Designing a Workplace that is Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive


Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are essential to building and maintaining a culture of engagement and innovation — one that advances business performance and fosters well-being and full expression of employees.

It is abundantly clear that DEI is critical for organizational success. Gone are the days when an organization’s intentions toward DEI were enough.

Organizational commitment to DEI must be more than a notion, it must be actioned. DEI must be baked into the design of an organization; and if inequity is by design, then it can be re-designed for inclusion by breaking down barriers of exclusion.

The major challenge is that there are no linear, one-size-fits-all blueprints for developing DEI strategies. DEI requires a human-centric approach designed to meet the unique needs of employees and consumers an organization strives to serve.

Whether consciously or not, humans are constantly designing. Every system, object and process has been designed to serve a purpose and fulfill a need: the chairs we sit on, the cutlery we use, and the drive-thru experience we navigate to get our morning coffee.

Workplaces, too, have been designed to nurture employee productivity, well-being and engagement.

However, current occupational barriers suggest the design is centred around a default employee base that narrowly reflects dominant culture. It fails to consider the full spectrum of human diversity, given that many organizational processes and environments create disadvantages for people from historically oppressed groups.

If we start to look at DEI as a design problem, we will progress toward creating a workplace designed with human diversity, social inclusion and equity at the forefront. Organizations that have not historically prioritized DEI will need to deliberately re-shape and re-design their workplaces for inclusion.

As an HR practitioner, I’ve approached organizational development and DEI strategies, with the curiosity, empathy and practice of inclusive design.

Inclusive design thinking is a way of describing a problem-solving technique that uses insight from understanding end users’ needs, experiences and backgrounds to innovate for radically inclusive solutions. It is grounded in the notion that inclusion is achieved when a design is usable by people with a wide range of demographic factors.

It starts with considering those who are most excluded from an experience and valuing their contributions throughout the design process.

Seek Exclusion

We must constantly ask who is being unintentionally or structurally excluded. To assess if your culture is inclusive, you will need to review all touchpoints of the employee life-cycle journey to identify points of exclusion that disproportionally reduce opportunities for already oppressed groups. This warrants a re-examination of all policies, practices and processes.

Once you learn who is most excluded and at which points, you must build a partnership with excluded communities that requires full participation in the process of re-designing for equitable outcomes. This is particularly vital if teams responsible for re-designing solutions are homogenous and reflect dominant culture.

The goal of inclusive design is to bring people historically excluded into the process, not to solve on their behalf.

Prioritize Inclusion

To successfully build products and services that cater to diverse markets, it is important to co-design with people from the target communities. This requires your organization to keep a pulse on the demographic team composition, source for diversity and hire inclusively.

Demographic surveys should be designed to measure both demographic diversity factors, as well as inclusion sentiment. These surveys should provide opportunities for people to elaborate on low inclusion scores, so that points of exclusion could be explored and resolved.

Inclusion creates conditions for people to confidently leverage their diversity and supports talent retention.

Inclusion comes first. Without it, you will inflict undue harm to groups of people you intend to engage.

For greater impact, design standards for inclusion; reward people managers for inclusive experiences and hold them accountable for exclusive ones.

Design at its core is action aimed at transforming existing structures into desired ones; in this case, removing institutional inequities so that everyone belongs, thrives and is truly included.

Get Proximate by Empathetic Understanding and Acknowledging Privilege

To design for people is to be in a seat of privilege as the ultimate bridge between people and services.

As humans, we all hold biases and we are vulnerable to reproducing assumptions and reinforcing status quo through design based on our limited world views. We are susceptible to designing for people who are similar to us; those who reflect our abilities and characteristics.

We cannot effectively mitigate institutional bias and reliably design an equitable workplace without gaining insights directly from underrepresented groups.

This can be gathered by holding focus groups and observing employees using services and navigating spaces.

These ethnographic methods and analyses are carried out with a high regard for empathy. It invites you to see the organization and its offerings through the lenses of others to understand how their participation is shaped by their multiple, intersecting identities and social contexts.

Empathy is a starting point, but it does not replace the ingenuity and creativity of lived experience that employees can bring as contributors and co-designers of solutions.

Co-design with Interdisciplinary Teams That Include People from Historically Excluded Communities

Collaborative partnerships reduce groupthink and generate breakthrough solutions by getting to the core of what will truly improve the lives of end-users.

When you collaborate with people who look and behave like those you are creating for, you foster the conditions for your product or service to land favourably and meet their needs.

Participatory design consciously blurs the boundaries between the creator and consumer.

All participants (including those that are testers or part of focus groups) should be adequately rewarded, promoted and valued for their contribution and labour.

Adapt for Human Difference

A one-size-fits-all design that universally serves all people has been successful in the architecture of many workplaces; however, a one-size-fits-one design creates a more inclusive experience.

When designing for inclusivity, we must consider accessibility with a broad lens on a diversity of possibilities that allow people to participate in different ways for a shared sense of belonging.

Inclusive design predispositions toward multifunctionality and morphs to best fit its users. Thus, an inclusive design may not lead to a single universal design but will provide adaptivity to fit different users’ unique and evolving needs.

An example of this in the workplace is offering employees flexibility in benefits and time off. This empowers people with a degree of options to choose from to decide what best fits their needs and evolving lifestyles.

Applying an inclusive design process helps organizations tackle the complex and wicked root causes of exclusion by grasping the needs of people and translating it into the experiences and products they offer.

Any time we design for the workplace, we inevitably take on the responsibility of determining which prospective employees can interact with the environment and who cannot.

Design is a component of all intentional acts. If we are not proactively and deliberately inclusive, we will unintentionally be exclusive.

Co-designing for inclusion is an opportunity to bridge the divide and bring people into the DEI conversation and work by considering how the design of workplace programs, services and products could equitably address human needs.



Mandy Bhullar is a CPHR and an awarded diversity and inclusion practitioner.

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