Designing work space for diversity?  Would coworking be a good tool?

The pandemic has been terrible for commercial real estate.  Worse, it looks like there will be a lot less demand for office space as we come out the other side, especially in city centers where the “prime” properties are.

The coming thing seems to be “flexible work” and “hybrid workplaces”, i.e., a lot more workers working remotely most of the time, and in person offices used less, and always in concert with remote work.  (E.g., see Microsoft’s take on things [1].)

On another front, we are wondering if remote working is better or worse for social equity in the workplace. So far, it looks like there are plusses and minuses.

Overall, no one really knows exactly what comes next.

In this uncertain environment, people who design workspaces are trying to figure out what to do next. 

If there will be fewer offices, and we will be using them differently, how should offices be designed?

Along these lines, I was interested to see what design firm Spacestor (“California Cool, London Design”) means by “Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace [2]. 

Inclusion and diversity are not only the flavor of the month for businesses, they reflect the defining political issue of our time.

So what does this mean for workspace design?

First of all, I noticed that their current product is not actually office space, but a phone booth for virtual meetings (“Residence Connect”).  Undeniably useful, I suppose, especially if office workers are going to spend a lot of time zooming with remote colleagues.  And I guess we can take this as sort of a ‘mini-office’.

But, what are the key design innovations for “inclusion”?

And what, in fact does “inclusion” mean in this context?

As it happens, this group is mainly interested in accessibility across a broad range of abilities.

“[T]he design of Residence Connect affords an equitable experience for all users, regardless of their abilities”

(From [2])

Hmm.  This is not as ground breaking as one might imagine.  I mean, the ADA is 40 years old in the US, so all office space is supposed to be accessible.

I don’t want to pick on this company or product too much, but I have to say that most of the “innovations” are standard stuff—lighting, color schemes, door handles.  And they mainly address mobility issues. 

This isn’t even particularly inclusive. People with limited vision gain little from fancy lighting, and people with limited hearing benefit little from fancy acoustics.  And, by the way, video conferencing is more and less unusable by people with various sensory abilities.

And, most of all, many of us were thinking about social diversity and inclusivity as well. 

I have to say that, how ever cool the video booth may be, there isn’t much about a one person office that encourages or fosters any kind of social interaction, let alone racial, gender, or any other equity. 

This fact is clearly acknowledged by Spacestor itself, who remark, “true inclusivity is a matter of effective leadership and the organization has to have a true culture of inclusivity and diversity.”

So, in fact, “designing for inclusivity” has relatively little to do with furniture, and everything to do with leadership and behavior.

It looks like Spacestor’s headline is mainly PR, catching attention by referencing an important issue that their produce isn’t really about.  Sigh.

So, what kinds of things would you do to really design for inclusivity in a “hybrid” working environment with lots of remote and rotating in person workers?

Well, this is one place where the experience of coworking spaces might be really, really relevant.

Because, what you might want to do is create community.  And this does not come from office design (see WeWork), it comes from authentic leadership and interpersonal relations.

Now, coworking isn’t guaranteed to create a perfect working environment, and certainly isn’t immune to the usual office hazards of excess testosterone, buddyism, racial a-holery, and so on.  But the good news is that it should be possible to boot up many small coworking spaces, so workers can vote with their feet, to choose their own poison.

And, by the way, it looks like there will be quite a glut of office space as we come out the other side of the pandemic, so it will be economically possible for a lot of people to make their own small, local, coworking spaces.

So—“hybrid workspaces” == coworking spaces?  Or at least, a coworking space is one good way to implement “flexible” work.

  1. Microsoft, The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?, in Microsoft Worklab, March 22, 2021.
  2. Spacestor, Designing For Inclusivity In The Workplace, in Spacestor, March 5, 2021.