How to Create Workspace for Diversity and Inclusion

by PlaceLab TeamMar 4th, 2020

The message about the workplace of the future is clear: Diversity is a must. Eight out of every 10 prospective Gen Z employees say this single factor plays an important part in their decision whether to work at a company and strongly influences whether they’ll stay longer than a year or two. At the same time, workplace experts advise employers to focus less on diversity and instead, to prioritize inclusion. What are the right strategies for crafting company culture and community with an eye on future recruitment? 

Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Lead to Happier Employees

First, diversity and inclusion mean different things. Diversity focuses on recognizing differences, but it can end up introducing labels and divisions. Inclusion stresses what we have in common and embraces every aspect of diversity, inviting all kinds of people into discussions, decisions, brainstorming sessions, social events and more.

Photo Credit: Chris Ozer

Verna Myers, author of What If I Say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People, puts it this way: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” For Gen Z even to come to the dance, many voices, skill levels and cultures need to be acknowledged. This is the most diverse generation ever, and the first generation to consider diversity and inclusion as crucial elements of any team. 

“When your employees feel they have to hide or mask core parts of themselves at work because they feel unsure, unsafe or invisible, it can take a toll on motivation, engagement and (ultimately) employee retention and turnover rates,” explains Dr. Pragya Argawal, a social psychologist and two-time TEDx speaker on diversity and inclusion.

In other words, it’s not enough to hire a diverse workforce of people from different cultural, educational, geographical and social backgrounds. Prioritizing inclusion means hiring diverse talent and then empowering them to help shape a team’s decisions and direction. Otherwise, what’s known as an inclusion gap can develop. 

Strategies for a Sense of Belonging

Closing that gap demands a spectrum of solutions. First, the workspace itself should be as accessible as possible. Companies can choose to locate their offices close to commuting options or within walking distance of affordable housing. 

The building itself should be open and welcoming, with easily accessed elevators and stairs, as well as wide doorways and walkways that are uncluttered and don’t appear intimidating. Amazon.com’s Day 1 headquarters features a wide stairway, escalator and elevator right next to each other, giving people several options for entering and flowing through to the inside reception hall on the next floor. 

In the planning or redesign phase, companies should encourage a variety of individual voices to weigh in on workplace design. Dr. Argawal emphasizes that in conceptualizing the workplace, input should be included not only from those who are already there, but from representatives of demographics who could potentially be on staff. Spaces should also be thoughtfully designed and built to accommodate different body types and environmental sensitivities

Employees don’t all feel the same about the environments where they feel most productive. Providing a choice of spaces — quiet spots for concentration, modern meeting rooms for collaboration, and open space where communities can gather — is one way to help them do their best work. 

Spaces should be “efficient, subtle and effective in creating a welcoming and inclusive environment without putting any undue focus on anyone, thereby creating a calmer and happier workplace, and consequently a more innovative and productive organization,” said Dr. Argawal. Spatial choice is part of EQ’s core philosophy, the 4Cs of Spatial Alchemy.  

Examples of accessibility, individuality and choice are apparent when a workspace offers: 

  • Multi-height surfaces and sit-stand desks, with a thorough assessment of personal work stations and options for customizing them ergonomically

  • Customizable lighting and furniture that can be adapted to an individual’s visual and physical needs

  • Built-in control panels to modify the temperature in a space

  • The ability to close doors, slide panels or use noise-canceling devices to manage distracting sounds 

  • Thoughtful design that is not just compliant with the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act but includes features such as levers for door handles (instead of knobs), to accommodate various levels of dexterity 

  • Signage that provides ease of navigation in a building: that is textural, bold and colorful, reducing confusion and stress for everyone, and helping people with visual impairment or declining eyesight 

“We’re really supportive of employees being able to work where they feel comfortable,” said MJ Massar, Senior Associate of Investments at EQ Office. “We think that maximizes productivity.” A workplace that is personal and comfortable helps support employee mental well-being and work. Making a workspace feel like a home is a way of fostering productivity.

A mix of open workspace, gathering spots and places for closed- door meetings provides support for various workstyles at Greenhouse Software. Photo Credit: Chris Ozer

Space to Welcome Personal Connections

Communicating inclusion can also mean breaking down walls between employee and supervisor, figuratively and literally. Face-to-face interaction is important to Gen Z. Even though they have grown up tethered to tech, the members of this generation yearn for personal connection and to feel that their voices are included in the discourse of work and personalized, professional growth.

Some questions to ask: 

  • Are there physical barriers that communicate separation, for example, are managers located on different floors?

  • Do dark walls separate teams that need to collaborate and speak to one another frequently? 

  • Are the workstations of teams, employees and supervisors close enough together for them to find each other easily? 

  • Is there space for frequent meetings that allow for mentorship?

  • Is there active programming in gathering spaces, both for individual communities (diversity) and for intermingling (inclusion)? 

  • Does the workspace convey that talent is safe and welcome to approach another person to ask questions or share ideas? 

In EQ’s Park Avenue Tower in New York City, wide windows open up the space and glass exterior walls, an innovation that involved some adjustment for the tenant, ICM Partners talent agency. Sloan Harris, the Co-President of ICM, said the change reduced barriers between people, both physical and professional. 

There is a real feeling of openness to go in and talk to your colleagues. We have a lot of agents who are very senior and have been in the business forever,” says Harris. “We get a big kick out of our young colleagues who are super bright and utterly fearless about asking us for help when they need it.

EQ Office’s Park Avenue Tower, New York City: Glass walls and open offices provide a sense of inclusion.

Communicate Diversity and Inclusion From the First “Hello”

A classic Hollywood line encapsulates the importance of first impressions and what the CEO of EQ Office, Lisa Picard, calls the “arrival sequence”: the critical moment where a potential employee first envisions life in a particular workspace. For Picard, it’s summed up in the moment in “Jerry Maguire” where Renée Zellweger says, “You had me at ‘Hello.’” Picard believes companies must demonstrate commitment to diversity and inclusion from the very first greeting, to set the tone for everything else that happens.

  • How does the company welcome potential recruits into the space as they arrive for an interview?

  • Is the entry cold and impersonal, or alternatively, warm, inviting, open and friendly?

  • What does the entry look and feel like? How can it reflect the diversity and the intersection of voices that contribute to ideas within the company itself?

  • Are diverse cultures and languages reflected in the artwork, furnishings, the choice of reception staff  and even the music flowing through the entry?

  • How are these elements woven into one another upon arrival?

  • What is noticeable and what does the first impression suggest about the company culture?

EQ Office’s Playa District, Los Angeles: The open, welcoming and thoughtfully designed entry engages employees upon arrival.

If diversity is the invitation to the party and inclusion is the invitation to dance, companies hoping to recruit talent must create spaces where everyone feels welcome. Workspaces have great potential for encouraging one-to-one or group connections, whether they’re in quieter spaces for private conversations or in gathering halls for social moments. Individuals who are seen, heard and supported in the workplace will be comfortable and primed for professional growth. They can simply be themselves, as they choose enthusiastically to join the party.