Inclusive by Nature, Impelling by Nurture: The Future of the Tech Workplace
March 01, 2022 | By Brian Stromquist
In Year 1, we asked ourselves: What is a Zoom? In Year 2, we pushed the question further: What does equitable videoconferencing look like for a hybrid workforce? We’re still working on that one. Now, we’re in Year 3, plotting our partial return to the workplace, ready to embrace our latest challenge: How do we take insights from the past two years and use them to design joyful, inclusive work environments?
We should keep advancing our research into immersive collaboration technologies, and keep investigating the inclusive possibilities of burgeoning metaverses, but we also need to invest this design energy back into the built environment. Studies show that hybrid work is here to stay, and workers who have the option of working remotely will still be coming into the office 2-3 days a week. There's also the large swath of the workforce whose jobs preclude the possibility of remote work, who have been — and will continue to be — keeping the lights on in our offices, laboratories, factories, and kitchens. They should enjoy all the affordances of virtual worlds in IRL environments.
And how better to plan for this than through the lens of inclusive design? Successful implementation of inclusive environments will hinge on three types of considerations, all of which explore the relationship between the environment and the individual:
- How does one’s lived experience influence design of space?
- What effect does space have on one’s individual experience?
- How might office environments impact the experience of individuals in the broader community?
By considering the three together, we can begin to craft environments that are not just primed to support hybrid work, but ones that set the stage for inclusive workplaces of the future.
Consideration 1: Impact of the Individual on the Environment
Designing for a broad spectrum of abilities — both physical and neurodiverse — is now table stakes for most technology companies. Universal design principles, pioneered by Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo, are starting to be codified into design guidelines, forefronted in project visioning sessions, and vetted through standalone Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) processes.
The experience and performance of the workplace is better for it, too. As we take steps to better align the office with a greater range of physical abilities, we’re witnessing the evolution and reinvention of several tech office staples. Banquette seating, previously tucked away in nooks, is literally coming out of the woodwork to be more accessible to wheelchair users and a variety of body shapes and sizes. Conference room furniture, often rectangular tables oriented to a wall-mounted monitors, is morphing shape to provide better visibility and maneuvering ability. In our pursuit of inclusive hybrid collaboration spaces, universal design is helping point the way.
Spaces that are designed to accommodate neurodiversity are evolving in exciting ways as well. Libraries, once nice-to-have amenities in tech workplaces, take on heightened importance as tech-free, distraction-free zones. This is incredibly important to the productivity and happiness of neurodiverse employees for whom workplace distractions are a real impediment to their work experience. Wellness rooms, once loosely programmed areas for mental health and spirituality, find new life and new definition as sensory spaces for everyone, including neurodivergent workers. By creating experiences with sound, sight, and smell, these spaces provide exciting opportunities for escape and calm — often with the help of tunable lighting and manipulatable AV technologies.
Ultimately, this is designing for mental health, which benefits all of us — especially in this age of present turbulence and future unknowns.
Consideration 2: Impact of the Environment on the Individual
If individual needs are able to transform the environment in innovative, inclusive new ways, then how can the environment return the favor? How might we evolve workplace systems to augment physical and psychological comfort — and enable employees to tailor environments to meet their individual needs?
For starters, we can look to the systems that comprise wellness/sensory spaces from the previous section: tunable lighting, manipulatable AV, adjustable HVAC. What if these were scaled up to entire workplace ecosystems — open office neighborhoods, collaboration areas, and focus spaces? And what if individuals were able to use these (literal) levers to create micro-environments optimized for individual comfort?
Over the past couple years, many tech companies have looked to David Rock’s SCARF model as a roadmap for managing teams in our new hybrid work reality (credit to my colleague, Karen Mozes, for introducing me to this). One of the main tenets of the model, which is designed to augment emotional intelligence and psychological safety, is an employee’s sense of autonomy — their ability to retain independence in larger group settings by eliminating psychological distractions. Autonomy, in turn, encourages creativity and complex decision making, ultimately resulting in increased productivity and innovation. Physical environments can operate in much the same way, providing an employee a set of environmental controls that allow them to focus on work and not their comfort level.
Achieving these individual comfort goals will require closer partnerships with the consultants with whom we typically partner on workplace design: MEP engineers, audio-visual specialists, and lighting designers.
Consideration 3: Impact of the Environment on the Community
Finally, we should challenge ourselves to explore ways in which interior environments — both shaped by and actively shaping employee identity and experience — can address radical inclusivity beyond the office walls. Tech workplaces have a long history of engaging local arts communities through multi-story murals and lobby installations, and are increasingly turning to local designers for furniture and custom fabrications. These are important ways of bolstering relationships between the workplace and the surrounding community.
In the spirit of equity and inclusion, we should explore ways of having opportunity and economic impact on individuals in the community as well. Last year’s Morphable Office project, a Gensler-backed investigation of the design of office buildings through an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) lens, explored the idea of ground-floor amenities as opportunities for wealth building in local communities.
The tech workplace has an amazing opportunity to do something similar. The full-service cafeteria, long a staple of many tech offices, is a fertile testing ground for using in-house culinary amenities as wealth-building initiatives. The idea isn’t entirely novel to tech: celebrity chefs and boutique eateries have regularly taken up residency inside the workplace. Next-wave culinary, however, should identify where they’ll have the greatest impact in the community and provide a dedicated footprint for this programming.
So, as we move into Year 3 of a pandemic-turned-endemic, and take positive steps towards workplace repatriation, let’s zoom out a bit to rethink the relationship between architecture and individual experience. Our respective experiences and identities will help evolve workplace design into something that feels increasingly inclusive, and in turn it will compel us to be a better, happier hybrid workforce.
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