- Each shared office space will need to accommodate a larger, more diverse, less predictable set of users with less advance notice, especially in offices with a hybrid workforce. Accessibility must therefore become a proactive consideration.
- Organizations that differentiate themselves by providing inclusive environments will enjoy benefits across recruitment, retention, performance, and other dimensions.
- The importance of predictability for users is one of the many reasons that evolving workplaces need to apply strong rules for good communication. Room features that increase or hinder accessibility should be made clear, preferably well ahead of time.
Office sizes, layouts and entrances are changing as organizations solidify their commitment to hybrid work. As these shifts start, many office managers are looking to space-sharing practices to enable trimmed and reconfigured physical footprints.
Space sharing is not new to the workplace, but it will soon reach a scale and complexity that has observers feeling wobbly. One domain where the stakes are high for this new era in space sharing is workplace accessibility.
Maintaining an accessible workplace in a shared space office design is a complex, technical endeavor. Many organizations are ill-equipped to handle this.
As with other aspects of managing shared space, one place for employers to look as they try to up their game is the higher education sector.
For me, serving as an administrator and consultant to large universities with sprawling, varied space footprints has been baptism by fire — but I’ve fumbled my way to some insights, thanks in no small part to skilled colleagues.
The coming accessibility mobilization
When there is a 1:1 relationship between people and space, it is relatively straightforward to modify a space or assign users with different accessibility needs to a good existing location. If an issue is reported, the organization gets clarity and a chance to respond.
This luxury disappears with the kind of space sharing that is coming to characterize many workplaces.
Shared space, along with changes in the activities in which employees engage when they convene, means individuals may use a different space or spaces each time they visit the workplace.
To think about it from a hybrid workplace perspective — each shared space will need to accommodate a larger, more diverse, less predictable set of users with less advance notice. Accessibility must therefore become a proactive consideration.
This is not only the right thing to do, but it offers a return on investment that will increase as accessibility issues become more common.
Organizations that differentiate themselves by providing inclusive environments will enjoy benefits across recruitment, retention, performance, and other dimensions.
The scope and complexity of needs
One lesson worth emphasizing is that individual needs are often invisible, subtle, or not immediately visible. Society has made strides in being aware of this, but it’s easy to backslide.
The biggest complexity of designing an office to be inclusive is that accessibility is extremely situational. One of many, many examples is that the best room for someone might depend on how they travel to a building and which door they enter. Another example is a room that might be adequate if there is no visual presentation but a disaster if someone wants to project a slide show. Digital accessibility is similarly multifaceted.
Think outside the room
Journeying to the space is an important aspect of accessibility. That’s why you hear about power-assist door openers, curb cutouts, and other common barriers and solutions. The space isn’t accessible if folks can’t get to the building or enter it to begin with.
While accessibility is complex and situational, one of the few generalizations my accessibility colleagues make has to do with proximity of restrooms: They should be reachable quickly by everyone.
Predictability and communication matter
The importance of predictability for users is one of the many reasons that evolving workplaces need to apply strong rules for good communication. Room features that increase or hinder accessibility should be made clear, preferably well ahead of time.
Online and mobile-friendly information is important, in addition to physical signage in and near spaces. Signage that indicates which route to a room or building does not require stairs is very helpful.
Event planning should also follow procedures to achieve predictability for end users, including in program advertisements and the registration process.
The information should also be comprehensive. Merely advertising that a room is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) leaves questions unanswered. As transformational as this legislation was, it’s a beginning rather than an end. When designing an office and providing clear information, don’t simply settle for compliance with the ADA.
Bridge the inevitable gap with processes and people
However genuine an organization’s effort, its facility design and utilization won’t accommodate all potential stakeholders. There’s too much variability. It is imperative that individuals are able to convey their accessibility needs, and that there is some mechanism for receiving and responding to that information.
Universities have dedicated Offices of Disability Services whose functions include working with individuals to ensure their classrooms and other physical and digital destinations are accessible. Front-line problem solvers who have clout across the organization are essential to the success of creating an accessible office space.
Unfortunately, it is not a thing of the past that individuals may feel stigma, or that they are causing an inconvenience by asking for their rightful inclusion. Dedicate your organization to creating a welcoming culture, where individuals aren’t reticent to provide information about their needs.
At the same time as you establish the right culture, remember that discretion is important, not just in fielding requests but in making the accommodation. This requires a continual communication and training effort that permeates the organization. Clarity and accountability around necessary practices are essential.
These are not all of the key issues or nuances regarding accessibility that offices are facing in the future of work. But, identifying needs, communicating well and continually evaluating spaces should help organizations begin to identify challenges and opportunities, and give themselves a fighting shot to continue learning and improve.