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  • Writer's picture Dr. Mike O'Neill

Can legible workplace design be a tool for inclusion?

In our work, legible design is a central to enhanced workforce inclusion and well-being. Our research and that of others shows that legible workplaces can reduce workforce stress. We also feel it can promote inclusion. I had an insight today I wanted to share.

Today, while taking a walk through a neighborhood in Austin, TX we noticed that many of the intersections and sidewalks, and home entry paths would not be accessible to people needing mobility aids. I am not picking on Austin or this neighborhood, we love the area. And many neighborhoods and cities have the same problem.

But it reminded me that like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the basic need for physical access to, and within, buildings and office spaces is foundational to an inclusive workplace experience.

Ease of physical access is pretty much “step one” to being included within an organization. You can’t be included if you cannot access or readily navigate the space. Of course, this functional issue has been addressed by the ADA.

But it occurred to me that there is a connection between basic accessibility and legibility. Legible space may be the next level up, on this hierarchy of needs.

Legibility is another form of access within a workplace. Illegible space can be experienced in several ways, such as a complex floorplan layout with poor visual access that causes stress and confusion when attempting to navigate and access resources, or spaces that do not clearly communicate their intended use – at least not to you. Our research has shown that poor legibility is linked to diminished feelings of inclusion within an organization.

Thus, if you are an office worker who is not a part of the professional and socio-economic class that typically creates office space, the space design may not be speaking to you. The first person in a family to graduate college with no professional role model, the returning veteran trying to navigate the ambiguity of roles in a business organization, the Black person not seeing others like themselves at the office. Of course, you can still use the spaces, watching carefully for clues on how people are using a space that you do not really understand, so that you fit in and don’t make any “mistakes” in behavior or use of the space.

But in such a situation, you sense the space was not designed for you, you are trying to figure out the secret handshake - just another small unintended micro-aggression added to the others in your stressful work daily experience.

Legible space can play a role along with other inclusion programs and culture shift in making everyone at work feel included. The idea is to provide everyone equal access to resources within the organization. These resources can be people, mentors, social and professional networks, specialized spaces, technology and tools. Spaces and areas that everyone feels comfortable using because the design communicates intended use.


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