Saturday, 19 May 2018

Workplaces for Everyone

I recently chaired the Workplace Trends (WT) conference in Copenhagen - after 15 years of running WT, it was the first outside of the UK, so quite a milestone. One of the recurring themes was around designing for individuals, or specific groups or types of individuals. The speakers referred to personal factors such as age, personality and parental status. There was some discussion around whether we should design for the individual or the organisation. The general consensus appeared to be that we should design for a majority (perhaps the average ± 1sd) as we can’t design for everyone. But to achieve this we must offer choice, of a range of spatial and environmental settings, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution based on the assumed (or sometimes dictated) average.

An environment specifically tailored to each individual is impractical (and probably unusable by new or replacement staff) but we can design for a number of groups or typologies of people. We also need to consider the full range of types, and also check to see whether the population of occupants is skewed towards one end of that range. This skewness is often considered in specification standards for specialist environments, such that the design is based on the relevant anthropometric data for the target occupant e.g. children in schools, but this is not the case in standard offices. Some individual factors to be aware of are noted below.

Personality – I have been campaigning for workplaces that cater for individual differences for some time, in particular variations in personality types. This was the main theme of my recent TEDxTalk. Historic research, along with my own research conducted on behalf of Herman Miller and Ecophon, shows differences in preferred meeting space and acceptable sound levels for different personality profiles. For example, the more introverted and more neurotic personality types cope less well with noisy, buzzy, busy stimulating environments than their counterparts. This can lead to stress, absenteeism and reduced performance.

Age – In my survey research on noise in offices conducted on behalf of Ecophon, I unexpectedly found that the older occupants had less of a problem with noise than their younger colleagues. I expected younger people (millennials etc) to be more able to adapt to noise, but that was not the case. The cynics might say that noise is not a problem for more mature occupants as they can’t hear it – but that is not how the ear works and the older we are the more difficult it is to hear the speech frequencies above other sounds. The likely answer is that our older respondents had more control over when and where they worked – so more able to choose the environment that suited the task in hand. Jeremy Myerson pointed out a few years ago that we need to design for all three generations in the workplace, and not just focus on millennials. Different age groups may have different preferences for sound, lighting, layout, furniture, technology and communication media.

Life stage – Probably more important than designing for age per se. Life stage refers to status in terms of younger single, new couple, married couple, couple with dependents, couple without dependents, older single. Creating working environments for those with dependents will help retain experienced, trained and talented employees. In particular, introducing flexible working hours and remote working (including home-working will, for example, support parents. The Ten2Two agency specialises in finding part-time work for mums, who previously held senior positions but now can’t commit to the 9 til 5 work hours. I once worked with a business offered very flexible hours to their employees past retirement age as they wanted to retain them as mentors for their junior staff. Singles and couples without dependents are more likely to want a more social workplace than those with dependents. Places for interaction, cafes, bar, gyms and recreational facilities for appeal to this group.

Disabilities – We are all familiar with the term “DDA compliance”, but this is a hangover from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was superseded by the broader Equalities Act 2010. Design requirements, in particular, access to buildings, for the mobility, visually and hearing impaired are covered in Part M of the Building Regulations 2010. However, there has been a gradual move towards universal design, introduced in the 1960s, nowadays referred to as inclusive design. Universal design is the broader concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life. It is indented as the default position, integral and fundamental to building design, rather than viewed as bolt-on solutions required to convert designs to ones suitable for minority groups of people. The seven key principles of universal design, developed by Ronald Mace, are impressive aspirational and laudable design guidelines. For example, provide the same means of use for all users, avoid segregating or stigmatising any users, and make the design appealing to all users.

Neurodiversity – Steve Maslin is an evangelist for inclusive design. However, Steve focusses on designing for those with learning, processing or communicating differences - collectively termed neurodiversity by the British Psychological Society. This includes, those with congenital conditions such as Asperger’s, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and cerebral palsy etc. It also includes those with acquired conditions such a mental health issues, dementia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke etc. Those with these conditions can find certain designs over-stimulating, confusing and stressful. Lighting, signage, glass, colour and art etc require additional consideration for this group of people. I recently heard about a couple of companies that hire young people on the autism spectrum, as many have high-order numeracy skills; the companies provided buddies and safe (quiet) areas for such staff.

As Neil Usher says in his book The Elemental Workplace: "A fantastic workplace should be fantastic for everyone" and his 10th element is "Inclusion". However, we are a long way off a truly inclusive society with universal design. Nevertheless, do consider the design of your offices if you wish to attract the full spectrum, and corresponding wider expertise and skill set, of all types of people. We often see corporate businesses criticised for having an executive board of middle aged white men, but I wonder if we are unconsciously only designing for this group of end-users. Let’s embrace our differences, starting by recognising them and designing our workplaces to accommodate them.


  1. Nigel: Congratulations on expanding the reach of Workplace Trends. Good content in this post, thank you. I am particularly happy to see the concept of universal / inclusive design addressed. In fact, using the principles of universal design frequently generate design which is better for everyone, not just one specific group. Too many designers address this issue by making their designs 'wheelchair' compliant without considering the multiple spectrum of abilities across all people.

  2. I suggest a practical way forward would be:

    1. Offer people a variety of places to work, and let them freely choose what works for them
    2. Offer a variety of types of workplace, each optimized for a different type of knowledge work. Give people the confidence to choose the workplace to suit their task of the moment.
    3. Monitor what gets used. Remove settings with low usage, add setting whenever there is a danger of people not being able to get what they want/need.

    My experience is that this model levels out at about 100SQFT NUA per person, which is not crazy expensive.

    1. Good points and strategy Roland. We definitely need choice, but we need to think beyond the “norm” to be truly inclusive.

  3. Thanks Brian. I agree it needs to be integral at the start of the design process, not a bolt on after-thought.