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Designing a Beautiful and Accessible Workspace

An Exclusive Interview with Ed Warner, Founder & CEO at Motionspot.

Is your office truly accessible? Only 6% of people with a disability are wheelchair users, yet when we think about designing accessible spaces, we immediately think of wheelchair accessibility. What about the other 94% of people with disabilities, including invisible disabilities?

In this interview, accessible design expert Ed Warner shares how to create a workspace that’s truly inclusive. Ed is co-founder and CEO of Motionspot, an award-winning design consultancy specialized in creating accessible and inspiring spaces and is also the UK’s Government Champion for Accessible Design.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • About evidence-based design
  • Some no-nos and quick wins for accessible spaces
  • Design principles for neurodiverse individuals
  • Top tips for low-cost/no-cost things to do to improve your workspace accessibility

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Ed Warner. You can also listen on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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FIONA: Welcome back to Inclusion Works. I’m your host Fiona Young and I run the diversity, inclusion and belonging practice at Hive Learning. The peer learning app for enterprises. Our guest today is Ed Warner, co-founder and CEO of Motionspot which designs life-changing spaces for anyone with a disability or in need of extra support. The company is now an award-winning industry leader and Ed was recently appointed as government champion for accessible design in the UK. He says the ultimate goal is to create beautiful accessible environments that are appealing and inclusively designed for everyone. Welcome Ed, it’s a pleasure to have you here and to chat with you today.

ED: Thank You Fiona. Great to be here.

FIONA: So can you start by just telling us a bit more about the work you’re currently doing at Motionspot and what you’re trying to achieve?

ED: So Motionspot we’re an accessible design specialist working with commercial clients to help them deliver really beautiful accessible spaces. We also work with people in their own homes to help them live more independently in a well-designed accessible space.

FIONA: First up, I want to ask you something that we ask all of our guests on Inclusion Works. Can you tell us about the experiences that first made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues and led to your work in this space?

ED: Sure. So my first involvement with accessibility was actually through a personal experience of an old school friend of mine, Dr James Taylor who sadly suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident age 25. He spent eight months in Mandeville Hospital, then returned home to his flat in Battersea South London where he realized he needs to make some adaptations to his home.

A local specialist came in and advised him in what was needed and suddenly his beautiful home started to look more like an institutional care home for [unintelligible] products that is so synonymous with disability and aging in particular and it was something he said to me in 2011, he said every morning I wake up and I’m reminded of my condition because the products around me and I’m a big believer that the environment right to people, you can really positively impact cognitive and physical health.

So that was the first time I thought to look at market and realize that the world of accessibility and particularly design for accessibility is predominately led by function rather than form and what I mean by that is there’s very little consideration for aesthetics in these spaces and the more I look today and the more commercial organizations I began to talk to. I understood that actually the accessible areas in buildings which so often are wheelchair-accessible toilet or shower block tends to be the worst environment in any office.

Then I realized there was a way to create a business that did something different and provided a design service and set of products for both commercial businesses as well as homeowners.

FIONA: That’s such a powerful story. I totally can understand that feel of like a clinical space around you, like we’ve all been in a hospital. We’ve all seen that and I absolutely when I first heard about your business and spoke with you kind of started to look around me and realize oh yeah, our accessible toilets in our office look pretty clinical. Oh, like you know it was like I had my eyes open to this which I never really, I guess I’ve always taken for granted.

So I want to start by asking you about evidence-based design. So I know that you’ve said in the past that you’re really passionate about evidence-based design. Can you explain what this is and practically how you do it?

ED: Absolutely. So, for us what is the core of our business is the understanding of ultimately what our customers require. So what we specialize in is something that we call evidence-based design which is all about drawing on global best practice as well as the access regulations that are out there in the marketplace that business environments have to follow whenever they’re refurbishing or building a new development. But we also couple that with our own designers knowledge and experience of what works when designing accessible areas. But the evidence part really comes from the focus groups that we run with the individuals who may be using these spaces.

