The role physical working environments play in diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core to the credit union mission, and they are vital to building a strong culture both in workplaces and our communities.

It’s inspiring to see how many credit unions lean in to these values. How to achieve DEI, and even what it really means, is something that our country is still working to understand. Some of the most important work that people in the credit union industry are doing is asking questions and working towards developing a better understanding of DEI, to celebrate what makes us different and create a true sense of belonging.

This conversation has led the Filene Research Institute to launch a new Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Filene’s latest research project, Bridging the Spatial Divide: A Guide to Achieving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Physical Work Environments, explores an often-overlooked aspect of DEI.

This research, led by Bukky Akinsanmi Oyedeji, PhD at the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin and sponsored by Momentum, breaks DEI out of the silo of HR. In the paper, Dr. Oyedeji explores the impact that physical working environments have on DEI along with a set of evidence-based guidelines to help credit union leaders make their workplaces more inclusive and equitable.

These guidelines cover three areas: planning, design, and policy.

Planning and programming is a process that has traditionally been driven by leadership, but a top-down approach leaves out many valuable perspectives. Instead, build diverse input and feedback into the process.

At Momentum, we do this through surveys and departmental interviews. This helps us capture a picture of what employees of every level and background in a credit union expect out of a workplace, how they are supported in their current environment, and how their work tasks and working style can better be supported in the future. To create a truly inclusive and supportive workplace, you must start with an understanding of the people who use it.

The physical design of a space is where these ideas are activated. This is a process that has many dimensions, from individual workstations to how people move through the space to how the culture and individuality of employees is expressed.

At the core of this process is universal design, a design philosophy that engages with diverse users of the space for their input.

Universal design originated as a strategy to support accessibility. For example, a trendy tall-staircase style break area could seem like a fun and different way for team members to hang out, but only those team members who can physically step up them will feel included. A universal design process that includes input from differently abled team members could uncover this issue.

Building on this philosophy to include ideas and feedback from a diverse background of users can create much more inclusive environments. Consider how biological men and women often have different temperature comfort zones, and the average office is comfortable for biological men while space heaters and blankets are commonly used by biological women.

Or consider how the typical breakroom is geared towards cold lunches like sandwiches, leaving many underrepresented employees feeling a sense of otherness if they bring an aromatic lunch. This is due to many office kitchens being designed with inadequate ventilation and exhaust systems.

If you take a moment to reflect on how employees interact with your workplace, both in their work tasks as well as socializing and taking time for themselves, can you think of any areas where members of your team may feel excluded?

Policies and procedures are where intentions around DEI are activated, as they guide how employees use the space.

Take for example the biggest issue today, hybrid or remote working.

Remote working policies, both before and after the pandemic, overwhelmingly favored white collar and knowledge workers. These policies placed higher trust in these workers and lower trust in more task-based employees, such as those working in call centers. Yet it’s the lower-ranking workers who tend to have easily-measurable metrics for success and the highest levels of accountability in an organization.

When setting any policy that benefits a select group of employees, it’s important to step back and ask “why?” it only benefits that group and not everyone. Think about the business impact of this policy and the logistics of extending it to a larger group.

Flexible work is the most obvious example, but many policies in an organization could have similarly inequitable impacts.

Read the Report

This article just touches the surface of a complex issue.

The research paper is freely available for download now on Filene’s website, and throughout the year we at Momentum will be publishing a series of whitepapers and guides to help credit unions put these ideas into practice.

We are a proud sponsor and contributor to this research project. We believe that it represents a significant step forward in building workplaces that truly support people’s mental and physical wellbeing while empowering them to be their best selves.

Ready to have a conversation on how to activate DEI principles and build a more inclusive physical workplace? Reach out to our team today!

Jay Speidell

Jay Speidell

Jay Speidell is the Marketing Manager at Momentum, a strategic design-build partner that takes a people centric approach to helping credit unions across the nation thrive. Web: Details