What do we mean by inclusivity within the workplace?

Published: March 4, 2024

Credit: Workplace Insight and IN Magazine.


Scanning through LinkedIn or reading workplace publications, it’s hard not to encounter a mention of ‘diversity and inclusion’. Frequently quoted in succession yet they are two separate, albeit, interconnected concepts and are not the same. ‘Diversity’ focuses on representation within an organisation considering different genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and identities. ‘Inclusion’ is, however, concerned about how the contributions, presence, and perspectives of everyone are understood and integrated into an environment. 

The ambition is equity for all. This can only be achieved by recognising that people have different circumstances and that not everyone wants, or needs, the same thing.  Workplace design should make everyone feel welcome, valued, and able to perform within all areas of the office environment. Possibly a big ‘ask’?

When a task is immense, there is a tendency to make ‘token gestures’ believing that it’s ‘job done’ without really understanding the issues or implications. Similarly, many decisions are based on ‘averages’ – designing for the average employee. The outcome is usually a ‘one size misfits all’ solution!

I recently spent some time with Kay Sargent, Global Director of WorkPlace at international architectural and design practice, HOK. Whilst based in Washington DC, Kay travels the world to educate and inform clients and colleagues about evolving developments within workplace design, with a particular focus on workplace, well-being and neuro-inclusion. Her powerful presentation skills and immense knowledge really piqued my interest. I started with the questions: “are we talking about a minority? why does it matter?”

“The spectrum of human brain functioning and behaviour forms a wide continuum, with each of us occupying a unique point,” explains Kay. “Everyone’s brain functions differently, hence we are all neurodiverse.  While most people operate within a range considered neurotypical, a significant percentage extend into ranges considered neurodivergent. We are now living in a time of increased diagnosis and awareness of neurodivergent conditions including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Tourettes, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Asperger’s, and Parkinson’s.” 

“One in five people are considered neurodivergent – but fewer than 50% even know it. Equally, new research is indicating that this figure is considerably underestimated,” continues Kay. 

“Neurominorities have neurocognitive functioning that diverges from dominant societal norms.  They are wired differently and often their differences can be an extraordinary strength in the workplace. Dyslexics, for example, tend to be natural problem-solvers, finding solutions where no one else can see them. And those with ADHD often come up with myriad ideas before everyone else has even finished their first cup of coffee. They are creative. They’re insightful. And they’re really good at spotting opportunities.”

It seems extraordinary, therefore, that organisations compete to attract the best talent, yet specific needs and requirements are all too often overlooked. Kay highlighted the business case: “People are the chief currency and greatest asset of any business. With up to 80% of a company’s expenses being attributable to staff costs, it’s vital that spaces are inclusive and welcoming to all.”

The added reward is that interventions designed to embrace neurodiversity will accrue benefits for all. Everyone is impacted by sensory stimulation in the built environment so will have individual preferences. The most effective way to design for diversity is to provide options, choice, and some degree of control.

“When you design for the extreme, you benefit the mean,” says Kay. “Choice enables people – neurodivergent and neurotypical alike – to manage their own needs more effectively with dignity and autonomy. Versatile environments can provide for a range of preferences and make differences less apparent, fostering equity and integration. Successful environments also allow for individual and operational changes, helping to make an organisation more adaptable.”

HOK has produced a range of materials offering practical insight. Their research includes addressing the modalities of work, hyper and hypo sensitivities, and guidance related to spatial sequencing and clarity to create legible order. 

Acoustic quality, thermal comfort, lighting, and the degree of stimulation are also important considerations. Visual, auditory, or scent-based sensory cues, for example, can be overwhelming. For others, a lack of stimulation can result in an inability to focus. 

“Workplaces that offer a variety of settings enable workers to choose the most appropriate environment based on their choice of sensory stimulation, level of social exposure and interaction,” continues Kay. “All aspects of the space – colour, lighting, materiality, elements in the field of view and sensory stimuli – need to be designed with purpose and intent.”

“Colour has a significant effect. It can influence mood and performance as well as having a physical impact – on everyone. Jarring or clashing colours, that neurotypical people may overlook, can deeply disturb others with heightened sensitivity.”

Spaces should be memorable and use a rhythm of common elements to generate a reassuring sense of order whilst avoiding confusing repetition of identical spaces.  Landmarks and focal points (staircases or artwork); viewpoints (such as a mezzanine overlook); and clear lines of sight (including views to the outdoors) can help occupants orient themselves. 