Recently, so many so many designs and particular designs of products have been designed by predominantly younger people who are able-bodied, who have designed products and spaces to suit them without necessarily considering how everybody might engage with that space and product.

So we’re all about putting together focus group part of our design process to get very rich feedback from individuals with a whole range of different disabilities whether they be physical, cognitive or sensory or neurodiversity, just to get their feedback on what they feel will work because currently the design regulations, the building regulations in place aren’t actually clear enough when it comes to the design of accessible spaces which is why some of the problems are occurring in our office developments and another commercial branches.

FIONA: This is something that really struck me about your approach with evidence-based design you know from our conversation previously is that actually you’re not just thinking about the typical use case of an individual who’s a wheelchair user, right? You’re looking much more broadly and personally like again this was a real awakening for me because I had never thought about what are the sensory needs? What are the cognitive needs for instance of people who are neurodiverse.

So I wonder if you could tell us a bit about projects that you’ve been working on recently with a global bank for design plans for a really cutting-edge office building, that’s successful for people with physical as well as cognitive disabilities. Can you share what you’ve taken into consideration particularly for neurodiverse accessible spaces.

ED: Yes. I’d be happy to take one of our client examples. Just before I answer that question though just to address a point you made before about people’s understanding of disability. Traditionally whenever spaces have been designed to be accessible, it tends to only encompass the needs of wheelchair users.

So whenever you know we first start talking to new clients, they often get fixated on the fact that their office development may be accessible for a wheelchair user, and the first thing we actually say to them is that maybe the case but actually

Any form of cognitive impairment right away through to anxiety, Tourette’s to any form of sensory impairment or neurodiversity and it’s when we have those conversations with clients that actually were able to get the best type of engagement and can start to design the most inclusive of environments.

And to give you an example of a recent project that we’ve been working on, we’ve recently done a project with Barclays Bank in the area of Glasgow called Buchanan Wharf and Barclays approached us because they had an amazing vision to design a 5,000 person office in central Glasgow but wherever they possibly could to make it as accessible for every member staff as well as visitor coming to that office space.

And they gave us quite an interesting brief in the sense as part of their recruitment drive Barclays recruiting a number of people with autism into highly technical roles in the office in Glasgow and what Barclays realized quite quickly is they could bring in the most talented people into that building but actually the building wasn’t designed correctly and didn’t necessarily meet the means to promote autism, then is not going to work for the individual and it’s certainly not going to work for business.

So the brief they gave us was to pour over the design drawings that the architects had put together but also all the interior finishes that their interior design teams had created and to make recommendations to both the layout of the office building as well as the external areas and also the interior finishes to make sure it was as accessible as possible to meet the needs of anyone with a physical disability or a cognitive sensory impairment or neurodiversity. So a really fascinating project to be involved in.

FIONA: So what are like couple examples of things for instance like just thinking about neurodiversity. What are a couple total like no-nos of you know and maybe it is in the finishes. So maybe like the color of the walls or the lighting. Like what are some things to totally avoid to be more inclusive?

ED: When it comes to neurodiversity, one of the biggest no-nos is heavy patterns on both floors and walls. Often very popular with a number of interior designers but patterns in the built environment can look very different to different people and can be very distracting and off-putting for someone with neurodiversity. And thinking about the use of space is also really important. So what I mean by that is if you walk through an entrance door into a very open and atrium space. It can be quite overwhelming with someone with neurodiversity, both in terms of size of space, but also the acoustics in that environment, and also just the movement of people can be you know quite distressing for someone with neurodiversity.

So what we always advise our clients to think about is how when someone walks through the front door of their building, that can be an area or zone where people can compose themselves before actually making their way towards the reception desk and that maybe some soft seating. That may be an opportunity for somebody to take off their coat to, put away their umbrella. Just to prepare themselves for what they’re going to go into in that office environment.

