We need wild, bold ideas to disrupt workplace design for women

We need wild, bold ideas to disrupt workplace design for women

Stacey Ong
Melinda Gates recently called on us to reimagine workplaces so that they work for everyone, describing how the traditional workplaces in the 1960s were designed for the typical employee – who was white, male with a stay at home wife.

I couldn’t agree more.

Right now is the perfect storm of opportunity for human-centred design, equality and inclusion, staff wellbeing and connection, and billions of dollars of investment to come together. We need wild, bold, rambunctious ideas to take this opportunity and reimagine how women – and men – and everyone else can work.

We are spending billions of dollars to reimagine work. Take office design for example. Google has reimagined the workplace with its campus style footprint, slides between floors, meeting rooms made out of trains, swings, sleeping pods and its mantra that you should never be more than 150 feet from good quality, free food. The premise is that with good design comes greater employee happiness and productivity.

Billions of dollars are spent by large organisations – particularly tech organisations – on ground breaking office design. Apple reportedly spent $5 billion on Apple Park in Silicon Valley and Google announced that it will be spending $13 billion on data centres and offices in the US in 2019.

But despite all of this incredible creativity and investment to disrupt the traditional way we work, none of it appeals to me. None of it is designed around my experience as a woman and as a full-time working parent. I don’t want a giant slide or food on tap. I don’t want to sleep at work. I don’t want to scoot between meetings.

These offices and working conditions are designed around the Googler, which according to their latest diversity report is male, white and young.

Where are the crazy, fabulous, bold, and expensive investments in women’s experiences of the workplace?

Workplace design and women appears to be confined to the basics of co-located child care and breastfeeding rooms. But we can do better. If Google imagined a giant slide, scooters and train meeting rooms, then we can go beyond the basics to boldly and disruptively imagine how the workplace could be designed with equality and inclusion in mind. We can think about how different women and parents and everyone else that is not the ‘norm’ experiences fun, stillness, joy and connection.

What would the ideal workplace look like for you? What would your ideal experience at work be? What would something completely and wildly disruptive look like? What about working across different locations, maybe offices located in the city, suburbs and on the coast?

The buildings could have different themes where you could pick and choose where to spend your work day. There could be a Scandinavian-designed, wellness-themed office, with an indoor garden, green smoothies and kombucha on tap and a yoga studio. There could be another office where children and dogs are welcome. This one would have outdoor play equipment, lots of natural light and toys, books and quiet spaces. There could be another gorgeous light-filled heritage building office complete with library, where you could go to do some serious thinking and quiet work. All offices would have great coffee of course. There would be a dedicated spa at one of the offices where you could go for a free spa session. There would be an office with brilliant art and colour that celebrates design and creativity. But that’s the limits of my imagination, based on my one lived experience. We need lots of voices and lots of experiences to contribute to a conversation about what life is really like at work and what it could be.

A study by McKinsey estimates that $25 trillion in global GDP could be added by tapping into women that are unemployed or underemployed. There are also plenty of women who are not actively looking for work, but if the environment, pay, culture and conditions were right could be enticed back to work.

I know that women’s disengagement in the workforce is due to much more than fancy office design. Conditions, culture and pay have a huge impact on experience and engagement. I know that gender inequality is structural and institutionalised and cultural and is resistant to change. And there is infinite scope for new, wild and rambunctious ideas in conditions, culture, and pay as well. I know that workload includes both paid and unpaid work and reimagining the workplace also means we have to reimagine home life. These are topics for another time.

Every time a female friend of mine considers disengaging with the workforce because it’s all too hard, like this speech by Anne Marie Rice that resonated so strongly with me, or taking a job that they are overqualified for, I like to think of the Google slide and know that there are no limits to what is possible, it just has to be imagined and we have to care enough to make it happen.

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