Universal design is creating environments and offices that work for everyone. This goes beyond accessibility or disability, and aims to make spaces inclusive for all; regardless of their age, ability or status in life.

Miles McLeod

Workplace Consultant

20th Mar 2018

Universal design is key to supporting an ever-diversifying population. There are times that we are injured, temporarily restricted or have an issue we may not want to disclose at work. It’s about creating spaces where we don’t have to ask, but spaces that are intuitive and can be personalised and adapted to suit our needs. A great inclusive design can enhance productivity and engagement, and provides a great work experience for everyone.

Not just on request

Most organisations are good at accommodating reasonable adjustments, such as specialist chairs or technology. However, in work environments, this often leads to those individuals being fixed to technology or particular supportive furniture. This means that due to their special requests they now have less choice over where to work compared to their colleagues, often taking away the benefits of an agile workplace.

Removing barriers

Designing a barrier-free environment means that people who might otherwise have challenges don’t need to be considered as “other”. Part of the universal design concept is that staff don’t have to request special treatment - their workplace should be adaptable enough to quickly change for their needs. It instead ensures that the whole space is inclusive, providing the same user experience, regardless of your staff’s needs.

Building within constraints

While we can create an accessible office space, sometimes the building can pose a barrier. For example, sometimes we’ve seen an “accessible” building entrance hidden through the service entrance. Having to enter a building through the service entry (often by the bins, car park or loading dock) can leave accessible users feeling like second-class citizens. Sometimes buildings may have a small lift which will only accommodate one wheelchair user – those accompanying them then have to take the stairs or wait for another lift! So, while it’s important for the workspace to be universally accessible, we often need to consider the building holistically to ensure that all staff have a constant and pleasant user experience.

Our checklist for creating a universal office design:

Meeting Spaces

  • Using round tables allows everyone to face each other, making eye contact and lip reading easier
  • A variety of sitting and standing spaces allows everyone to choose a meeting space they find comfortable.
  • Make sure that there’s ample space to move around - whether someone’s in a wheelchair, using a cane or just slightly restricted. This allows everyone to use the space, without obstruction. At Sightsavers’ Haywards Heath office, we designed extra-wide walkways with to achieve just this.
  • Although glass walls are useful for creating a sense of open space and allowing light to flow through your space, manifestations (a semi-opaque or coloured film applied to glass) are useful to make sure people don’t walk into the glass, but if you apply at the seated eye line it adds a sense of privacy or design flair to your space.
  • Lever handles are a must! These are easier for anyone with arthritis or mobility issues to operate than twist handles.

Quiet areas

  • Often considered a “nice to have”, we’ve heard from disability charities that people often need a space to rest or recuperate. Somewhere that’s private but not necessarily completely closed is often ideal, so a curtain or blind can usually provide adequate privacy. This was something disability charity Livability were after when we designed their London office. We provided bespoke furniture solutions and inclusive meeting spaces that could be used by all their staff.
  • A chaise longue, along with a variety of other furniture to give the quiet room some flexibility and allow it to double as a relaxed meeting space.

Working areas

  • Make sure that power ports are easily accessible on the top of desks, removing the need for staff to kneel down or crawl under desks!
  • Enough space between desks to allow wheelchair users to use any desk, not just the end one
  • If interested in desk sharing, create several “priority technology” desks throughout the space with specialist technology - this then doesn’t restrict users to designated desks.
  • Keep walkways clear and minimise clutter - someone with a visual impairment may not register everything
  • Use changes in carpet texture to facilitate self-guided wayfinding