Inclusive design - RSA

Inclusive design


  • Picture of Sarwat Tasneem FRSA
    Sarwat Tasneem FRSA
  • Design
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Behaviour change

This year has catapulted the discussions of diversity and inclusion at the forefront of business, with global corporates making bold statements and organisations across sectors, including charities, restructuring management to reflect this need. Sarwat Tasneem FRSA explores what this could mean for building design.

My journey in design, innovation and wellbeing began just over 20 years ago as a graduate, fresh out of architecture and design school. Accompanied with the prestigious Young Designer of the Year Finalist title, it cradled my desire to be a changemaker and to be creative within my map and perception of the world.

Fast track to present day and the challenges, the rejection, the accomplishments and the uncomfortable conversations that needed to be had within the built environment industry regarding what it is to be inclusive, are only now being addressed openly.

Is this the realisation of how businesses can support social justice, or is this a learning curve for human resource departments and leaders across industry to revisit the Equality Act of 2010 (UK)? The protected characteristics in this legislation – of race, disability, religion, gender and sexual orientation among others – invite us not only to celebrate diversity but also to see this as a gift in relation to bringing diverse thought and impact. Far too often the stand-alone ‘networks’ within an organisation have been seen as the solution to inclusion; this misses the opportunity for shared dialogue across the business, involving the nuances, common interests and queries of employees who sit outside of these groups.

As a British woman of South Asian heritage and Muslim, when discussing the future of the workplace, I have always advocated for inclusion. Yes, we need to factor in efficiency, productivity, the cost per sqm2, but how about also creating strategies – often at no cost – that understand the very human process of improving productivity for diverse teams, creating environments where everyone feels like they belong. Workplace designers need not fear that this would limit their creative licence. Far from it; the beauty of creating inclusive spaces is the acceptance of challenging the expected narrative and contributing to people’s psychological experience. When differences align, we create clever, innovative human centric environments. 

Are commercial buildings designed for the concept of community? Do we factor in the physical and social experience of the security staff at the entrance of the building or the cleaners who spend hours serving the company they are contracted and assigned to? What about the expectation of employees who work in an industry that promotes a culture of perfectionism? Does inclusive design positively affect wellbeing?

Recently more environmental psychologists have been consulted in the process of creating spaces alongside architects and urban planners, factoring the experiences of sanctuary and vistas, in line with wellbeing and productivity. Enter double height garden atriums, soft pendulum lighting and, as a Harvard study found, seating plans arranged by placing ‘productive’ employees alongside ‘quality’ employees with limited close back-to-back seating, created better concentration and cognitive ability.

With performance being a core component of office design, one cannot ignore motivation. Understanding the traits of different user groups, how individuals prefer to work and different personality types are valuable findings. In the UK, the use of JM Digman’s ffm model – which defines five key factors of personality (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) – and/or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, where potential/performance is deemed greater than wellbeing and belonging, are referred to many times. Understanding variables regarding density, spatial requirements and purpose is key.

When working with our clients, we also factor in the cultural and physical behaviours that benefit the design of an inclusive environment. Design terminology has dictated the usability of space for so long; however, when collecting data on efficiency, the measurements used tend to omit success based on emotional user experience. Inclusive design cannot be labelled such without addressing mental wellbeing, particularly in an era where the evidence from cognitive behavior and neuroscience can so easily form part of the conversation when predicting the needs of the adapting workplace.

The wellbeing of the workforce, and the culture an organisation creates, is influenced by wider social factors: accountability, collective responsibility, equity, education and individual rights. These can be difficult to address or understand as they are not tangible. However, the practice of collaborative work and engagement is the goal for many an organisation and ‘collaborative spaces’ can be a very practical visible bi-product of this. Designers have been successful in creating beautiful and connective workplaces that reflect an organisation's ‘brand’s values’, intended to reflect the company’s identity and culture.

The flexible office is rapidly being adopted faster than before, with increased dependency on AI as the need for efficient practice grows. Can the workplace still present itself as holistic and inclusive as our engagement levels go digital whilst decisions are based on algorithms? One hopes that people will remain the heart of design whilst we simultaneously work towards eradicating the us and them narrative in society. But the location, size and identity of a building do matter. Supply and demand has dictated this. Hubs and districts have anchored companies to reside within the vicinity of competitors. Some would argue that developers have the autonomy in providing mixed-use schemes where place making is its success.  

There are also opportunities for architects to provide social value and expand the sense of community beyond the threshold of a building.  Talking recently about the notion of purpose and place, the urbanist Jonathan Manns FRSA said: "Communities are traditionally defined as a group of people bound together and defined by 'place'. That 'place' is what emerges only through use, once a building has been completed. It suggests that we should be giving at least as much thought to the function, services and experiences within buildings as we do to their form. Community connections through employment, embed organisations and support local growth, by improving quality of life. “

Whilst writing this, I remember my younger self, walking into the polished concrete and resin reception space, with the Barcelona chairs positioned just so, dared to be sat on. Following the receptionist through the generous, minimal high-spec open-plan office, in its grid like configuration punctuated by the occasional high-level hot desk, and the hum of the white noise piercing my ears. Observing the café floating on its silo at mezzanine level surrounded by stools, I had arrived at the train of empty meeting rooms. Inadvertently I had toured the office. In that short time, the voice in my head saying “I can’t see myself here” not realising why.

Creating the familiar in the workplace requires us to look to what it means to be a community, a place that provides motivation to grow and the physical space, which supports the intention. Socio economic and cultural divisions that exist within society and can subliminally affect how we interact at work. The benefits of creating spaces, which recognise the importance of community, and where dialogue is encouraged and difference is celebrated is invaluable to any organisation. Space, belonging and choice make a powerful formula. If organisations are not diverse, how can spaces be designed to be inclusive and human centric?

Sarwat Tasneem is a behavioural change and inclusion expert and the founder of 14-Consulting, a social enterprise supporting organisations in social value, diversity and inclusion through the physical and psychological. She has advised government in social cohesion, conflict and human resource policy, and sits on the Archbishop of Canterbury's Interfaith Advisory Board.


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