For two days in late September, the Filene Research Institute brought credit union industry leaders and partners together with university academics to “connect the dots” between diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in credit union HR and marketing. As part of Momentum’s ongoing research into delivering the best employee experiences in the credit union workplace, we spent some time at the event contemplating how credit unions can approach workplace design with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind. We did this through a concept known as Universal Design – an approach to design that creates spaces that are useable and accessible to as many people as possible with little need to make special adaptations.
One speaker shared a story about accessibility in her office space that illustrates the idea of Universal Design. Her office building has an employee gathering place, a central hub of activity and connection that was intended to be an inclusive space. When a new wheelchair using employee joined the team it was quickly apparent that he couldn’t access the space without asking for assistance. For him, a space that was intended to help employees build stronger relationships, relax, and celebrate became a place that highlighted his disability and made him feel different. It was off-limits to him. When the speaker brought the issue to her facilities department, she was met with a shrug and an explanation that “the space is built to code.”
But for credit unions, with their mission of improving the lives of the people and communities they serve, there is little excuse for a bureaucratic approach to their office design. Universal Design puts users at the heart of the design process, asking them how their environments can support a great experience for all. Inclusion is never an afterthought, and the result are office spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive, that have given thought to accommodating various needs in an efficient, effective, and subtle way. Universal Design isn’t just about considering physical disabilities – it also considers other important differences in all users, in areas such as gender, age, culture, developmental disorders, even differing perspectives and states of mind.
One particular challenge to delivering a great office environment is in balancing the need for workers to complete both cognitive, focused work and social, collaborative work in an environment that is comfortable for workers who may identify as being particularly introverted or extroverted. Recent data from our workplace research partner, Leesman, shows that only 26.6% of credit union workers are satisfied with the noise level in their workplace. A Universal Design solution to a problem like this could result in a work environment where employees have more mobility within their office building, and the ability to select work settings that are more comfortable for them. The result would be less stress for introverts, more opportunities for expression for extroverts, and zero unnecessary attention drawn to either group.
One interesting point of debate that the Filene audience and speakers worked through was whether diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives should be pursued by credit unions primarily by building a bottom-line business case, or if diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives should be pursued more for ethical and moral reasons. While acknowledging the business case, University of Texas business professor Sekou Bermiss warned the group of what could be lost by reducing the topic to the narrow purpose of pursuing a business return. This comment brought me back to the wheelchair user who wanted to connect with his colleagues in the credit union’s central hub but couldn’t because the facilities department had taken a code-minimum approach to their workplace’s design. Credit Unions, with their community-oriented missions, have the opportunity to deliver a great experience for their entire employee team, and one way to do this is through Universal Design.