Inspiring inclusion and belonging through workplace design

How can we provide equal opportunities for full participation? While policies and initiatives are key considerations when shifting organizational culture, the actual physical workspace, where employees spend a substantial amount of their time, also plays a crucial role in promoting inclusion efforts. As interior designers, we have a responsibility to prioritize health, safety and well-being. To fulfill this obligation, we consider employees' social locations and lived experiences that influence how they work.

Written by on Mar 08, 2024
6 min read

This year's campaign theme for International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion.” Inclusion refers to the deliberate effort to create environments, policies, and practices that ensure all individuals, regardless of their differences, are welcomed and valued. Its goal is to break down barriers, promote equity, and provide equal opportunities for full participation.

The design of physical spaces mirror the values, culture, and beliefs of its time. According to Durksen, inequality is hardwired into the conventional office layout.1 Therefore, exclusion is also built into this layout. They may provide limited accessibility, and lack flexible spaces that cater to diverse working styles and needs. Connected by new mindsets and a common purpose, many people today are reflecting on their backgrounds and unique perspectives.2

Inclusive and universal design

In essence, inclusive design fosters spaces that accommodate everyone.3 From how we relate to others, to the policies and practices required by organizations, representation in the workplace remains a key consideration.2 Taking into account the many ways that equity-deserving groups experience physical space (many of which are not always apparent) and designing for those diverse experiences helps us create more inclusive and supportive work environments.3

As interior designers, we have a responsibility to prioritize health, safety, and well-being. The University at Buffalo’s Centre for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access developed the 8 Goals of Universal Design, expanding universal design’s original focus to include social participation, and health and wellness.4 These goals include body fit, to accommodate a wide range of body sizes and abilities, social integration, personalization, cultural appropriateness, and more. Our efforts can range from providing wheelchair access and supporting individuals with hearing disabilities, colour blindness, diabetes, and other needs.1 Parent, prayer and wellness rooms, unassigned workpoints, moveable furniture and technology, and power stations and storage lockers, also address individual workplace wellbeing needs.2 “While these office design choices may seem tailored to small percentages of the workforce, they ultimately benefit all."1

Work, life and the workplace

Over three years since the pandemic's onset, “the boundaries between work and life continue to blur, and the design and purpose of the workplace becomes complex and multi-dimensional.”5 When we think of inclusion, we think about the holistic needs of employees. It’s not only about creating equitable work environments where everyone feels they are included, regardless of their gender identity, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability.6 We also consider the unique factors and lived experiences that influence how employees work.

In 2021, McKinsey & Company found that 45% of those who left their jobs did so because they needed to take care of family, and a similar percentage of individuals considering quitting identified family care demands as a significant factor in their decision.7 Historically, women have often exited the workforce when they do not have the flexibility to care for their families.6 Women often bear the majority of home and childcare duties, along with care for aging relatives.

In 2023, Gensler conducted a similar survey with over 4,000 workers in six major U.S. cities to understand the unique factors that influence why employees adopt different work behaviours.5 The survey found that employees that live with children under the age of 12 are spending the least amount of time in the office. However, they express a greater need for office hours to enhance productivity compared to their peers. When in the workplace, they prioritize professional development and community engagement more than their colleagues.

This study also found that providing four key categories of space can influence how often employees need to be in the office:

1. Creative group work
2. Individual quiet work
3. To connect and recharge
4. To reflect and restore

Access to all these spaces contribute to how employees perceive the office. Employees who have access to more categories of space report that they need to be in the office most for their productivity.5

Beyond inclusion towards belonging

In discussions around human-centred leadership, Heng and White convey that the term inclusion implies a 'norm' to which individuals must conform, and being included doesn't necessarily mean being truly inclusive. Belonging, as they discuss, goes beyond this idea.8 Belonging centres on the emotional and psychological sense of being welcomed, valued, and embraced by the larger community or workplace.9 As a framework, belonging aims to centre different ways of knowing, doing and being. Instead of asking, "How can we include equity-deserving groups into the workplace?" Belonging instead asks: "How can we transform the workplace so that they feel that they belong?"

Incorporating universal office design principles and providing a plethora of options can support how people work through environmental control, freedom of choice, and belonging.1 This enables everyone to be at their best without feeling like they have to “barter for their benefits.”1

Davis asserts that it is the ‘norm’ that we seek to challenge and problematize.10 Belonging in the workplace is not only when individuals can bring their whole selves to work, but when “they feel like all pieces of themselves are valued.”10

More and more, organizations and business leaders are recognizing the significance of fostering well-being and accommodating for the ongoing transformation of people, culture, and place. While policies and initiatives are key considerations in shifting organizational culture, the actual physical workspace, where employees spend a substantial amount of their time, plays a crucial role in promoting inclusion efforts.11

Our team believes that the best design solutions emerge when we place empathy and equity at the centre of our creative process. From the initial engagement to the final execution, each project we undertake reflects our commitment to designing inclusive workplaces where people from all backgrounds feel dignified, valued, and a sense of belonging. To learn more how we’re creating better workplaces by putting people first, visit our About page.


1. Jeni Durksen, “Office design can be a vehicle for equality and change”, Workplace Insight, November 22, 2019,

2. M Moser Associates, “Equity in the workplace”,

3. Bryan Berthold, “Workplace Design for the Neurodiverse Helps Everyone”, The Edge Magazine, Cushman & Wakefield, December 8, 2022,

4. University at Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, “The Goals of Universal Design”, Accessibility at UB,

5. Gensler Research Institute, "Work, Life and Workplace 2023 Survey Results", Gensler,

6. Deloitte, "Creating More Equitable Workplaces Report 2022", Deloitte Next Up,

7. McKinsey, "‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours", McKinsey Quarterly,

8. Leechin Heng and Julie White, "Employing Intersectionality and the Concept of Difference to Investigate Belonging and Inclusion",

9. Nira Yuval-Davis, Kalpana Kannabiran and Ulrike Vieten, "The situated politics of belonging",

10. Aida Mariam Davis, "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have failed. How about Belonging, Dignity and Justice instead?", World Economic Forum,

11. Gu Zhenjing, Supat Chupradit, Kuo Yen Ku, Abdelmohsen A. Nassani, and Mohamed Haffar, "Impact of Employees' Workplace Environment on Employees' Performance: A Multi-Mediation Model",