By Brian Collins and Martha Clarkson
Tags: workforce • workplace design • employee engagement• special needs
The Work&Place Editorial Advisory Board applauds this article as one of the eight best articles we published in 2019. We recommend it highly for its candor, its thoughtful critique of workplace design practices, and its call for a much broader and more inclusive approach to workplace thinking.
Microsoft’s focus on workplace accessibility provides people with diverse special needs the opportunity to obtain and maintain employment through a structure of ongoing assistance, support, and sensitivity to their circumstances.
Martha Clarkson on why this topic is so important for Microsoft, and what prompted Brian and Martha to share their experiences with the world:
Making workplaces both accessible and inclusive
Just inside Building 92, the most public-facing building on Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, visitors are greeted at a large reception desk. The desk has two surface levels: one at the appropriate height for people arriving on foot, another at the appropriate height for people arriving via wheelchair. It is a striking piece of furniture that floats mid-room like an island. However, this reception desk is meaningful for a different reason. People in a wheelchair can access it from the front, slide their knees beneath it, and comfortably interact with the guest-registration device.
If you don’t use a wheelchair, you may not know that this degree of accessibility is not the norm. Most companies comply with accessibility legislation or code, mandated across most of the world via standards like the United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In many cases, however, the building code does not go far enough to be inclusive to the needs of everyone.
One visitor in a wheelchair wrote to say they really appreciated being able to wheel in to the reception desk to register:
“I ended up waiting twenty minutes for my appointment to escort me; ; it would’ve been nice to have a place to set up my laptop.”
Of course it would have! Low coffee tables are hard for people to reach to set a drink, let alone work on a device.
Choice. It’s all about choice.
In recent years, a transformation in our company culture has compelled us to reach higher in the areas of inclusivity and accessibility. Inclusion lies at the heart of the mission statement Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduced three years ago:
To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
For most of the 20th century, people defined disability as the result of an individual’s condition. The person was the problem. Today we know that disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and her/his environment. Physical, cognitive, and social exclusion result from a mismatch between what people want to achieve and an environment that does not support them. This new definition of disability as a mismatch, first adopted by the World Health Organization, presents a solvable design, business, and social challenge.
We have learned that empowering human beings across a diverse spectrum is not only the right thing for companies to do – it is good for business.
Why go the extra mile for accessibility?
If companies don’t have facilities that support a diverse population, they miss out on the widest possible talent pool. Take physical disability, a category of human diversity that may be bigger than you think. There are a billion people on the planet with a disability, and some 70 percent of these disabilities are invisible. Accommodating and including this much of the potential workforce—not to mention customers and visitors—is simply sound business sense.
But how does a company accommodate individuals with disabilities if it doesn’t know who they are? That is a challenge—and one Microsoft has met by working with its Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs (CELA) department to establish a partnership with an advisory group of employees who have disabilities. That community then advises designers on the second most formidable challenge: how to most meaningfully address their needs.
Our partnership with these advisors has helped improve our empathy and understanding of the employee experience, as when the built environment gets in the way of someone doing their job at Microsoft. Sometimes these partners will uncover an area where a design does not serve everyone—as they found near that reception desk in Building 92, where lobby tables weren’t high enough to allow people in wheelchairs to work comfortably while waiting for appointments.
How can we, as designers and real estate/facilities professionals, know what will help people with disabilities? Like all humans tend to, we view the world through our own lens. While you can step out of your focus area to develop ideas, you will never truly know until you ask.
This is why partnerships with the community are of the utmost importance. When I began this journey, we shot six people on video telling us what challenges they had in the workplace, including what was going well in terms of new ideas and what was not.
When the camera rolled on the first person, I had a moment of feeling like I was putting the spotlight on their disabilities (I was). But I talked to each of them afterwards, expressing my concern, and each replied with a sincere thank YOU, because it’s all about someone listening.
Listening and absorbing creates an easy path to ideas. Now you have partners, and the ideas can be taken back to them to be tested, like we do our in our lab, The Hive, where we build cardboard mockups and invite people of all kinds to try new ideas.
In one such test, we created cardboard replicas of desks and modular rooms, which employees who use wheelchairs tested for height, reach, and comfort.
