This blog has been inspired by our webinar on Friday the 5th of February, where one of our speakers is Beth Toms, former head of workspace for Monzo, who is passionate about the ways companies can encourage diversity and inclusion.

At first glance, offices might seem to have little to do with diversity and inclusion. An office is a place where people come to do their jobs, not a HR practice like more inclusive hiring or assigning new recruits a mentor. The decisions made on workspace tend to lie in the real estate department, where the KPIs concern things like keeping down costs and increasing efficiency.

But we already know that how and when someone works can have an impact on inclusion, with benefits like flexible working having an impact on retention of female employees. The pandemic response has shown that a workspace (or lack of a workspace) can have a disproportionate impact on certain groups of people, for example on early stage employees in cramped flats, hoping their WiFi won’t give up.

And - for anyone who missed last summer - diversity is important. It’s important for businesses because it ultimately benefits the bottom line, with the evidence firmly pointing towards the fact that diverse teams make better decisions. But, more significantly, it is important because it is the right thing to do.

Here’s four ways in which decisions about workspace can negatively impact on efforts to include diverse groups.

1. Office layouts

The way many offices are laid out doesn’t (and cannot) work for everyone. At the most basic level, there are countless offices that simply weren’t designed with disabled people in mind: more than 1 in 4 offices in the UK can’t be accessed by wheelchair users. But there are many other ways that office design can impact on people with disabilities - for example, someone with Crohn’s disease being worried about quick and easy access to a loo.

As was pointed out at the start of the pandemic, some disabled people have been asking their employers for years if they could work from home but had been told that it was impossible for their job to be done remotely - only to find (surprise surprise) that it was perfectly possible when lockdown came.

Some people with neurodiversity may struggle in noisy working environments (and we’ve all known those offices that make a death metal concert seem peaceful). One high profile case saw Tom Sherbourne, an analyst with autism, successfully win a case for indirect discrimination against Npower because he was forced to work with a busy walkway behind him and building works going on around him.

Obviously, this was something of a nightmare scenario (top tip: it’s maybe a good idea to avoid referring to a staff member as “a lost dog” or telling them “we’re not here to wipe arse”). But the bigger learning that some employees may find certain environments unbearably loud or stressful still applies.

2. Interaction with colleagues

We know that lockdown has had a dramatic impact on mental health across the country. A significant part of that has been down to human interaction and contact, especially if they live alone. Time and time again studies have shown that social interaction is vital to our mental and physical health; one psychologist compared the benefits of face-to-face contact to a vaccine (sadly not THE vaccine. There’s no evidence - that we could find anyway - that cuddles will stop you catching COVID.)

For this reason, it’s clear that insisting everyone works from home all the time is just as bad as insisting everyone works from the office. Permanent WFH for all should not be an option that any employer who cares about their staff’s wellbeing is contemplating as a long-term solution.

3. WFH distractions

Unsurprisingly, not everyone has the perfect work-from-home setup. Younger employees - particularly those living in big cities like London - are more likely to be living in flatshares where it may be harder to find space to work.

Tellingly, the groups whose mental health was most affected by the lockdown were women, young people and those with preschool aged children.

In case anyone was in any doubt, the periods of enforced lockdown have demonstrated that you can’t teach a 12-year-old algebra while conducting a sales meeting or keep a 5-year-old diverted while simultaneously bashing out reports for your next team Zoom. There’s only so much Peppa Pig can do.

And of course, when we say “parents” we often mean “mums”. This isn’t just a stereotype: the ONS found women were doing two-thirds more childcare per day (and it was disproportionately the non-fun stuff like making sure children had eaten their vegetables and weren’t rolling around in their own filth, as opposed to reading The Gruffalo with all the voices).

Of course, WFHDAPWPABLR (Working From Home During A Pandemic While Panicking About Buying Loo Roll. Obviously) is an extraordinary situation. But the broader lesson applies: parents cannot do both childcare and work at the same time. For some parents, if their children are going to be in the house they will need an out of the house office so they can focus on their work. (Although obviously we don’t recommend abandoning your child in Home Alone fashion.)

4. Workplace culture

Revealing, a survey from the Chartered Management Institute found that employees from diverse ethnic groups were more likely to think workplace culture had improved since the start of the pandemic: almost half believed in this improvement, compared to around a third of all employees.

In part this is probably due to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer which prompted many organisations to re-examine their relationship with race. But it also points to wider problems with pre-COVID workplace culture that might be magnified in offices where there is a strong pressure to conform.

One sign of ongoing workplace culture problems is that 1 in 4 black employees thought their manager did not trust them or didn’t know if their manager trusted them (broadly speaking, across all other ethnic groups people believed their manager trusted them). Allowing people to work remotely is one way to combat this since, by its very nature, it forces managers to trust employees to do their work (unless of course you decide to use creepy surveillance software or call them every five minutes).

What can employers do?

What’s clear from all of this is that there is no one workplace solution that enables diversity and inclusion. In fact, diversity of people requires a diversity of workspace options. It may seem impossible for one company to offer all these things to their staff. Having a diverse group of people also means acknowledging that different people will require different things. Ultimately what is important is giving employees choice so they are able to work in the environment that best suits their needs.

If you’re interested in learning more about how workspace can impact diversity, sign up for our free webinar on Friday the 5th of February. One of our speakers is Beth Toms, former head of workspace for Monzo and now head of people at remote-first tiney. She will be talking about how they are trying to build an honest, fair and diverse working environment and the role workspace plays in that.