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Diversity meets architecture

Verena Bauer • 15/03/2022
A group of diverse colleagues including a man in a wheel chair in the conference room A group of diverse colleagues including a man in a wheel chair in the conference room

Why companies can only truly live and maintain a diverse work culture if their property is also structurally designed for diversity.

"Discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual identity shall be prevented or eliminated." (§1 AGG law)

What sounds almost yawningly mundane in legal terms, the working world has summed up in a “sexy-trendy” buzzword that crosses borders and unites everyone: Diversity. 

At least since Benetton launched its worldwide and visually effective "The face of the city" campaign a few years ago with the most diverse faces from all around the world, the topic of diversity has become an integral part of public discourse and the orientation of most companies. A good, creative, equal and powerful mix of CVs, educational backgrounds, nationalities, ages and genders - this is now high up on the HR strategy agenda. Many companies even have their own diversity officers or diversity managers. And this is not just because they want to conform to the legal guidelines. But because there is no other way. Companies with a high level of diversity are 36 percent more likely to be profitable than organisations that pay less attention to it. And ultimately, it is simply a question of treating each other humanely. An alternative to diversity? There definitely can't be one, especially for this reason. 

But what has not been discussed much or at all in all this - even in the public discourse on the topic - is the view of the office building itself. And that is actually fatal. Because in the final analysis, real diversity can only be ensured together with the space, the area, the design and the installed technology. With a view to the integration and equal rights of people with disabilities as well as to different origins, genders or minds.

How do you implement diversity in construction? What should be integrated into development project planning from the very beginning? Is it possibly already being considered or is it still being completely disregarded? What do the workplaces of a thoroughly diverse workforce look like? And how can existing spaces become more cosmopolitan? Is that even possible retrospectively?

Inclusion is more than ramps and wide corridors 

"Diversity and inclusion in office buildings is fundamentally about enabling every single individual, with all their strengths and handicaps, to fully participate in the company's everyday working life," says Lutz Schilbach, Team Lead Design + Build. "And that doesn't work without accessibility, for which there are already recommendations in the form of DIN standards - especially for the public sector. But with a view to the office, i.e. the place where a fresh, motivated spirit, creativity and cooperation between many very different individuals are important, it is once again about much more than ramps, certain distances, door and corridor widths and lifts. It's about the sum of many details, ranging from the building structure to interior design."

"Ultimately, for every single area, you have to think about how it will be used and can be used by every single person in the company and design it from the beginning to fit everyone," adds Britta Reusch, Workplace Strategy Consultant. "This already starts at reception, which should also be easy to reach for wheelchair users and not hide the receptionist behind a counter that is too high. Light switches, whiteboards, handles and bells should also be lower - just as the coffee machine must be able to reliably spit out the morning latte from a lower position. Electrically height-adjustable desks including swivelling monitors go without saying and are already standard in many offices. But even in informal seating areas or canteen and dining areas, there should be a choice of different table and seat heights, preferably individually adjustable - people with physical challenges certainly include particularly tall people. It is at least as important to think about the wayfinding systems, signage or lighting control of rooms or media technology. For example, tactile and alternating floor coverings also offer better orientation."

An office with green plants An office with green plants
Braille on elevator buttons in barrier-free elevator Braille on elevator buttons in barrier-free elevator

Office spaces must become multi-sensory

The way forward for future diversity-friendly office buildings is therefore clear: away from (interior) architecture that is primarily visual and towards architecture that appeals to all the senses. Or one that enables orientation via at least two of them - hearing, seeing or feeling. Melisa PinarSenior Project Manager Design + Build: "A well-thought-out Design + Build concept and Interior Design can also provide excellent support here. Deliberately created contrasts, flexible walls and furniture and accessories make it easier to find one's way around and create atmospheres that promote exchange of views and openness. Colour concepts can also have a great effect. Everyone prefers different colours and environments to do their best work. This must be reflected in the design and translated into different spaces with different moods. After all, it's not just about including people with disabilities, but creating and establishing a new inspiring standard in interior design per se." 

