How office design can promote inclusion

Before they summon their staff back to HQ, employers would be well advised to check that their offices are as accessible and inclusive as possible to all users 


An international poll of 31,000 full-time employees in January for Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index report found that 73% wanted to retain the option of working remotely after the relaxation of Covid lockdown restrictions. It’s clear that many people aren’t itching to resume office life five days a week after so many months of working at home.

“Many businesses are wondering why we’re not all rushing back. Part of it might be a fear of infection,” says Jean Hewitt, senior inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold. “But I’ve also spoken to many people who’ve been working in their garden shed or some other humble environment, yet have thrived in that space.”

So what makes the shed or box room a more appealing place to work than the purpose-built office in town? Part of the answer lies in accessibility and inclusivity.

There are obvious benefits to working at home, ranging from the weighty – such as the freedom from commuting – to the trivial – such as the freedom to wear pyjama bottoms while videoconferencing. But one of the most impactful, yet less obvious, advantages has been the freedom to customise your workspace. Even without workstation assessments and expensive ergonomic chairs, many people have found this transformational. Maybe they’ve moved their desk so that they can sit in natural light; perhaps they’ve kept the radio on in the kitchen; or they might have switched between sitting and standing throughout the day.

In exploring such options, people have realised that their problems with one-size-fits-all office environments are about more than preference. This may have contributed to an increase in the number of assessments for autism and other forms of neurodivergence. A reader poll conducted in May by ADDitude, a magazine for people affected by attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), found that 26.5% of the adult respondents had received a formal ADHD diagnosis in the preceding 12 months. Nearly three-quarters of these newly diagnosed adults said that problems ensuing from the lockdown restrictions had prompted them to seek evaluation.

Even people who were well aware of their divergent needs before the pandemic may have discovered new things about themselves while working remotely. And, if they’ve found themselves more comfortable and productive when in full control of their surroundings, they’ll be reluctant to relinquish that – even if returning to HQ does promise the benefits of community, better facilities and free teas and coffees.

When it comes to designing for inclusivity in offices, gender is a key factor. Although toilet facilities are usually the first consideration, inclusive design doesn’t stop at the bathroom door. Temperature, for instance, is often overlooked. Most offices have their heating set to a level that tends to feel most comfortable to cisgender men, which can have far-reaching effects. A 2019 research report by Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite entitled Battle for the Thermostat concluded that the optimal temperature for cognitive performance for women is higher. Those experiencing menopause may also have fluctuating temperature needs.

Of course, you can’t know whether someone is menopausal simply by looking at them. In the same way, you can’t know their health status. About 22% of UK adults self-report as having a disability, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, yet many others don’t disclose a disability or chronic health condition – often because they don’t know themselves that they have one.

Kelly and Hester Grainger, co-founders of neurodiversity consultancy Perfectly Autistic, have both experienced this. The husband-and-wife team have two children with autism and ADHD. During the depths of the Covid crisis, Hester found at the age of 43 that she had ADHD. Kelly, who’d had had a successful career in the corporate world for more than two decades, was diagnosed with autism at 44 and ADHD at 45.

“There are lots of neurodivergent people who don’t know they’re neurodivergent,” he says. “They struggle with certain things and simply imagine that these must be a struggle for everyone.”

This is why it would be a mistake for an employer to design an office around the needs it thinks its current employees have. Not only might new starters have different requirements; those of existing staff could easily change. More than three-quarters of people with disabilities acquired these in adulthood, notes Natasha Davies, access adviser at the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE), a specialist in inclusive workplace design.

Following some guiding design principles will make the office space as inclusive as possible for people with both obvious and unidentified needs, she says, adding: “An inclusive office space can improve employees’ wellbeing and help to create a diverse workforce. It removes barriers to work and creates opportunities for both current and future employees.”

There are lots of neurodivergent people who don’t know they’re neurodivergent. They struggle with certain things and simply imagine that these must be a struggle for everyone

The Equality Act 2010 outlines inclusiveness and accessibility requirements for UK businesses, while the British Standards Institution has issued numerous publicly available specifications (PASs) concerning accessibility. PAS 6463, Design for the Mind, is the first to focus on neurodiversity and the built environment. Hewitt was a technical author on the draft, which was released for public comment in October. 

“For anyone, there will be times when you need to get your head down and finish some urgent work. This requires minimal interruption, noise or any other stimulus,” she says. “So I think this PAS is really about helping everyone, whatever their neurological profile, from neurotypical all the way through to neurodegenerative.”

So what are the main principles of inclusive design? One is physical accessibility – for instance, the provision of step-free access, automatic doors and desks suitable for wheelchair users. A second is clear wayfinding – for instance, using words and patterns as well as colours, clearly signing quiet spaces and adding braille to signage. And a third is controlled stimulation – for instance, switching vivid decor for muted colours, adding soft furnishings to absorb sound and using partitions in open-plan offices.

Adaptability is also key in inclusive design. Law firm Pinsent Masons was an early adopter of open-plan offices. Its director of HR and learning, Jonathan Bond, explains that the move “allowed us better flexibility, recognising that we wanted workspaces that were adaptable for future changes”.

Employees are encouraged to work in zones of the building that best suit their needs – from low stimulation to high sociability – at any given time. They can book to reserve a desk anywhere in the office. 

“Our design of office space, plus our hybrid working strategy, recognises this diversity of preference, so it offers a range of choices,” Bond says.

While a full office redesign clearly isn’t feasible in all cases, there are small and relatively affordable changes – for instance, adjustable lighting – that can have a significant impact. Designating a quiet room in which people can calm themselves in isolation can also make a big difference. If it has to double as a prayer space, a booking system should ensure that no worshipper is interrupted.

Employers can draw on a range of resources to help improve their office design, including the CAE’s access audits, Buro Happold’s inclusive design services and Perfectly Autistic’s neurodiversity awareness training

“Don’t be afraid to work with external partners,” advises Hester Grainger. “If you want to learn about autism in the workplace, ask an autistic person who also has the corporate context you need.”

But she adds that everyone’s experiences are different. As well as working with experts, employers need to speak directly with their staff. Grainger recommends a return-to-work survey as a good starting point for such conversations.

Pinsent Masons benefits from having well-established employee networks, which can give the management team regular feedback about inclusivity matters.

“We’ve worked with these groups on key office design issues,” Bond notes. “For example, the disability group road-tested our London office to ensure that it was wheelchair-friendly. A number of their colleagues (including me) later spent a day working in wheelchairs to understand their lived experience and determine any areas for improvement.”

More inclusive office design will help encourage employees back into the office. Along with improved welfare, productivity and loyalty from staff with varied access and accommodation needs, employers may see increased engagement and a sense of unity in the workforce.

Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, Kelly Grainger argues that “getting your work environment right, making it inclusive, will benefit all employees. And making everyone happier and more productive surely benefits the business overall.”