Meeting the needs of a diverse workforce - does one size fit all?

The global workforce is more diverse than ever before. Whether you consider different generations, nationalities or professional backgrounds; in order to optimise the workplace for all, employers must understand how design plays a key role in creating and fostering wellbeing and productivity.

COVID-19 has given us a chance to do things differently and rethink what’s needed in the workplace of the future. Indeed, a decade’s worth of change has happened in the last six months. Our workplaces will never be the same again and, as a result, developers and operators are now presented with an opportunity to do something different.

On the face of it, the concept of having to create a workplace that meets the needs of every individual in a workforce is a daunting one, especially when you consider that the global labour force consists of nearly 3.5 billion people. But when you look beyond all the wonderful things that make people different, creating an environment that supports thriving teams and high productivity can be achieved by tackling just a handful of core themes.  

So, does one size fit all?

Arguably, in many ways, yes. Providing choice and flexibility in the work environment ultimately lays the foundations for a workplace strategy that can suit all.

If the outcome employers are seeking is to create a productive and successful workplace for all, then focusing on the broad tasks and behaviours that transcend the entire workforce may be more insightful than, for example, delving into the different views of the four generations that now make up the workforce.

Flexibility and choice moulded around the tasks that need to be done and how people like to do them – perhaps best summarised as organisational culture – will, of course, influence the design of a workplace and how it is used. If the work requires collaboration, spaces that facilitate this, particularly in the context of social distancing, need to be given careful consideration.

If independent working is more condusive to high output, the space needs to be thought about in a very different way. Clearly, the situation isn’t black and white but, in simple terms, the approach is to understand how the workforce as a whole best delivers the work needed, design the workplace to suit the preferences, and then facilitate an increase in productivity, along with associated boosts to morale and wellbeing.  

Flexibility and choice are broad concepts and need to be accompanied by some more specific considerations. If we continue with the theme of the four different generations, the data tells us that wellbeing and comfort in the workplace rank highly across all of them.

Meanwhile, access to natural light and good quality air can reduce absenteeism by 15% and increase productivity by between 3% and 20%. These elements are far more important to employees than features like on-site gym facilities, and rate highly as important drivers of performance, happiness and wellbeing across all generations.

Taking a holistic approach, which tailors spaces to the culture of an organisation, instead of designing to meet the perceived preferences of individual cohorts, offers options for all types of roles and work patterns which will support productivity and encourage positive behaviours.

Engaging through design

With advances in digital technology and mobile communications the need to be in the office to complete tasks is reduced. This has been exacerbated in recent months – but we will one day return and positioning the workplace as a destination for connecting people rather than as a function offers many benefits.

Providing an experience that cannot be matched virtually gives a more compelling reason for people to come into the office. Some people may come to the office to escape noise and distractions at home, while others may come to escape isolation and benefit from the social aspects. Creating an environment that supports both of these preferences in harmony is key.

As designers, operators and developers, we must be able to see the workplace through the eyes of the people who work in our offices and understand what’s most important to them. Involving the workforce in decisions about their workplace helps to build an inclusive culture, while also ensuring  that workplace design supports the behaviours that will lead to increased wellbeing and productivity.

Informal and formal communications both play a role in capturing this information. Regular pulse surveys to stay on top of shifting trends and preferences will help, while management discussions around wellbeing can also draw out useful information in a more informal way. The important thing is to respond to needs and maintain flexibility.    

Employees are far more productive when they are engaged and are given choices, not least the choice of space or even the choice to attend the office. In responding, employers don’t necessarily have to initiate a wholesale redesign of the office, but rather they need to check in with employees to learn how they perform their tasks and understand what they want from their workplace experience.

Now is the time to act. Never has the lens been so focused on the workplace and what it means to the people that use it. And never has the concept of change been so unanimously supported. Organisations must take this opportunity to engage their people, learn from them and adapt to shifting trends; the future of the workplace is flexible.