Last reviewed 8 May 2018

As workforces continue to diversify to include a mixture of able bodies, disabled, different cultures and ages, how can environment and facilities managers create inclusive spaces that cater for all these diverse groups? Dave Howell reports.

With work shifting to become decentralised, flexible and increasingly digitised, what does this mean for managers who must ensure each diverse group of workers is fully supported? These were some of the questions raised at the latest Workplace Trends Conference that took place late last year at the British Library.

Creating successful working spaces for groups of workers means not only understanding their core needs — and how these differ — but also where common ground can be found.

Paul Clarke, UK Manager at unified communications company, 3CX says: “One of the practices businesses implement to appeal to millennials is support for flexible and remote working. In having the technologies to adequately support remote working, retaining a productive workforce even when they are based outside of a central office, businesses can boost the provisions for inclusivity. From parents struggling with childcare, to those with limited mobility who are unable to undertake a long commute, providing the means to work from home can meet the expectations of millennials as well as enabling the retention of staff regardless of lifestyle or health changes, appealing to potential new employees.”

In addition, working groups could contain a wide range of ages, people with varying disabilities, and cultural backgrounds, plus the potential need to support various faiths and their worshipping practices which all need to be included in the workspace equation. Here, it is vital to ensure everyone is engaged with the design process that leads to real-world action being taken.

The inclusive working space is also a healthy one. The promotion of wellbeing has been gaining in importance for the past decade. Today, environment, facilities and health and safety managers understand they must ensure wellbeing is at the top of their agendas, as this has been proven to be the foundation of a productive and efficient workforce.

Managers who can create inclusive workspaces will also be the winners when recruiting the talent they need to fill key posts. What has become abundantly clear is that today’s workers want office environments that are multi-functional, social spaces and have the flexibility to support them to do their jobs.

Often, workers handle information as their core responsibilities. Here, managers need to take care, as moving to flexible spaces that have little individual ownership can destroy the sense of belonging, which working groups need to be successful.

Greg Stewart, Head of Furniture at Office Depot advises: “In recent years, there has been a meteoric rise in open-plan and co-working office spaces, which are cited as promoting collaboration and creativity, among other benefits. However, rather than focusing solely on this workplace trend, it is important to cater for a range of different working types and preferences. For example, while workers in creative or sales-based roles may require an open-plan area to brainstorm ideas and collaborate, individuals undertaking complex or confidential tasks may appreciate access to quiet spaces, allowing them to focus or take telephone calls in private.”

Supporting the nomads

With the push to reduce the footprint of the real estate, organisations must understand how their workers use the spaces they have. The social spaces such as around the water cooler and kitchen are critical spaces.

The position of these communal areas should be thought through in detail. Canteen facilities also deliver similar spaces. Simply reducing the available space because of rising estate costs could, over the long term, become detrimental to a business overall. Environment managers should take their time to understand the composition of their workforces and how these could change before making fundamental changes to the working spaces they manage.

Using advanced technologies across an office environment to deliver the services differing workers have, is always key. In its study, The Workplace of the Future, Konica Minolta Business Solutions concluded generational changes are driving an evolution of the workplace experience both in the physical space and in the tools and technologies. Key technology areas include visitor management systems, robotic video conferencing and conference room booking systems, Internet of Things (IoT) applications and virtual desktops.

Rick Taylor, President and Chief Executive Officer, Konica Minolta commented: “We know that Millennials and Generation Z want to work in a state-of-the-art office with the modern technologies that they are used to using in their personal lives. Companies that employ a Workplace of the Future strategy will be able to attract the best talent and gain the most productivity. In addition to technology having a disruptive impact on the workplace, we also see technology creating new jobs and helping us all work smarter.”

More like Google?

In a survey conducted by Office Genie last year, over half of the respondents pointed to the unusual office spaces developed by technology companies such as Google and Apple as the most appealing. Putting aside the quirky design often employed in the offices of companies like these, there is an important underlying lesson all organisations can learn.

The design of a working space needs to understand its users and deliver to them the space and tools they need to excel. The companies pointed to in the Office Genie survey clearly understand this and have taken the time to understand how design, technology and the requirements of its users all need to be integrated together.

Last year the Construction Industry Council published its guide to creating inclusive and accessible environments. The guide is the product of the Built Environment Professional Education (BEPE) Project.

BEPE Project Board Chair Paul Morrell commented: “As we contemplate the many possible futures of the industry, a good question to ask is, what would an industry that we can be proud of look like? How would it behave? And what regard would it have for those it works for, and those who work for it?”

Morrell continued: “Just one answer to that question is that it would always have in its mind the whole idea of accessibility: of welcoming the greatest possible number of people, in all the many guises we come in, into our buildings and our businesses, and designing into both whatever accommodations may be necessary to make them feel at home. To do that, all we have to do is first to care; then to know what to do; and then just do it. These are challenges of attitude, academics and action, and rising to all of those challenges would be to achieve real BuildAbility.”

Facilities and environment managers are increasingly having to manage a diversifying workforce. Groups and individuals may need special support, which must be provided in order to deliver the working efficiencies that are required. What is clear is that a rounded, integrated and multifaceted approach to office design and layout that speaks to these groups is the way forward for advanced environment managers.

Your checklist

Effective working spaces can be delivered if managers:

  1. Clearly understand the make-up of their workforces

    The needs of groups and individuals must be understood if they are to be supported with a working environment that supports them. It is important to revisit these metrics as workforces change over time.

  2. Understand it’s not all about millennials

    Often organisations can become blinkered creating working environments for this group, when their workforces are much more diverse than that.

  3. Future-proof with flexible spaces

    Businesses are increasingly meeting the needs of their diverse workforces with spaces that can be used for multiple purposes. For example, supporting multiple faiths with worshipping spaces that also have other practical uses is a sensible approach to estate management.

  4. Don’t forget the social areas

    There may be a focus on decentralised flexible workforces, but offices will continue to exist. It’s vital to include well planned and located social spaces — think coffee machine, kitchens and canteens — to support the wellbeing of each group of workers.

  5. Always engage with a workforce

    Before making even small changes to a working environment, it’s critical to consult everyone that could be affected. Forcing change onto any group will almost always results in negative impacts on wellbeing and productivity.

  6. Don’t treat technology as a panacea

    Using the latest unified communications systems, natural lighting, sit/stand desks, etc all have their place, but these should be used carefully and in appropriate settings — all of which have been agreed with the people working in these spaces.