The office of the future will encourage more standing: both at the workplace and in meetings. But somehow we’ve forgotten that future offices will need to harness the skills of ageing and disabled workers. Is the energetic, novel and dynamic nature of modern offices at odds with an inclusive approach to office design and facilities management?
My neck is beginning to ache. Their neck is doing likewise. I’m looking up and they’re looking down. Words are getting lost in the hubbub as the well-intentioned colleague turns momentarily away. A tray of canapés passes by all too quickly. The discussion becomes strained for both of us and like all of these exchanges, you have learned to accept that things will remain at the level of niceties and superficiality. Instead of the natural evolution of a discussion into a more meaningful exchange, things are cut short by the inconveniences of upward – downward interaction. Our banter lasts for maybe two minutes after which awkwardness sets in. The exchange comes to an uneasy ending: perhaps the other person feels somewhat appeased, having fulfilled their momentary duties attending to the disabled person. Unfortunately, it’s often only served to increase the frustration for me in my wheelchair. Conversations never seem to go anywhere.
Facilities management plays a pivotal role in accessibility at work. Here we are not simply talking about building regulations and compliance. Accessibility is more than ‘physical presence’ – its about emotional and intellectual ‘presence’ as well. Being three foot off the ground instead of five or six foot off the ground can make a big difference. The simple answer historically has been to make sure there is a level playing field – that is, we are all seated; perhaps at a formal meeting table or perhaps an improvised brainstorming room. But hang on. Aren’t they talking about getting us up from our seats: to be what is called ‘non-sedentary’.
Banishing single workstations in favour of multiple activity settings is not new. Indeed, the rationale for this was explored as early as 1985 by Lucetti and Stone in a seminal paper (Your Office Is Where You Are!) that appeared in the Harvard Business Review. But the clamour for getting upright has amplified as our understanding of the health effects of workplace design has increased. By the start of this century, disturbing evidence was starting to emerge which showed just how damaging it was to remain seated in the workplace for long periods of time. Perhaps a more insidious aspect of this were the findings of Hamilton that indicated that taking time out in the gym after work did not offset the damage. Lengthy periods of being seated was of itself a bad thing. Chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers were found to be associated with inactivity at work and home. Public awareness of these findings is now well established. It’s no longer possible for employees and employers to ignore their ramifications. The facilities manager or workplace designer is squarely in the hotseat.
So the quest for a non-sedentry work environment is now well underway – we need to ‘get off our behinds’. However, the term mobile working (proffered by the IT fraternity) shouldn’t be confused with ‘non-sedentary’ working. Simply being able to carry out work in different places does not necessarily entail physical expenditure. Indeed, modern IT often discourages standing and moving activities essential to good health. The term ‘immobile’ working might be more appropriate as IT provides evermore pervasive ways of staying put.
Now where does this place the disabled worker? In particular, those disabled employees that are unable to stand or walk. After all, good sense would suggest that more meetings should be held either at standing pedestals or even whilst doing a circuit (particularly suitable for one-to-one meetings). Could such a radical but necessary approach encompass the interests of the disabled community? Or is there an inherent conflict between workers’ health and inclusion?
This was a dilemma that I had not considered when I undertook research at Heriot Watt University and the University of Salford (2006-2012) in response to the work of Hamilton – the FM response. Then, as a healthy forty-something I was somewhat blinkered, thinking solely about the able-bodied workforce. Now, as fate would have it, I’m no longer able to address the questions raised by Hamilton’s work. I have been forced to retire from research. But I have had more than enough time since to consider the implications for disabled users as I have become one myself. In fact, I’ve been able to observe immobility at its various stages.
Often the disabled community are seen as the adversary to the facilities manager: ‘you can’t do that because…’ I think in this case, looking at this dilemma, we all share a common purpose. We all want to stay healthy: none more so than a disabled person learning to salvage what health they have. One key misconception is that disabled people need to remain seated. This is not always the case. Indeed, in order to stay healthy, every opportunity is taken by those that can, to readjust, stand upright or if possible, to walk a little. Again, the insidious effect of remaining seated is just as harmful to disabled people as it is to healthy individuals. So protracted meetings around the boardroom table may not be in the interest of disabled or healthy people alike. Problems of circulation, sores, digestion and urinary infection accompany the sedentary habit for many wheelchair-bound workers. Even they need an excuse to get moving.
So the challenge is there. What is the response of the workplace designer or facilities manager? Are they waiting for legislation before their obligations become apparent? Accessibility cannot be used as an excuse for inertia. The scientific evidence is mounting and organisations will have to address the health implications of sedentary working.
Let’s go back to my scenario at the beginning: a Town Hall event arranged by the facilities manager. I was able to access the building, to access the passing canapés and access the disabled toilets. What I wasn’t able to access was the thoughts and camaraderie of other attendees. The most important form of accessibility was lacking. How does the facilities manager open this virtual door? How can scenography be used to overcome this disparity?
Disability is not just about immobility. Hearing and visual impairment affect many to varying degrees. With the ageing workforce this will only increase. Having had the misfortune to experience both during moments of stress (optical neuritis and auditory processing disorder) I can empathise with sufferers of these ‘hidden’ disabilities. Disabling environments with complex auditory or visual cues only make the conditions worse. Unfortunately it seems that many schemes for ‘offices of the future’ are founded on the idea of novelty and serendipity. Knowledge workers increasingly rely on interaction in the workplace. Fruitful interactions involve breaking down organisational silos – maximising the possibility of chance encounters.
But the office of the future will not exclusively be populated by ‘bright-eyed and bushy tailed’ twentysomethings. The office population will be diverse in terms of age and disability. So why do all the architectural magazines show photographs of interiors populated by young executives? Just look at the photographs in this blog – where does the wheelchair user fit in all of this? The true office of the future will accommodate the silver generation as well. Facilities managers will have to address the triumvirate of health, novelty and accessibility. These are indeed ‘exciting times ‘for the office designer. The pursuit of a non-sedentary work environment also works in the interests of disabled people. Remaining static is bad news – so let’s explore an inclusive solution to problem.