Make your coworking space more accessible

One realization from the pandemic was how many jobs can be completed at home, opening up more opportunities to workers who have additional needs for accessible spaces. How can your coworking space serve these workers?

As the workforce comes back to the office, expectations have shifted. And that includes differently-abled workers who want to leverage coworking spaces and employers who may offset their leases to a coworking/hybrid office model. 

The global pandemic taught us many things about our collective experience with work and office space. One realization was how many jobs can be completed at home, opening up more opportunities to workers who have additional needs for accessible spaces… and how little is done to accommodate them, despite legislative efforts.

Karin Hitselberger is a Washington, D.C., writer, disability advocate and social worker who told her own personal story about a shift toward accessibility in her own experience when the rest of the world was shutting down and experiencing limits. In her interview with CBC Radio, Hitselberger noted that “virtual events and virtual life has opened up a world to me that never existed before.

She went on to say that, “What we have learned from the pandemic is that we can do things differently, and not everyone has to do things the same way. And I think if we can hold onto that lesson and realize that different doesn't mean less valid, we can take something really beautiful away from this horrible experience.

Start with an understanding of the principles of Universal Design

Universal design is the principle that everything from buildings to web site to consumer products and nearly everything else should be designed so that the greatest number of people can use them easily, regardless of disability or limitation.

The Center for Universal Design at NC State University published a concise yet comprehensive guide to making any space accessible. Though the center is longer in operation, their thought leadership is a starting place for any coworking space looking to ensure its environment is inclusive.

The authors were made up of a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers who all collaborated to establish the following Principles of Universal Design to guide a wide range of design disciplines including environments, products, and communications. 

These seven principles may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.

The Priciples of Universal Design Poster by NC State University

The seven principles apply not just to facility design, but also to products and environments in general. Here is an abbreviated version of the principles explained in greater details in the graphic above and here.

  1. Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.

Neurodiversity is another consideration for coworking space design. 

"Different types of brains (e.g. introvert vs extrovert, neurodiverse, autistic), different types of tasks (e.g. programming vs brainstorming), and different times of day (mid-morning vs immediately after lunch vs just before home time) form a three-dimensional matrix of conditions, and therefore needs, from a workspace. That might sound complex, but in practical terms, this does not mean a total re-design."

Coworking is, at its heart, based on the idea of accessibility and flexibility. And never have those ideas meant more than it does right now. But it’s up to coworking space designers and operators to understand what that means as a practical execution of a philosophical vision, and to welcome people of disabilities visible and invisible into their space for community, networking, and empowerment.

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