By David O’Coimin, founder, Nookpod
The latest evidence suggests that, slowly but surely, workers are heading back to the office – at least for a part of the working week. With the office continuing to play a central role in today’s ‘hybrid working’ business life, businesses of every size are re-assessing office space, determined to emerge from the challenge of Covid as smarter corporate citizens and with a greater focus on people and productivity.
Today, decision-makers are alert to the benefits of making the working environment more inclusive – creating a more welcoming space for every colleague. Few businesses can afford an expensive total refit, particularly smaller firms. So the challenge is to work with the space available and minimise cost.
A key aspect of inclusive design is to avoid segregating or stigmatising individuals, enabling everyone to give their best without them having to make specific requests or draw attention to themselves. There are some particular areas to focus on.
Colour choices can have a powerful effect on mood and performance and can affect hypersensitive (preference for pastels) and hyposensitive (bright and bold, please) people differently. What suits one individual might be challenging for another.
A good way to overcome this is to keep the base pallet pastel and calming and to use splashes of accent colour in limited areas where they can be useful as landmarks to make a space easier to navigate. Zonal lighting can also ‘paint’ colour on to a space to momentarily personalise it and imbue the zone with a different power.
In fact, intelligent use of light can play a huge wellbeing role, reducing eyestrain and headaches and boosting productivity. Natural light from windows or skylights can be very beneficial, so ensure window space is clear, clean and available. Enable natural light levels to be controlled throughout the day with functioning blinds. For offices lacking natural light, look at ceiling light panels which mimic skylights and consider the use of personal lamps such as those for Seasonal Affected Disorder.
When it comes to physical space, get flexible. Having the option to move furniture around easily to create different zones of activity means that the office works around people rather than employees having to shoehorn into fixed work-zones which may be entirely unsuitable. And make it clear that change and adaptation is encouraged. Decide yourself how best to implement that.
A mix of flexible seating options is key, from sit-stand desks to quiet pods and chairs which rock or vibrate – all allow the kind of choices which enhance inclusivity. Make sure there are options where people can work with their backs to a wall or are enclosed on five sides. These promote a feeling of safety and make open workspace feel smaller and more intimate.
Think also about noise. Indeed, noise is recognised as the number one disturbance factor – particularly for neurodivergent individuals. The acoustics of an office play a key role in staff wellbeing and productivity.
Acoustic panelling used on walls and ceilings can help to absorb sound and reduce distraction. Curtains – acoustic or otherwise – are another simple tool for dividing noisy and quiet areas. On the flipside, some spaces can be too silent for occupants, making them overly aware of every action and less willing to make phone calls or vocalise ideas. In this instance, sound generation using directional speakers can help to make colleagues more relaxed.
The quiet and calm of acoustic pods can be a boost to productivity or an opportunity to simply unwind and settle the brain. Certainly, the increasing use of video conferencing will require such spaces – enabling employees to participate freely and openly in semi-private without disrupting colleagues or feeling self-conscious.
Making a space more inclusive is not a once and done exercise. Employees should be encouraged to contribute ideas and opinions. Time and effort should be taken to regularly review changes and gather feedback.
Ultimately, inclusivity does not necessitate sweeping change and expensive redesign. Relatively quick and simple adaptations can be made, over a period of time, that make the working environment work better for everybody.