And then when you’re in the main reception space, just to look a breaking up in big areas of space with softer seating with a really good biophilia. So use of plants to soften the space. Make sure you haven’t got any really big screens blaring you know music and particularly colorful images which is such a popular design in reception areas.

And if there are those types of screens then it should be areas or quieter routes where someone with neurodiversity could access that space. I could go on and on Fiona, there’s just so many areas on it.

FIONA: Pretty much everything you said, well I was thinking myself as you were saying it like right, pretty much every office building I’ve been in probably in the last year has one or more of those characteristics like total no-goes.

ED: I think there’s always going to be barriers in the built environment and you know there are certain things you need in an office space that can’t be compromised, but you know what we always say to the clients we work with is to actually just be aware of what may cause the challenge and then what sort of access management plans. What sort of training. What sort of awareness can they give to frontline staff, reception staff and actually all members of staff that if they have a particular challenge in the office or an impairment that they are able to navigate slightly different routes that may be quieter without the same sort of intensity that other people may access that office space.

FIONA: So I think I mean just hearing about your example is really interesting because this is like total blue-sky thinking, when you’re putting together a brand new office building you know for Barclays in this case, just fascinating to think about all various different things you’re taking into consideration and putting in place there. But, of course, most of us are stuck with making do with something that may not be so super accessible. I mean the office that I’m in for instance is built in the 1990s and has well, I’m sure all sorts of issues. So what accessibility mistakes do you see made most often in the average workspace?

ED: I guess the most obvious mistakes are the simple ones like a series of steps at the front of the building, you know that’s still the many period buildings in urban areas that you know when they were designed and built, access just wasn’t front of mind with either the architect or the client developing it out. And you know we still see a lot of office steps. Now they are very easy to plan around either with a really well-designed ramp or you know there are some really clever solutions now in the market that you know can be disguised to look like stone steps in a period building but the press of a button those steps retract and you can have a platform lift elevating someone to the reception area.

Another really sort of common issue we come across is a lack of an accessible toilet on the ground floor and again you know this is a really really important facility for anyone with a disability, whether that be seen or unseen disability and there’s an awful lot of movement in our market at the moment around campaigns to raise awareness around the unseen disabilities and making sure you know anyone with an unseen disability can still access those toilets. But you don’t need a very big space for an accessible toilet on the ground floor but there should always be one within an office space and the staff who are using that building should be aware that it shouldn’t be abused that space. So it should only really be used for someone with an impairment and it’s just making people aware of that.

Other small sort of you know improvements that can be made are simple things like hearing loop systems that are very cost-effective to install in reception areas to improve acoustics as well as improve the quality of sound for someone with a hearing impairment and I guess the lowest costs even no-cost solution is to the offices to look at

So someone who can really take responsibility for understanding or some of the challenges may be in their environment and helping others to understand how they can best accommodate the needs of someone with a disability.

FIONA: That’s a great thought actually, and I wonder what other quick wins you’d suggest for the kind of everyday diversity and inclusion leader listening in or maybe even facilities manager. What sorts of things in addition to this idea of like having a champion would you say are pretty low-cost solutions.

ED: I think again, the lowest or even no-cost solution is to start by talking to your staff. There are so many offices and so many companies don’t necessarily know what the access requirements are of their staff. Often because they’re afraid to ask question. But the reality is that if someone has an impairment, they’re often very happy to talk about it in the right confidential way as long as they understand why they’re being asked the question.

FIONA: Yes, I guess that just goes back to your concept of evidence-based, right. So really having a focus group or how you know maybe engaging with an employee network for instance. That’s been set up around disability to really deeply understand the issues at hand.

ED: Can’t underestimate enough those focus groups and really the rich [unintelligible] back just to take it back again some of the work we’ve done with Barclays. Barclays are no different to many organizations and they have large open plan office areas with open plan desks. Again, that can be very confusing, and in fact, someone with cognitive impairment with any form of neurodiversity.

