Over the past month, temperatures have soared across the United States–except in most workplaces. And as a widely circulated new study, published in Nature Climate Change last week, concludes, the chilly climate of many offices may reflect a problem that can’t be easily solved by simply adjusting our thermostats. Indeed, the study suggests that the chilly climate of many workplaces reflects deeply rooted assumptions about the “normal” size and gender of workers.
According to the study’s researchers, Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, office temperatures have long been set based on the assumption that the workers who occupy these spaces are, on average, 40-year-old men who weigh approximately 154 pounds. While this may have been a more or less accurate estimation in the 1960s when “thermal comfort models” were first developed and implemented, this is no longer an accurate measure of most workplace demographics. As a result, many women, alongside their smaller male colleagues, continue to face an arctic-grade chill at work throughout the summer months, often requiring them to resort to wearing sweaters and hoodies inside when it is over 100 degrees outside.
While the “Great Arctic Office Conspiracy,” as the situation is sometimes called, may appear to be little more than a minor annoyance, it is simply one part of a much broader workplace design problem–offices designed to meet the needs of an assumed universal worker who does not necessarily exist. For this reason, it is important for all organizations to consider the following questions: What assumptions are embedded in the design of your organization’s workplace? Who is being excluded both explicitly and implicitly? Most notably, what can be done to create a workplace with a more inclusive design?
By definition, Universal Design (UD), a concept conceived in the 1960s, is about designing products and spaces that are accessible to everyone. While often associated with accessibility for the physically disabled, the principles of UD extend beyond simple accommodations (e.g., ramps in lieu of stairs). UD also seeks to respond to the needs of people with reduced levels of vision and hearing.
As discussed in an earlier post on diversity, many workplaces pose challenges and even potential dangers to Deaf employees. Since 2005, Hansel Bauman has been developing the concept of DeafSpace. Creating an environment that adheres to the principles of DeafSpace is one way to ensure that both Deaf colleagues and clients and colleagues and clients with reduced hearing (e.g., due to age) can fully function in the workplace. For example, since Deaf individuals rely on sight rather than sound, it is critical to design workplaces with clear sight lines. This means that cubicle walls may need to be replaced with an open-concept workplace design. Lighting is another important consideration for Deaf signers. Finally, for Deaf people and people with low levels of hearing, acoustics are also important (e.g., reducing reverberations and background noise).
On the surface, it may be difficult to appreciate the link between workplace design and gender, but in fact, most workplaces are highly gendered. As noted in the introduction, the temperature of many workplaces has historically been set to meet the needs of male rather than female workers. In addition, nearly all workplaces have gendered restrooms. While this may not appear to be a problem, for transgender employees, it can make a workplace inaccessible. As noted on the website for the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, “No federal, state or municipal laws or regulations specifically pertaining to gender identity require employers to utilize one type of bathroom over another, or to construct new facilities to accommodate transgender individuals.” There are, however, some exceptions (e.g., the District of Columbia requires single-occupant restrooms in any public space to be gender neutral). While a small gesture, simply ensuring that there is at least one gender neutral restroom in the workplace can have a huge impact on the space’s ability to accommodate transgender employees.
For more on inclusion, see eLeaP’s knowledge essential courses on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including: