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Space for All: Equity in the Workplace

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Equity is defined as “the quality of being fair and impartial”[i], but recently that definition has been expanding. In the court of law, equity ensures that conditions are fair and just. Today, equity means people have the right to be treated fairly throughout their life. Equity “seeks to ensure fair treatment, equality of opportunity, and parity in access to information and resources for all”[ii].

Equity is directly linked to diversity and inclusion. Diversity is “representation of all our varied identities and differences-collectively and as individuals,” and inclusion “builds a culture of belonging by actively inviting the contribution and participation of all people.”[iii] These topics are often used interchangeably, but in reality are all distinct. While diversity and inclusion are often addressed through policy and culture, equity builds upon those principles, and can also be implemented through the built environment.

This graphic is by artist Angus Maguire for the Center for Story-Based Strategy and the Interaction Institute for Social Change. It is based upon the original graphic created by Craig Froehle.

Equality is providing the same resources to all.

Equity is providing the resources that are appropriate for each individual.

As designers and architects, we see equity as integral to ensuring that a whole person’s needs are addressed within the built space. Our work is concerned with how spaces affect the health, wellness, and happiness of occupants. Along with ADA and Universal Design, equitable design should consider a person’s race, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, education, immigration status, language, and sensory processing.

Our day-to-day work at HLW involves translating clients’ mission and purpose into an optimal built environment within programmatic and spatial constraints. However, equity in the workplace isn’t only about space – and cannot be solved through design alone. It includes organizational culture, policy, messaging, and so much more. We believe that creating equity in a workplace requires a holistic approach, in which each of these aspects can be fully addressed.

How to get the conversation started

We start each project by getting to know our clients’ needs and project drivers. During this process we also strive to understand their goals around equity in the workplace. We have found there are clear and actionable strategies to help guide conversations around equity, which can require complex, and sometimes difficult discussions, involving many stakeholders not traditionally part of the process. Based on our experiences, here are 10 questions you can ask yourself, your organization, or your project team.

1. What aspects of my identity shape my lens? What are my blind spots?

Before starting a project, it’s important to understand the various parts of your identity that shape your view on the world. These “lenses” contribute to how you receive information, understand its impact, and in turn how those points influence your decision making. Acknowledging your lenses is an important start to understanding your blind spots.

Some examples of identity include: race, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, education, immigration status, language, and sensory processing.

2. What are my organization’s beliefs?

Before starting a project, it’s important to understand what your organizations’ beliefs and values are.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the core tenants?
  • What is the vision?
  • How do you approach this?
  • What lens do you see these through?
  • What principles are key and need to be translated into this project?

3. What are my organization’s biases?

Biases are prejudices we hold against things and people. When trying to create equity, it is important to understand what biases may exist in your organization, and how to address them. Take time to consider if eliminating those biases will mean a change in thinking or organizational culture.

4. What am I looking to maintain or grow in my current space?

When creating equity, try to understand what your organization is already doing well, and what can be done to celebrate and communicate those successes. Also consider what elements or ideas could be encouraged to grow.

5. Who needs to be involved for equity to be created?

It is important to create a team that will be able to help you in the process of creating equity. As equity affects all aspects of the organization, make sure you identify who to collaborate with throughout the process. Be mindful that no individual can represent the entire viewpoint of any particular identity, and that it should not be expected that the burden of creating equity should rest solely on those who have been previously marginalized.

6. What are some ways to effectively communicate these efforts to my organization?

Some equity creation effects may be small, and others may be more significant to organizational change. Come up with a strategy on how to introduce these changes to your users. Communicate changes, benefits, and philosophies behind the efforts. Help your users to become your biggest advocates.

7. What constraints may arise in a traditional design process while trying to bring about equity?

Before you begin the process of equity creation, try to troubleshoot potential issues and conflicts that may arise. These can result from funding, competing priorities, or internal policies. Try to find these points and create a plan to address them throughout the process. Review past actions and decisions that may have resulted in inequity.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I learn from past mistakes?
  • What can be done differently?

8. How can we create equity for users of my workspace?

The to understand the specific user groups coming into the workplace. Try to recognize the varied identities of these users. Understand pain points in space, workstyles, and protocol that might create inequity, and try to solve for these.

9. What are the real estate and design considerations?

What are the design goals of this project? Consider elements that may affect change, such as: programming, materials, graphics and wayfinding, furniture, and communications. Create a plan of how to create equity at all levels, and how to manage these change in the new workplace.

10. How do I implement a plan for equitable design?

Every organization is different, so each plan will need to be unique to your organization. In every project, you develop goals for elements such as schedules, budgets, and design visions. Be sure to add equity to the conversation early on, so that you have a head start in creating a space that serves everyone.

What’s next?

We have provided an introduction and a series of questions to help you begin a conversation around equity in the workplace. This is an iterative process, that requires multiple stages of discovery and implementation. Involve your coworkers and leaders and seek to have an open and honest conversation. With these first steps, we can begin to create a space for all.

Have questions or want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment below!

This article is adapted from a presentation given by HLW at Future Offices New York in January 2019.  The original presentation content was developed by Michele Neptune (HLW Associate Principal and Director of Sustainability & Wellness), Kat Smith (HLW Design Strategist), and Lee Devore (HLW Associate Principal).  The content for this article was updated and written by Kat Smith and Eden Brachot (HLW Design Strategist).

[i] “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”. Ford Foundation, 6 Apr. 2018,

[ii] “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”. Ford Foundation, 6 Apr. 2018,

[iii] “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”. Ford Foundation, 6 Apr. 2018,