As companies adopt a wider mix of work models, there are opportunities to reimagine the office in ways that also improve equity in the workplace. The first step is understanding where many office spaces don’t support the full spectrum of employee needs. From there, companies can create new policies and spaces that are more inclusive and accessible.
What is equity in the workplace?
A fair workplace has a positive company culture where everyone feels welcome and valued. If certain groups of employees aren’t supported, some people will feel excluded, preventing them from fully participating. Equity makes sure everyone has opportunities to contribute to the company’s overall success.
Equality provides an equal solution for everyone
Many confuse equity in the workplace with equality, but there are important differences. Equality provides the same solutions for everyone. Equity tailors solutions based on an individual’s needs and circumstances.
Equality often refers to protection against discrimination. In many countries there are laws that guard employees against discrimination based on individual characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, or identity. Equality is about making sure companies treat all their employees the same and that they don’t discriminate based on characteristics employees can’t change about themselves.
Equity ensures everyone is afforded proportional and fair opportunities. Companies can tailor support so that every employee has an opportunity to succeed.
There’s a famous cartoon that illustrates the difference between equality and equity in the workplace. The first image is labeled “Equality” and depicts three children — lined up from tallest to shortest — standing on equal-sized boxes so they can look over a fence. The tallest easily clears the top of the fence. The medium-height child is just eye level with the top of the fence, and the shortest child can’t see over it.
In the second picture, labeled “Equity,” the shortest child is standing on two boxes, the medium-height child is standing on just one box, and the tallest child is standing on the ground. With support tailored specifically to their needs, they’re all able to see over the fence.
How to promote equity in the workplace
It’s important to make sure all your employees feel valued and are on an “equal playing field.” Remember, that’s not the same as a “level playing field,” which is only about equality.
Hire with equity in mind
Keep in mind that discrimination and prejudice can be indirect, implicit, and unconscious. Consider how you can incorporate equity into your hiring and promotion practices.
There’s a reason top companies consider equity in their talent acquisition strategies. Different viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences are a benefit to the organization — and there’s a lot of value in recruiting talent from a wide range of backgrounds.
In fact, a recent study commissioned by Amazon Web Services on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) found many positive effects from equity programs. Companies with mature programs were:
- Twice as likely to get to market faster than competitors by more than a fiscal quarter
- More likely to see average market share growth
- Nearly three times to beat annual revenue expectations by 10%
When companies embrace equity, they also see increases in agility, innovation, and brand recognition.
Provide opportunities for career growth
One way to counter bias during the screening and interviewing process is to assess candidates based on aptitude rather than applying your own judgment and relying on that alone. When conducting performance reviews and evaluations for raises and promotions, ask yourself who benefits from your current system. Does everyone have equal career advancement opportunities? Focus on performance assessments and make sure you are giving everyone an equal chance to grow.
Design a more inclusive workplace
One of the defining characteristics of the traditional office is its reliance on standardization. Neat rows of identical desks with matching chairs. Beige everywhere because it goes with everything. The idea was that every employee could get a standardized workplace experience based on a regimented set of workplace conditions. But that one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t deliver equity in the workplace. In fact, in some ways, it can discriminate against employees who find it difficult to focus, participate, or contribute because of various individual differences.
Equity is about your processes. But it’s also about your places.
In her book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, Kat Holmes, Chief Design Officer and EVP at Salesforce, writes, “The objects and people around us influence our ability to participate.”
By rethinking the design of a building and the resources you provide, you can improve how employees experience the workplace. Design elements can include:
- Office layout
- Number of desks
- Types of rooms
- Mobility of workplace tools
- Convenience of workflows
For each, you want to make sure you are actively supporting employees in a variety of ways so that everyone can find the one what works best for them. For example, the layout can include some areas more conducive to collaboration while others you design specifically to reduce the number of stimuli. The lighting is sufficient but diffused, the door closes, and there is additional soundproofing – all elements that help the neurodiverse focus.
Enable a tailored experience
Every employee and potential new hire have a unique set of needs, preferences, and circumstances that impact their experience in the workplace. So, why shouldn’t they be able to tailor their workday to align with their strengths and challenges?
Consider the process of booking a desk for the day. If you’re evaluating a desk booking system, focus on the experience of your employees by asking the right questions, including:
- Does the system let them find the best seat for their needs?
- Can they filter by location, amenities, and other important attributes?
- If they need accommodation, can they submit a request during the day or even ahead of time?
- Do they have access to current information, such as availability and a detailed list of their options?
Self-service technology should put employees in control of their interactions at work. Make sure your technology is accessible and designed to be intuitive, user-friendly, and adds value.
Improving equity in the modern workplace
That desk booking app helps you run the office, but it can also help you redesign it. By looking at historical booking data, you can get a good sense of which desks are most popular. Are there many people in the company trying to reserve desks away from foot traffic? Are the ones closer or further away from specific public facilities more popular? When looking at the differences in desks, are there more people interested in the adjustable-height and standing desks? If the adjustable-height desks are popular, you can think about adding more space between them to make them more wheelchair friendly.
Once you know which spaces are more popular, you can start to expand them or adjust them, continuously improving your equity project and employee experience.