Design and layout decisions
Numerous design and layout decisions within Microsoft have been informed by the knowledge only those who live with a disability can impart. Designers remodeling the cafes on the main campus were preparing to feature digital ordering at point-of-sale, where people with vision impairments can order at a screen reader that conveys information audibly. But before that reader could be used, employee advisors noted that clear travel paths had to be established through the queue-clogged floorspace.
That is why in some Puget Sound Campus cafes, railings and concrete “roads” through the carpeting have been installed to clearly differentiate the travel paths from the queuing areas. In others, salad bars have been switched from a make-it-yourself to an order-what-you-want setup, so that those who use wheelchairs don’t encounter unreachable ingredients. And throughout the campus, utensils and drinks in coolers are now labeled in braille in addition to high-contrast lettering.
The value of design that works for everyone
People often ask us whether designing for accessibility is cost-prohibitive. In new buildings inclusive design can be folded into initial planning at little to no extra cost. After all, it costs the same to install a faucet on the side of a kitchen sink, where it is universally reachable, as it does in its traditional place in back.
When you’re building a reception desk anyway, why not make it as accessible to a wheelchair as to a standing person? When you strive to offer more accommodation than what is mandated by building codes, as we do, it is simply a matter of consultation with experts—those who use the accommodations—and empowering the designers to pursue integrated solutions.
Updating older buildings
In updating older buildings for accessibility and inclusivity, a company might start small. For instance, an organization might start with a Mother’s Room for nursing needs in one building, rather than in every building.
Many employers measure the urgency of inclusive design by trying to calculate how many people with disabilities work for their company. But the appropriate response to that inquiry is simply: It doesn’t matter. Design that includes everyone is, first and foremost, the right thing to do. Moreover, it benefits far more people than we know.
Disability is often temporary
Not everyone experiences a disability in their lifetime, but everyone is occasionally in need of accommodation. Anyone whose hands are full or whose wrist is broken will appreciate an automatic door push-plate. High-contrast screen settings were originally developed for people with low vision, but they come in equally handy for anyone trying to use a device in bright sunlight. An oversized revolving door accommodates a wheelchair—or a delivery cart.
All Microsoft employees and visitors benefit from its new internal phone app, Campus Link, that aggregates many Microsoft workplace services into a single information hub. A person with low vision might use his or her own mobile phone screen reader to find the required shuttle route, then plug in their destination building and see its floor plan for ease of navigation. In the works, thanks to feedback from Microsoft’s employee advisory group: audible turn-by-turn directions within the app to provide guidance to an individual’s ultimate destination.
Again, from Martha’s experience:
One of my most rewarding moments was having a designer in EMEA (Europe Middle East Africa) tour me through a new project (another client’s) and show me the accessibility items she had added to the project, “lifted” from our Accessible Workplace handbook. She commented, “Once I talked them through the importance, they wanted every one of them.”
We are happy to share our Accessible Workplace Handbook with anyone. Because if one company does one thing in it, well, isn’t the world a better place?
People with disabilities are underrepresented in the workplace, and the level of unemployment among people with disabilities is higher than the level for people without. This is especially true for people with an intellectual or developmental disability. That is why Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities developed the Supported Employee program, in which we provide individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to obtain and maintain employment through ongoing support.
It is a win-win, helping an underemployed community find and maintain employment while allowing Microsoft to tap into an often-overlooked talent pool of individuals. Those with intellectual and developmental disabilities show a higher-than-standard retention rate among the sorts of posts—move services, reception, mail, café, landscaping, and more—where turnover is traditionally high.
Over two hundred and fifty individuals have worked through the program, with over thirty types of roles identified. This includes jobs such as dining room attendant, warehouse assistant, event services greeter, transportation ambassador, pizza chef, and receptionist. Supported employees have an amazing work ethic; they are highly reliable despite some having to travel two hours or more to get to campus!
They are loyal and have an infectious energy that they bring to their teams. As our program has grown over time, we’ve come to find benefits we did not foresee. Not only have we realized that this not a charitable effort, but we also see that employers reap the benefits of a dedicated workforce that gets the job done. In addition, working with supported employees has created a higher sense of empathy for the Microsoft and vendor staff and managers who work with them.
One of our current goals is to help and inspire some of our industry peers to look into beginning a supported employment program in their organizations. We genuinely believe it is a program that can be easily incorporated by any company. At Microsoft we have some Guiding Principles that have given us a strong foundation for success.
Guiding principles for the supported employment program
Our program revolves around quality, scalability, and sustainability. And we couldn’t be successful today without our vendor and agency partners. They have been vital throughout this program in developing the job descriptions, identifying prospective workplaces and tasks that make up a body of work for supported employees. They provide quality support, coaching, mentoring, and so much more.
The main challenge lies in clarifying roles: Microsoft vendors provide employment opportunities, and recruitment agencies find potential employees and provide job coaches to support each employee in the job. We’ve also learned that manager training in supervising supported workers is critical to the program’s success.
Over four years, the Supported Employee program has been so successful that we’ve expanded it from twenty-eight to over two hundred and fifty supported employees at our main campus and extended it to six other sites in North America, India, and Europe.
Supported employment makes a meaningful difference in people’s lives
While many such programs place people with disabilities in separate settings, Microsoft’s Supported Employment develops opportunities within the mainstream working environment. Pay, benefits, and career opportunities are as competitive as in any workplace. Outcomes include a more inclusive and more empathetic work environment, both at Microsoft and within many of Microsoft’s vendor companies.
And after all, our ultimate goal is to decrease the unemployment rate among people with disabilities while increasing the number of people who feel welcome and supported at Microsoft. To this end, we work hard to accommodate not just people with disabilities, but people across all spectrums of human diversity:
- People with autism, who through our Autism Hiring Program can be interviewed using non-traditional methods, then afforded the workplace privacy or technological interventions that minimize distraction.
- New mothers, who can pump breast milk in purpose-built private and comfortable rooms.
- Practicing Muslims, who can participate in ritual washing before prayer at the private Wudu sinks we are adding alongside our Meditation Rooms in new buildings.
Microsoft now makes all-gender restrooms standard alongside traditional single-gender restrooms in all new buildings. These were originally promoted by the transgender community, but it didn’t take long for us to understand that all-gender bathrooms represent a privacy enhancement for all of us. Unlike other sorts of accommodations, everyone uses restrooms. The lack of acoustical and, to some degree, visual privacy in traditional restrooms helped to compel the addition of all-gender choices. We are also enhancing traditional restrooms with more private doors.
It’s all about empowering people
As we stated earlier, Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Diversity and Inclusion are at the very heart of who we are and are embedded in every product or service we create. Often disability is not thought of when diversity and inclusion come to mind. But with over a billion people with a disability worldwide, this is a chance to allow anyone the opportunity to live to their full potential and drive visibility where it is often missed.
It is yet another example of accommodations that might originate with one group, but which ultimately benefit a much larger pool of employees and visitors. That is inclusivity at its best—and it is what we at Microsoft are striving every day not just to deliver, but to improve upon.
Microsoft is making available its “Accessibility Handbook” with tips for creating a more inclusive workplace as well as many more images that speak louder than our words ever can. You can access the Handbook online at the following location:
It’s always a learning journey, and the Accessible Workplace handbook is constantly being updated. We never say the handbook is a finished product. Just a few months ago Martha reached to get a pen in the copy room at work. Reached. She stepped back, astonished. After all these years! Those supplies on high shelves!
We were able to come up with an inexpensive fix for existing sites and quickly add a new, accessible design to the guidelines. Sometimes the most obvious things are right in front of you.
About the Authors
He joined Microsoft in 1996 as the Facilities Manager for the Dublin (Ireland) campus; in his previous roles with Microsoft he was responsible for The Global Workplace Strategies Group; and defining and driving the “Workplace Advantage (WPA)” program, including Workplace research, knowledge management, and change management project consulting across Microsoft’s global portfolio.
Brian also served as Area Portfolio Manager for Real Estate and Facilities in Central & Eastern Europe, and Facilities Manager for EMEA (Europe Middle East & Africa) where he coordinated facilities activities over 160 locations in more than fifty countries.
Martha manages the Experience Design program in the corporate real estate group, including how to design for people with disabilities, going well beyond just code requirements. Martha is also a poet, photographer, and fiction/non-fiction writer. She received the Business Leaders in Design award from the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) in 2011
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