How to Design Workspaces that Embrace DEI

Intentionally Designed Experiences Exclude No One

August 18, 2022 • John Salustri

Do organizations have problem employees, or a problem work environment? That is the essential question being posed by HOK, a firm that advocates in its design approaches for workspaces that support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. Environments that limit performance are one potential cause of absenteeism and disruption, said Adriana Rojas, the firm’s Tampa, Florida-based director of interiors, and Micki Washington, an architect and HOK’s Houston-based regional workplace director.

Rather than people coming to a job bringing their disability, “Impairment plus environment equals disability,” Washington said during a presentation at the 2022 BOMA International Conference & Expo in Nashville in late June

There are a variety of characteristics upon which exclusion is based, Rojas and Washington said. These include not just race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but also age, physical ability, mental health and cognitive conditions. 

“One in seven people are neurodiverse,” Rojas said. “But fewer than 50 percent know it.” She cited autism, Tourette syndrome and Parkinson’s disease as conditions that should be considered in a truly open workplace in which employees divulge what special needs they might have.

Palette colors and lighting both figure into the mix, as does a variety of environments, the interior designer and architect said. But surprisingly, HOK shies away from DEI discussions with its clients. On one hand, Rojas and Washington said, human resources leaders should be involved early in those discussions. 

On the other hand, “This is in our DNA,” Rojas said, explaining that DEI is not an add-on consideration but it is baked into their overall approach. “We want this to be second nature, but we have to start somewhere.” 

And that “somewhere” is in the intentionality of the design approach and addressing such questions as:

  • How difficult is it for doors to open?
  • Is office equipment easy to use without language barriers?
  • Even left-hand/right-hand flexibility enters the discussion in a truly equitable environment.

A fully inclusive work environment is what Washington called an ecosystem of spaces to which people can migrate as needs dictate. There are hundreds of considerations that can be folded into the workplace design.

Rojas and Washington suggested a broad sampling: 

  • lactation and prayer rooms;
  • gender-inclusive restrooms;
  • amenities tailored to the cultural activities of the community;
  • a variety of seating options to accommodate varying body types; and
  • reception desks and food service counters accessible to different wheelchair heights.

“We are no longer designing environments,” Rojas said. “We are designing for the experience.”

And an intentionally designed experience excludes no one. 


John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of Prior to launching, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.