Amid the wider return to the office, companies are looking at how they can make their workplaces more appealing to their employees. One crucial aspect is to create a space where everyone feels welcome. Thus, many offices are being redrawn today to be inclusive.

“There isn’t a company out there that I am aware of that isn’t looking at DE&I as a priority,” says Victoria Robinson, partner and head of workforce strategy and culture at consulting firm PwC.

“A lot of work at the moment is coming out the pandemic,” she explains. “To attract people in, companies have to look at the office becoming a destination of choice not just through the lens of the typical white male demographic. [They have to ask:] Is the office appropriate for women, neurodiverse people or different ethnic minorities?”

There is evidence showing that companies with a diverse workforce have more chances to attract and retain talent. According to a 2020 survey carried out by Glassdoor, the site on which workers can rate their employers, more than three out of four employees prefer to work at a diverse

In addition, about one in three employees and job seekers would not apply for a job at a company that suffers from a lack of workforce diversity.

Attracting talent is a clear benefit, but how do you design office space for all?

“It is about options, options, options… try and give people as many options as possible and try and use the space flexibly because your workforce might be very different in six months’ time,” Robinson says, noting the importance of adaptive infrastructure for a changing workforce.

Catherine Borgstrom, responsible for inclusive design practices at global workplace design firm M Moser, also points to the idea of freedom of choice. This means making sure that everyone – no matter their abilities or identities – has the same amount of choice when in the office. “By having different options, people feel they have the ability to control their space and make the choices that serve them best,” she says.

Another important aspect when it comes to inclusive offices is what Borgstrom calls “universal design,” which involves creating a space that meets everyone’s needs and is accessible to all. For instance, having a primary space as a path that is accessible to all people instead of having steps up to a main door and then a ramp off the side.

To reflect inclusivity in the built space, most office landlords and occupiers have focused so far on physical accessibility and social responsibility, such as creating community events or spaces, says Guzman de Yarza Blache, head of workforce strategy at real estate services firm JLL. But to create truly inclusive working environments, occupiers and landlords need to consider five additional dimensions, he explains.

Those added dimensions are: gender equity, including spaces such as on-site childcare facilities, breastfeeding rooms or a safe outdoor environment; aging population, with solutions like adjustable height desks or accessible floor solutions; ethnicity, including facilities such as meditation rooms or diversity of food choices in the building’s canteen; sexual orientation, with spaces such as gender-neutral restrooms or individual changing rooms; and neurodiversity and mental health, making available quiet rooms or outdoor spaces with greenery.

“These days, we are seeing the most progressive occupiers pushing for these DE&I initiatives because it is part of their agenda, while we see landlords being a little bit more reactive trying to understand if investing in DE&I at the building environment will eventually pay off,” de Yarza Blache says, noting that buildings with a DE&I standard will increase the valuation of the assets, as with sustainable certifications.

Enabling the workplace

An inclusive office can not only improve the valuation of assets; it enables everyone to feel and perform at their best. A non-inclusive workplace, by contrast, affects people’s productivity as it can create a disabling working environment.

A Nature study from 2021, for instance, found that most workplaces have their temperature settings calibrated for men’s body heat, without reflecting the thermal preferences and requirements of women. According to the study, the thermal environment interfered with the performance of 42 percent of women.

Increasing office thermostats in summer to align with thermal comfort guidelines would help address any gender bias in setpoint temperatures, the study suggests. Another tech solution is climate control for individual workspaces, it adds.

Many offices also inadvertently exclude neurodiverse individuals, making them vulnerable to burnout. “Unsuitable environmental conditions – such as poor fluorescent lighting, sharp temperature changes or visually noisy spaces – add increasing daily stressors that wear on neurodiverse people faster than they would on neurotypical people,” says Ron Bakker, partner at PLP Architecture.

“This often leads to individuals taking up coping mechanisms to counter the effects. Despite these, stress levels can increase over time, leading to burnout and illness, resulting in absence from work.”

A recent study by Centric Lab – a research organization focused on the health impacts of the spaces people use – and PLP Architecture for the British Council for Offices suggests inclusive design implementations for neurodiverse people. Making private and insulated pods or rooms available to those with noise sensitivities is one suggestion, as well as providing employees with the option to adjust the lighting at their workstation. Ensuring that essential amenities are clearly signaled and easily accessible – colorful wayfinding, for example – has also been shown to facilitate orientation for people with dyslexia, the study finds.

Another important aspect to foster inclusivity and bring different groups of employees together in informal ways is to create spaces for employees to socialize, says Megan Connolly, principal and senior talent strategy consultant at Mercer, a global management consulting firm.

“Given the way that a physical space can either encourage or inhibit informal employee interactions, leaders should consider the physical layout of an office space a key component of the inclusive culture they are looking to create.

“Leaders should also consider the importance of the physical location of the office. Locations in a central business district and close to public transportation can maximize accessibility for a wide array of employee groups.”

In offices, the physical environment should never be a barrier but a support for workers.

As Bakker explains, the key to creating enabling working environments is to understand the differences in the workforce, as each employee can be more comfortable or productive in different settings. “We see time and time again that one size does not fit all – this is relevant for the office too,” he says.

Why is an inclusive workplace important?

Companies that are doing more to ensure their workforce is diverse and translating that to the built environment can attract and retain talent, says Blessing Buraimoh, JLL’s head of DE&I for work dynamics.

“Creating inclusive workplaces is not only the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense,” she adds.

Buraimoh points to “a huge amount of research and data” that proves this. For instance, according to a study published in 2021 by Unleash Research, companies employing an equal number of men and women manage to produce up to 41 percent higher revenue. Further to this, 43 percent of companies with diverse management had higher profits.

In line with this, a study carried out in 2019 by McKinsey & Company shows that teams that are racially or ethnically diverse outperform other teams by 35 percent, while gender-diverse teams outperform peers by 15 percent.