Designing offices with inclusive design

Imagine showing up for work and being unable to reach your desk. Or comfortably use the bathroom. Or even concentrate, because the environment wasn’t built for you.

Despite US compliance regulations around accessibility, many disabled people face barriers when they work in an office. That’s why tax and advisory firm PwC began working with design experts in 2017 to be more disability inclusive. Since then, the company has started designing all future offices with accessibility for all at the core.

Inclusive design explained. Accommodations for disabled employees are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But some, including Danise Levine, an architect and assistant director at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) at the University of Buffalo, New York, believe simply complying with the ADA doesn’t guarantee an inclusive workplace.

Inclusive design (sometimes referred to as universal design) means that spaces are created for everyone. “You’re not specifically designing for anybody in particular, you’re really designing for everyone in particular. The whole goal is to have it be flexible and accommodate people regardless of their ability or disability,” Levine said.

Frameworks around inclusive design include accommodating people no matter their disability or size, providing information clearly and easily, and incorporating flexible arrangements to tailor the environment to individuals, according to the University of Buffalo.

“Accessibility is required. It basically tells you what you need to do to make a building comply,” she said. “Whereas universal design—it’s not prescriptive. It’s optional. And you can do some really creative things to implement universal design that doesn’t have to cost more.”

Creating new spaces. PwC consulted with the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Design to create a framework for how to build inclusive design to help guide all future office openings. That framework helped leadership based in DC develop its new office space, which opened in 2021.

When HR Brew toured PwC’s DC offices with managing partner Kevin Smithson, it was immediately apparent that accessibility was the framework for the design.

Smithson explained how every detail was designed with inclusivity in mind. “We tried to find soothing, acceptable colors,” like muted greens and blues, he explained. PwC also incorporated dimmable, overhead lighting throughout the offices to accommodate people with sensory sensitivities or who get migraines.

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The height of each table is adjustable to accommodate the height of any employee, whether sitting or standing, and the height of any wheelchair. The hallways are wide, with signs featuring writing in braille indicating where employees should go. The office is large but the layout is intuitive, an accessibility feature, PwC said, for people with cognitive disabilities.

And while it’s mostly an open floor plan—separated into sections named for DC’s different neighborhoods—pink noise and soundproof spaces allow neurodivergent employees a sensory break.

Listening to employees. PwC also regularly consulted employees about its office accessibility, explained Smithson, relying on a staff advisory council and its disability inclusion network ERG.

“We don’t have this perfect,” Smithson said about his learning journey. “But we listen to each other around different ideas, so we solicit feedback both broadly within the firm in the office and then within our inclusion network to gain feedback from them.”

The company has opened two of its planned three floors for the space, and is using employee feedback to drive some components for the final floor. “The number one thing we heard…there weren’t enough closed offices to have quiet conversations,” he explained. “If folks don’t find that, but they have that at home, they’re going to opt to perhaps stay at home.”

Lessons for HR. Smithson explained that PwC, which has more than 270,000 employees globally, connects HR with relationship leaders, including mentors, sponsors, and support staff for employees. “HR has an important seat at the table because they’re the ones that are monitoring and making sure that people aren’t getting lost, and that people’s voices are being heard.”

Levine said that HR leaders should understand inclusive design principles because disabled employees are more likely to stay and thrive in an accessible environment. “The more inclusive it is, the easier it will be for you to find good employees,” she said. “You’re not going to want to work someplace that doesn’t accommodate you.”


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