Blurred figures crossing an office walkway.

The Universal Office

Does your office environment work for everyone?

A straightforward question, but there are certainly no straightforward answers. No two people are the same and as such, working towards a productive space with everyone in mind is as thought-provoking as it is important. In the past, the focus was solely on access: the ability to enter, exit and safely navigate around a building, whatever your level of physical ability, but this is simply not enough. Today successful organisations understand a need for considerate and inclusive workplace design that is positive for all – acknowledging difference and a need for equity.

For example, it’s now quite normal for people to work beyond traditional retirement age, but this may require some adaptations around mobility, hearing or vision limitations. Accommodations for neurodiversity and mental well-being are finally becoming more commonplace, with lighting styles, noise and even smells being taken into consideration when spaces are planned and designed.

Where do we begin?

In 1997, American Architect and pioneer for accessibility in building design Ronald Mace founded the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, inspiring a global movement towards ‘environments and products for all people’. At the heart of this approach are seven principles, created by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, which can be applied to all products and environments:

  • Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.

  • Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  • Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  • Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • Size and space for approach and use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.

The display panel on a Canon imageRUNNER Advance C5550i
Canon embraces the principles of Universal Design in all its business machines, incorporating flexibility, simplicity and clarity of use for all.

They may at first appear complex and difficult to fully implement but consider for a moment how they translate to adaptations we are all familiar with, such as wide doorways, lifts, ramps and u-shaped handles. Further to these, there are plenty of lesser known adjustments that can make an enormous difference to workplace comfort.

  • Installing business machines that are universally designed with a multitude of users in mind.
  • Switching to non-flickering LED lighting, which can make a world of difference to those with sensory processing issues (often associated with ADHD and autism).
  • Textures and colours can be used on walls and floors to mark changes in spaces and elevations for those who are visually impaired.
  • Using accessible door handles, light switches, elevator controls and even taps which minimise grasping force.
  • Making sure that alarms and signage are multi-sensory.
  • Comfortable designated quiet spaces can be a necessary retreat and recharge area for all.

Further great resources and ideas can be found at The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.

Create a culture

Of course, there are other less physically tangible, but critically important approaches in bringing inclusivity to your workplace. Communication is the number one way to create an environment where inclusion is second nature, needs are met with dignity and the conversation is never off the table. Organisations such as the BBC are setting the gold standard in this area with Project CAPE (Creating A Positive Environment) taking a design-led approach to creating accessible experiences for neurodiversity, which begin in recruitment, hiring and onboarding, right through to working environment and personal development. Ultimately, it is about celebrating difference and striving at every level to create a workplace where people feel valued and comfortable in bringing their ‘full selves’ to work every day.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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