So as part of those focus groups we ran during the design process, we understood actually someone with neurodiversity, how would they like their desk position within an open plan layout. And the findings that came back from that were things like having a desk that’s positioned in an area of the office where someone has their back to the wall, so that they can see what’s going on in the office. They haven’t got people moving around behind them which can often be very distracting and it just brings slightly more of an element of control to someone’s desk position that actually if they’re feeling particularly in an environment they can take themselves off to a quieter space within the building.

And again when it comes back to the research from the focus groups, there should always be some area within an office that is just a quieter space enabling you know people to get away from the humdrum, the busy you know office environment by [unintelligible] everywhere and just be able to compose their thought and have a bit of time out both physically and mentally.

And what we found from the work we’ve done over the last seven years is you know the principles I talk about as part of this podcast aren’t just really beneficial for someone with a disability but they’re just universally good for everybody, and if we could design better universal spaces that work for everybody, we’re actually going to design better for accessibility.

FIONA: I was just about to say that like I completely agree. I always think inclusion is like you know like that saying like a high tide raises all ships and particularly when you think about really busy buzzy noisy open-plan office environments which are so popular at the moment and yet there’s so much research that shows that they’re just not as productive and certainly for anyone who’s more introverted you know or even someone like me who you know I spend a lot of time writing creating content like I need to get it done in a quiet place like that’s sort of having those sorts of quiet spaces benefits us but surely also has all sorts of potential side benefits for people who need space for reflection, space for coding you know space for prayer.

So when you start to think about the intersections between these different areas, different dimensions of diversity I think it’s really interesting too.

ED: I totally agree with that and if it’s thought about at the right time in the process, none of these design principles have to cost any more money. It’s just about thinking about it when you’re refurbishing you know an office development or you’re planning a new building. If the design thinking goes in at the right time, these are low to no-cost solutions and will just work for everybody.

FIONA: So I want to ask you a final question which I feel like you’ve already given us some tips on this actually throughout this chat but we like to ask all guests at the end of the show which is, what is this one simple thing that anyone could do in their workspace this week to build inclusion?

ED: Oh, that’s a good question and this week a particularly important to us because it’s celebrating the International Day for disabilities, so going on in the workplace this week. I think I’d asked two things, maybe even three things for people to think about. Firstly, is to talk to their staff and to understand what disabilities they may have.

And secondly what challenges they find within the current office environment, but I guess the third point is to consider having some form of low-level accessible design review conducted within your building. And this really doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money but it’s just to get a specialist in to help you understand you know some of the design challenges but importantly what solutions can be made to overcome those challenges.

So talking to staff. Understanding challenges and then getting some expert advice would be my three tips.

FIONA: Brilliant. Thanks so much for that and for sharing all these insights with us. I’m sure there’s a lot for listeners to take away from this chat. So if anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what is the best way for them to do that?

ED: So I’d be really happy to answer any questions anyone coming out of this podcast and if you want any more information on some of the design solutions that I’ve spoken about as part of this podcast, I’ll make sure there’s a link to show notes around different content that may be relevant for you. I’m also really happy to be connected on LinkedIn. So you’ll be able to find me under Ed Warner on LinkedIn and do check out our Motionspot website which is motionspot.co.uk because there are a number of case studies on there that I hope will be relevant and will just provoke some thinking about what’s possible when designing in a more beautiful, accessible office spaces. And I’m just keying both with my Motionspot hat on as well as you know my government sector champion hat on just to encourage the industry to think differently and change perceptions that accessible design and accessible products have to look clinical and institutional in their design because they absolutely don’t and you know I’m really excited about what the future holds in this area.

FIONA: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Ed. It’s been fantastic chatting.

ED: Great to speak Fiona. Thanks.

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An Exclusive Interview with Ed Warner, Founder & CEO at Motionspot.

Designing a Beautiful and Accessible Workspace

Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.

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Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.

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Designing a Beautiful and Accessible Workspace

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