The use of strong graphics, with a common theme but varied colours, is a pragmatic and effective technique for wayfinding. 

Spatial character should focus on distinct areas that offer a variety of settings to enable workers to choose the most appropriate environment for their task – shared spaces; smaller, enclosed places; privacy areas; café and social facilities. Each choice allows people to find a comfortable level of social exposure and interaction. 

As well as expert design interventions, there are many practical, low cost accommodations. They can be as simple as permitting the use of noise cancelling headphones; reducing lighting or screen brightness; providing access to supportive software; and allowing breaks for activity or a change of scene.

As the population ages, so too does the UK’s workforce. For the first time in history, we have five distinct generations in the workplace. As well as age, other differences must be considered including physical abilities and limitations as well as ‘size and build’.

In a recent meeting with Lee Hansford, head of design at furniture provider, Southernsbroadstock, together with a facilities manager from a major corporate, I was told a ‘real life’ story of an incident within a breakout space. The seating included upholstered chairs, and all were the same design. The chair, whilst aesthetically attractive, was a ‘bucket shape’ and did not include arm rests. Without a surface to push against, an employee had difficulty in standing up. They slipped, fell, and banged their head against an occasional table. The discussion continued describing other scenarios…. poseur high bar stools being difficult to ‘climb’ for shorter people, as well as being potentially embarrassing for those wearing skirts; low level reception seating being challenging for those with back conditions; and narrow width chairs being awkwardly unsuitable for those of a ‘larger’ build.

“Choice and variety of furniture is essential,” explains Lee Hansford. “Some buyers may want to achieve consistency and uniformity within the workplace, or simply focus on aesthetic style. This approach does not, however, create an inclusive environment. Design, including furniture selection, must be mindful of different individual’s requirements. It’s too easy to unintentionally segregate people or draw unwanted attention to them. Furniture specification should provide choice allowing people to decide what’s most practical, appropriate, and comfortable.”

“Non-territorial and ‘touch down’ desking spaces are, by definition, intended for many different users. The furniture palette must, therefore, be varied and adaptable to meet both physical and neurodiverse needs. Adjustable height, ‘sit stand’ desking is often specified for ergonomic benefits but there are strong inclusivity reasons, too. When we combine adjustable desking solutions with elements such as user-controlled lighting, and provide different options for levels of enclosure, we begin to build a space that can work for every individual.”

Seating is, by definition, sedentary! Romilly Newbound, HR Manager and Ergonomics Specialist for Back in Action explains that the opportunity for constant movement, even when seated, offers benefits. “Exercise helps the brain with concentration, attention, as well as making us feel good. Whilst many people believe that fidgeting indicates a problem, it could actually be the solution. It helps provide a low level of physiological stimulation that brings our attention and energy to a level that allows our minds to focus better on the task at hand.”

It’s great that we are starting to embrace inclusivity but it’s a sad fact that we still have a way to go. A research project designed to examine disability inclusivity in British workplaces was published in October 2023. It revealed significant discord in disabled people’s access to good work. 

Capturing the experiences of almost 2,000 employers, disabled workers and jobseekers, the survey assessed the opportunities, career equity and culture surrounding disabled people in the workplace. 

The results, released by Ingeus and CoreData, create an index against which chronological changes can be tracked. The inaugural Index score of 54.9 / 100 was most negatively impacted by the lack of opportunity disabled people face in finding suitable work that allows them to live comfortably.

While the lack of appropriate roles dominated disabled people’s experiences, the research also identified a reticence to disclose health details during the recruitment process and a prevalence of temporary, lower-paid positions for employed disabled people. The findings also suggest that it is an inertia, as opposed to unwillingness, from employers to recruit disabled people.

Joshua Wintersgill, founder of ableMove and disability rights campaigner, has highlighted the need for training and awareness to help dispel bias and reduce stigma. Many companies will already have programmes and policies set out to root out bias and address prejudice and discrimination,” he said. “However, the effectiveness of these policies and programmes have come into question from charities and disabled people.” 

“Developing an understanding in the office and fostering a supportive network between employees starts with practical conversations and exercises to challenge perceptions and promote empathy. Further, company leaders must be at the forefront of these changes and not leave it up to disabled employees to educate others. There are lots of different disabilities and policies shouldn’t be generalised if they don’t meet every disabled employee’s needs.”

Joanna Knight has over 30 years in the office furniture sector and is now a consultant focussed on sustainability and Co-Founder of the Sustainable Design Collective.

Originally published in Issue 19 of IN Magazine. https://workplaceinsight.net/in-magazine/