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Conscious design choices fundamental to creating accessible workplaces

by wrich

By: Lesley Kelly, Studio Lead and Principal, Design at workplace creation experts Unispace

In July, the government published its National Disability Strategy, offering recommendations to make the workplace more accessible to employees with physical and mental wellbeing considerations. Highlights included: introducing workforce reporting for businesses with more than 250 staff who identify as having special needs, similar to measures already in place to monitor gender pay gap reporting; launching a one-stop hub of advice for people with special considerations to better navigate the workplace; and an Access to Work passport, which will capture the in-work support needs of individuals. 

The strategy provides a holistic approach to accessibility, building on the UK’s efforts in the last decade to improve workplace recommendations in line with regulations such as the 2010 Equality Act, which mandated employers to make “reasonable adjustments” for staff. 

Building on the foundations

With a quarter (25%) of the working population (8.4 million adults) identifying as having a disability, it is positive to see that accessibility is getting the recognition that it deserves on the corporate agenda. However, with up to 70% of all disabilities being ‘hidden’, it is crucial for businesses to also remember that not all disabilities are visible, and therefore employers must design workspaces and create cultures which go beyond pure access to the physical building, to also support colleagues with non-visible considerations. To be forward-thinking, it is critical that we are open to innovation and fresh perspectives.

For example, in addition to accessible entries, many organisations are now proactively optimising lighting for ease of working, managing noise levels in different zones, and providing adaptable workstations. These companies understand that accessible workplace design must also consider mental wellbeing, and that these design considerations should be fully integrated from the outset – not added in later as an afterthought. ‘People first, workspace second’, is crucial to ensuring a workspace is being created that best fits the needs of employees.  

The importance of mental health  

Mental health is increasingly – and rightly – being acknowledged as a core factor needing consideration in all workplaces. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 14.7% of people experience mental health problems at work, with research from the Office of National Statistics attributing over 12% of sick days to mental health conditions.

While home working will still be an option for colleagues, employers should consider incorporating areas such as ‘wellness zones’ into their workspaces, which are quiet, tech-free zones with natural light and biophilia for colleagues to take a break and reset during the working day. 

These areas are in increasing demand as colleagues return to the office. Though not all offices will have an outdoor space, those that do would benefit from making them wi-fi enabled so employees have the option to access fresh air while they work. A Scientific Reports study of nearly 20,000 UK consumers in 2019 found that adults who experienced two hours of contact with a green space outdoors per week were significantly more likely to report good physical health and wellbeing – and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t also apply to the workspace where possible.  

Investing in improving the wellbeing of employees does not only support them in their mental health, but also has clear business benefits. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health estimates that better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8bn a year.

The role of tech

One vital element that can help in delivering accessible workplaces to all, is the seamless integration of technology. This goes beyond wi-fi-enabled spaces, and instead focuses on offering personalised settings and environments focused on each individual’s needs. Workspaces can now allow colleagues to change their immediate environments through the use of apps, such as changing lighting before arriving at their desk. 

‘Accessibility Tech’ is not a new phenomenon but has increased in prevalence in recent years as employers become more attuned to the needs of their teams. For colleagues with learning considerations like dyslexia, for example, personalised app-based software is now available which enables colleagues to dictate what they want to write instead of typing, with a spell-check function built in to make any necessary edits.

Similarly, investment in accessibility hardware, such as touchless entry, speech recognition systems, and hearing loops in meeting rooms, are all now being increasingly integrated. The integration and alignment to other technology in the workspace is particularly important to guarantee maximum up take amongst employees.  

Investing in accessibility for all

With a recent report by Microsoft Surface and YouGov finding that 56% of UK employees have better mental health working from home, it’s clear that the pandemic has instigated a fundamental shift in the use and desire for workplaces.

Therefore, as the government and businesses alike try to encourage employees back to physical working, the incentive to produce an accessible, personal and desirable workplace is more important than ever. Ultimately, the National Disability Strategy has taken important steps in the right direction towards improving workspaces and reducing the disability employment gap, however there is certainly more for employers to consider. 

Investment in accessible, strategically designed workspaces that use assistive technologies and cater to employee wellbeing will deliver measurable benefits, improving both recruitment and retention, as colleagues will feel more comfortable and happier in their workplace surroundings. 

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