"Right," says Britta Reusch, "diversity is much more than accessibility. It encompasses all employees and their needs and provides what they require. This then goes beyond creativity-stimulating work environments and extends to services for employees from nap rooms to parents’ rooms, or childcare by the employer, to mediation and prayer rooms and a variety of services such as dry-cleaning or an in-house hair salon. All of this needs to be factored into the initial space planning. And it must be as flexible as possible to accommodate team moves within the space, staff growth or even the integration of colleagues from other locations at short notice. Different types of space for different needs must be accommodated and distributed as evenly as possible. Meeting or project rooms, phone boxes and workstations should not be explicitly tailored to one team, so that everyone can easily move within the space, grow, shrink and integrate new colleagues with new requirements. What makes sense where and for whom is always individual and depends on the respective goals and cultural conditions. Good workplace strategy consulting is therefore extremely important in advance - this way you not only tailor space and rooms to all employees, but also optimise the technologies used and communication and work processes." 

Can existing building stock also be made diversity-ready?

"Planning the work environment ahead also means avoiding constant costly reconfiguration of the space. This reduces costs, ensures a better employee experience and also a better carbon footprint," says Reusch. And by the way, this also applies to the building itself. It is therefore also good - in this sense as well as in the diversity sense - that building law explicitly requires barrier-free design of new office buildings. In development projects, ramps with a maximum gradient of six per cent, handrails, wheelchair-friendly lifts and doors with a minimum width of 90 centimetres are already included. “But older buildings can also be converted and extended to be 'inclusive'. Of course, it is important to first take stock of the situation and analyse the options that are available in view of the local conditions. Measures such as the installation of Braille or one-handed soap dispensers are in any case easier to implement than things that require structural and spatial changes. For example, do the sanitary rooms offer sufficient freedom of movement? Or can side handles be installed? It is always important to ask: What fits into the entrepreneurial concept and the respective objectives and needs? Professional and in-depth advice is definitely advisable here," says Pinar. 

Especially since the considerations do not stop with the building. The surrounding area also plays a decisive role. Are there enough parking spaces near the entrance to the building and is there enough room for wheelchair users? Or can the appropriate space be created somewhere? And what about the surrounding infrastructure? Does it enable every person to reach the buildings? Often, unfortunately, no. The challenge for cities in this country to catch-up in this respect is sometimes enormous. Although it is high time. 

WC sign for ladies, men and disabled toilets WC sign for ladies, men and disabled toilets

Also important for small and medium-sized companies

However, a large number of companies also need to catch up. "For them as well as for property developers, inclusion is already an important topic, but more with regard to accessibility than to general diversity criteria," says Melisa Pinar. "Gender-neutral sanitary rooms, for example, are still completely new territory for many. It is - I have the impression - mainly large international corporations that take up the banner of diversity in their spaces as well and become pioneers."

"Yet the topic is important for everyone - even for the smaller and medium-sized companies seeking employees with innovative strength," adds Britta Reusch. "The shortage of skilled workers is now hitting here in particular, and in the war for talent, smaller organisations often have a harder time than the big players. It is a good idea to be open to everyone and to address talent from all areas and with the most diverse needs. If you think through your diversity-meets-architecture concept well and implement it in a way that suits your own size, you can quickly change and adapt areas significantly. This doesn't always have to be a huge undertaking - not even in terms of costs. You just need good advice."

Melisa Pinar: "We must not forget that our society is fortunately becoming more and more open in many places and that the discourse in society as a whole is currently moving in precisely this direction. This also trickles down to our industry and to the corporate level. Today, we are thinking about issues that we didn't have on our radar a few years ago. And companies will also continue to open up. Diversity also means discourse within the organisation and thus more room for input, ideas and ultimately economic success."


Lutz Schilbach
Lutz Schilbach

Head of Sales Project & Development Services DACH
Frankfurt, Germany


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Curtis Foster

Vice Chair
East Rutherford, United States

+1 (201) 460-3367 x353367

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