There’s no doubt that 2020 was the most impactful year in recent collective memory. Two momentous historical events—the global pandemic, and a sweeping grassroots social justice movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd by police—have laid bare the deep cultural, political, and economic rifts that permeate our society. As we come to terms with the systemic biases that have bred such inequalities, it is crucial, as designers, to acknowledge our implicit role in upholding these divisions—and our responsibility to address and amend them as best we can.
While it’s hard to imagine the day when social distancing will no longer keep us from occupying the spaces that were once integral to our lives, when it does come, we will have renewed perspective on what fair and equitable environments ought to provide. In the meantime, it is important that designers imagine what those places will look like in the future. How will we set the stage for the radically inclusive society we aspire to become?
Given the centrality of work to so many of our lives, good office design is an influential agent in perpetuating values of diversity and inclusion. The typical professional setting gives a multitude of insight into the prevailing cultural and social norms and practices. During the 1960s, for instance, the rational aesthetic of the International Style—where interior elements adhered to rigid planning modules, indicating status and rank by the size and location of one’s office—embodied utility and modernity, but also subordination, especially for those not white, male, or able-bodied. Today, open office plans, game rooms, yoga studios, and “break-out” spaces for collaboration are de rigueur for tech companies and start-ups. But, even though contemporary workplaces are more sensitive to employee well-being than those of the past, prejudices persist.
How can we create a more equitable workplace?
Racial and gender disparities are still widespread among some of the largest and most powerful companies, especially at the executive level. As organizations reckon with their lack of diversity, designers have an opportunity to work with them to empower all employees, improve the quality of lives, and reflect basic humanity and decency.
To create truly egalitarian work environments, we must recognize those whom the disciplines of architecture and interior design have historically overlooked—individuals of varying age, race, gender, and ability, who fall outside the cultural mainstream. How can we create opportunities to unify as many differently identified and bodied people as possible? How can we make sure that the workplace supports and encourages everyone’s prosperity?
We have found that employees feel most comfortable being themselves when occupying spaces that are aspirational, and that break down barriers. In an equitable workplace, each person has the ability to control their environment, a gradient of areas to work and have exchanges with their colleagues, such as “cafes,” “grottos,” and “gardens.” Weaving in spaces such as gender-neutral restrooms, parent rooms, places for prayer and privacy is also important in making sure each person’s individuality is respected. In addition, providing visual access and circulation paths that encourage people to move across the office are all important strategies when planning for a workplace that celebrates diversity.
In order for individuality and innovation to thrive, we must also consider the psychological dimension of design by incorporating features proven to elevate well-being, such as daylight, curved elements, plant life, and warm tones and textures. Giving chances for employees to spontaneously connect with each other also enhances social comfort, promotes community, and facilitates cross-pollination. As opposed to the inflexible organizational grid that defined twentieth-century work environments—immortalized in the cubicles and modular furniture systems that linger still today—what if we thought about the office as a meandering landscape?
Workplace as a Woven Landscape