Can you create a fairer working environment? Three things you might not have considered

John McNamara
Published on 6th January 2020
3 min read

HR and People teams are no strangers to diversity and inclusion.

There are many ways HR and People teams can help to make their organizations fairer places to be – from flexible working and maternity packages, to role-sharing and pay-gap reporting.

Yet, there are often inequalities hiding in plain sight when it comes to the working environment.

There are, in fact, subtler ways you can drive change in the workplace that you might not have previously thought of, that you can address alongside your wider more strategic D&I strategies.

For example, have you considered your office temperature? What about ditching the dress code? Here’s three things to consider.  

1. Reconsider your office environment

Loved by architects, the open-plan office appears to be a fair way of working. After all, there is no obvious hierarchy as with the old-style offices, where senior managers would be tucked away in corner offices.

However, research has shown that many people feel uncomfortable in open-plan offices. It can also cause issues on employee’s concentration, productivity and the overall employee experience.

With their computer screens on view, and having people being able to interrupt them at any time – as well as hear their phone calls – the lack of privacy can lead to anxiety for some employees.

In fact, this style of office can exacerbate, rather than support, wellbeing issues generally. Women, for example, have reported feeling they were being watched and judged in open-plan offices.

Peace and quiet is also extremely important. In a study by Oxford Economics, more than half of respondents complained about noise in the workplace. Another study by WeTransfer found that 65% of creative people say they need quiet to do their best work.

It’s not always possible to redesign an entire building, yet there are tweaks that can be made. For example, can you provide quiet, safe spaces around the office including break-out areas, sofas and phone booths?

2. Change your office temperature

On the face of it, it seems obviously important to keep the office at a comfortable temperature for all employees. Yet this isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

If your office is air conditioned, the temperature may not suit everyone. Traditionally, office air conditioning was designed for the average body temperature of a man. Because women tend to have a slower metabolic rate, they often feel the cold more at work. Older employees may also be affected.

This isn’t so easy to solve as a comfortable temperature is individual preference. However, organizations can now get temperature-controlled apps to localize temperature to a desk or an office space.  You could also consider branded jumpers or hoodies that people can keep at work for when the office is too cool for them, or alternatively desk fans could be used when the temperature is too warm.

3. Update your dress code policy

Has your company kept up with the times when it comes to dress code? Do you set out what employees should wear?  Or has your organization binned the dress code altogether?

Whilst only one in 10 people now wear a suit to work, there are still many traditional sector employees – such as law and banking –  abiding by strict dress codes.

When Business Insider asked bankers about their dress codes, ties, suits and formal shoes were the norm – with even ‘dress-down Fridays’ having its own dress code. For example at ING, they will allow a checked shirt on dress-down Friday, but jeans are still off limits.

So, for organizations that haven’t already, could you ditch the dress code?

Many schools and colleges have introduced gender-neutral dress codes, and forward-thinking organizations will not be far behind. In fact, Stonewall recommends that, “dress codes and uniforms should be gender-neutral and applied consistently across the organization.”

Have you asked your people what they need?

Whilst it makes sense for many organizations to rip up the dress code or take down the gender descriptive signs on the bathroom doors, a fair working environment goes far further.

Flexible working or addressing the gender-pay gap are even bigger challenges to address.  

However, guess work simply isn’t enough. Creating a fair working environment relies on two-way conversations between your HR and People team and your employees. 

Progressive organizations understand that it’s important to stay connected to their employees with regular conversations, whether they have a dedicated feedback email address, or ask managers to regularly talk to their teams and record their feedback.

Have you asked your employees if there are subtle ways you can make the working environment fairer?

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