themselves to work.

We know this is a marathon not a sprint and if 2020 was the year of raising D&I awareness then, 2021 is the year to turn it into action. Bringing diversity into the forefront of our minds every day and stopping to challenge previous ways we have thought, designed, planned and built will be one of the most important steps we can take on this journey.