The past year has shone a light on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing both in the office and at home like never before. Colleagues and employers are showing a greater understanding of individuals' different needs in the workplace.

In our latest report - Rethinking the inclusive workplace - we explore where businesses are on the journey to humanising the office and what role design has in driving diversity and inclusivity (D&I). 

Here we draw on a survey of 140 senior stakeholders in large, multinational organisations, covering a broad set of respondents in the United States, Europe, Asia, Middle East and Oceania. The study reveals that the journey to humanising the enterprise is not without a few bumps in the road.

Four commercial design considerations emerge from the report which should be viewed as an interconnected set of thoughts, ideas and observations.

1. Diversity and inclusion: a working definition - Understanding, accepting and valuing differences across race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation and education. 

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Verna Myers, cultural change catalyst, influencer, thought leader, social commentator and author Tweet this

2. The need to widen the design scope
Trying to uncover the reasons for the perceived lack of progress on D&I issues, the study suggests that D&I is not being seen as a workplace strategy nor design issue. The fact that it's so closely linked to human resources seems to be holding organisations back from making a measurable difference in this area beyond a policy statement and recruitment strategy.

Indeed, 81% think that D&I is HR’s domain and only 10% would consciously make a link between strategy and design. Limiting the scope of design means that opportunities are missed which would help translate policy into practical workplace solutions that support physical, mental and emotional health.

Though many recruit for diversity, but few create an environment to nurture that talent within teams. Clearly, there is a need for D&I to infiltrate company culture and directly influence how the workplace looks, feels and functions.

The biggest takeaway? There is too much focus on ‘ticking the box’ rather than wholeheartedly inviting diversity and inclusion in. This, of course, is not unprecedented. The sustainability agenda or movement suffered its own rocky road before emerging as a serious boardroom item.

3. The need for a more creative approach
The research also highlights the need for a less literal interpretation of what diversity and inclusion is - or could be.

Google is one company that points the way forward here, thanks to its own employee study a few years ago. Its conclusion was that employees need ‘psychological safety’ to perform at their best. This is a simple but vastly overlooked concept which implies that employees will thrive when they are constructively challenged, rather than psychologically threatened.

Meanwhile, our research reveals that 31% believe that inclusion will drive more design planning decisions in the future. But this is tempered somewhat by the views of 29% who believe it will make little difference.

Whatever the views of organisations or individuals, it’s clear that without a stronger design influence organisations will think too literally. Inclusion is about designing for people, not particular subsets of people.

4. The need for fluid workplaces
If organisations are thinking too literally about D&I, is there also a danger of designers doing the same? That’s a particularly important question when thinking longer term and allowing for societal and workplace changes to take effect.

Over two thirds of respondents in our survey sample say they expect the workplace to adapt to support different types of employee interactions and that they expect a general shift to more informal, laid-back styles. This, of course, is an expected outcome of a piece of fieldwork that was conducted in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Some may argue that a global pandemic is not the time to discuss workplace diversity and inclusion as an imperative for organisations; that there are more pressing issues facing our world. But I would contend that this moment is precisely the right time to recognise the importance of diversity.”
Laura Liswood, secretary general, Council of Women World Leaders, World Economic Forum Tweet this

Nonetheless, the concept of the ‘fluid workplace’ is one that supports D&I objectives. Such environments enable the office users to determine how their workplace takes shape joining the dots between people, policy and place.

The intent to create safe, comfortable and hackable spaces is a noble cause. The only question for designers is finding repeatable and ingenious ways of adapting seamlessly to meet everyone’s needs.

To learn about the shifting attitudes to diversity and inclusion, across the globe, download our latest report here

Leslie Thompson Director of Workplace Strategy, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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