I never realised just how important furniture is. In fact, I never realised how the type of furniture, or indeed the absence of furniture, has such an intractable effect on the way we work. Yes, we all know about workstation design and the design of meeting rooms. But increasingly, our workplace is unbounded. Much of it takes place in corridors, conference halls, town hall events or at company receptions.
Being in a wheelchair sensitises you to this change in work-style. I’ve now ended up with a workstation that is ‘everything I need’. But whilst I am busying myself at the workstation, I begin to realise that ‘the real business’ is going on elsewhere.
It seems that all the important decisions are made before meetings – in informal settings. These settings, that allow serendipitous encounters with others, are not part of my social milieu anymore. Such settings facilitate ‘off the record’ discussions that are so much a part of modern organisations. Employees are able to be open about their views without the threat of an email audit trail. Relationships and trust can be established. Undoubtedly, malign activities may also occur in the form of subterfuge and conspiracies. Irrespective of the propriety of these discussions that take place in the corridor, when I turn up to the formal meeting I feel like the ‘political correctness’ ambassador who’s been left in the dark.
This takes me back to furniture. Standing, walking and mingling stimulate social interaction. Interactive events invariably use furniture to encourage standing or perching. Tall tables (poseur tables) with accompanying bar chairs are often deployed. The tables provide ample space for a close gathering around a couple of drinks. But what is a wheelchair user to do when immersed in this scenescape? Indeed, how does a person with hearing impairment; visual impairment; cognitive impairment deal with such unfamiliar and unpredictable environments.
A breakout group has formed on the garden terrace outside the reception. Not surprisingly, it is led by the company director, who enjoys the opportunity for a smoke. Suddenly he is surrounded by a group of faithful. On this occasion, it is the round picnic table that is this cabal’s furniture of choice. My participation here is strictly off-limits. Am I getting paranoid?
Many of these informal workplace innovations can present barriers and cause social exclusion. However, they also provide a vibrancy and dynamism that is so attractive to many, particularly the younger workforce. In addition, such surroundings discourage sedentary habits (i.e. living and eating at the workstation) which cause pernicious long-term health problems. If the facilities manager is to successfully implement these informal settings, they need to be mindful of the implications for disabled people. This requires an understanding of the ‘social model’ of disability as opposed to the ‘medical model’.
The medical model is perhaps more familiar to the facilities manager. In the design of workstations and disabled toilets, guidelines and standards are used to set out a solution. A medical professional (often an occupational therapist) may be employed to address the specific clinical needs of an employee.
In direct contrast, the social model suggests that it is systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that ‘disables’ people. Putting aside my paranoia for being left out, each of the scenescapes described above highlight the pernicious effects of informal settings for those that cannot engage. Unintended consequences often occur.
But let’s not see the disabled community as an impediment to workplace innovation. After all, we all want to be part of the workplace revolution. Let’s engage in conversations to enable truly remarkable and robust work environments.
(Previously published in FMWorld October 2016)
Please share your comments about this issue. Whether they are remembered experiences or current ones, it would be interesting to hear your views about the modern workplace.