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Building an inclusive workspace

Building an inclusive workspace

Inclusion is a hot topic and the advantages of building diverse teams has been well documented. Being truly inclusive requires much more than simply hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Organizations need to think differently about how they approach diversity and inclusion to create safe, thoughtful and accommodating spaces that reflect their culture and values and allow people to be their best at work.

At Thoughtworks, we’re committed to ensuring we're reflective of the communities we serve and have been focused on diversity for a long time. Although we have made good progress, there is still much to do. As our organization continues to grow, we remain focused on supporting our people and ensuring they can come to work as themselves. When we recently outgrew our Manchester office and were presented with an opportunity to create a new working space, we wanted to try something new by putting inclusion right at the heart of our office design. Here’s what we learnt.

Create a sense of belonging for all

As an organization, we value collaboration, trust, open communication and empowerment. Our culture is strong and our values are embedded into everything we do. Because our space is used by clients, communities and colleagues from all over the world, we wanted to create a shared sense of belonging for all.

It was important that our values and culture were clear and consistent throughout and we wanted to design a space that provided for everyone’s needs. Gender neutral toilets, an induction loop for hearing-impaired users and flexible furniture solutions are a few additions that have helped us to remove barriers.

So, whether we are using the space to co-deliver projects with our clients, hosting events to tackle inequality in tech or building virtual reality games for fun, the space we work in is an important factor in keeping us true to who we are and aligning all that use it with the values we share.

Building an inclusive workspace

It’s good to talk

We know that the people who understand and can best represent the different needs and experiences of others, are those people themselves. So we talked to them! And understood their experiences and needs. Our internal diversity network is hugely valuable in representing a number of diverse people and groups. In designing our new office space in Manchester we gathered input from that network and learned a lot.

It was through these conversations that we explored a variety of lighting and sound levels across the office to provide different people with different ways to clear their mind. Our floor plans used wheelchairs, not people walking on two feet, so we were confident that two people in chairs could pass through the office at the same time and continue their conversations. And we continue to seek feedback from those using the space to ensure we’re best serving the needs of our people.

Keep it flexible

Creating an inclusive workspace requires a certain mindset; an awareness and openness to considering the needs of different people. Flexibility of the space was key and will allow us to change and adapt as we evolve. We created a variety of different spaces - quiet rooms, collaborative areas, community and event spaces and the potential to create secure client and project working areas. We incorporated mixed height surfaces, desks with centered legs to make access easier, and ensured the kitchen and social spaces were accessible and usable by all. We believe we have developed a strong foundation that pushes the inclusivity of our space to a level we hadn’t seen before.

Building an inclusive workspace

It’s not just about physical access

Whilst we know it’s possible to create a space that is physically accessible, do we ever really consider how inclusive or collaborative it is? For example, someone in a wheelchair may be able to access their desk but can they use the AV equipment in the meeting room or the sink in the kitchen? Can they use the space in the same way as a more mobile person? An open plan office may be great for creating collaborative areas but how does someone with a hearing impairment collaborate effectively in that environment?

We are all unique and so are our needs, styles and preferences. How does a workspace support that? We explored how the space provides for people with different religious beliefs, mental and physical health needs, for new parents, introverts as well as extroverts and a variety of learning and thinking styles. We considered a number of these questions in planning our design. Of course we were also aware that we wouldn’t be able to account for every single individual style, need or request that will come our way but we hope that we created sufficient flexibility in the design for the future.

Building an inclusive workspace

Potential pitfalls

It was important to look out for subtle barriers in the design, labeling or use of the space - is it a ‘mothers and babies’ room or one for ‘parents and babies’? Does it even need a label? Are transgender people forced to use the disabled toilet as the others are gender specific? Have we let a cool gimmick compromise accessibility or inclusivity? For example, we carefully considered our design features to ensure there was nothing too masculine - pool tables, bar areas or overly dark décor.

We’re now in our new space and are proud of what we have created. It will of course evolve over time as we use the space in different ways and as our communities change. We will continue to learn, reflect and re-purpose.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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