Equity at Work: Designing an Inclusive and Equitable Workplace Culture

by Jake Minden

image: Equity at Work Report

Equity at Work: Designing an Inclusive and Equitable Workplace Culture is a collaborative research project between University of Washington MLA Graduate Jake Minden, The College of Built Environments Applied Research Consortium, and Mithun.

Vision

Built environment design professionals are responsible for myriad spaces that contribute to positive or negative effects on societal health, well-being, and happiness. Who designs the built environment (representation), and how they do it (equitable practice) matters. Improving the representation and retention of design practitioners from historically excluded racial and ethnic minority groups and developing more equitable and inclusive workplace practices is imperative to reduce the negative effects of white supremacy in built environment design practice and the built environment itself.

Many racist barriers in need of removal exist within the design professions, from K-12 to post-secondary education to professional development and leadership. The scope of this research focuses on workplace culture as it relates to the retention of employees from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority communities.

Workplace culture is traditionally seen as top-down and defined by the leaders of a firm or organization. However, as workplaces become increasingly adaptable to a rapidly changing world and workforce, employees are expressing more agency in shifting workplace cultural norms and expectations. Independent of who creates workplace culture, it is ubiquitous to all firms and organizations, unspoken, and dynamic. Positioning workplace culture as a tool for or against white supremacy in the workplace places significant social and ethical responsibility onto those designing or influencing workplace culture. This research asks built environment design professionals to identify weaknesses within their workplace cultures and to empower professionals with information and concrete options for improving equitable practices.

Research

This R+D effort investigated perceptions of workplace culture within built environment design professions including architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and urban design and planning. A review of existing literature on equitable workplace practices informed the research goals, questions, and methods. A national anonymous survey was distributed widely and received 575 design professional responses containing valuable insights into workplace cultural perceptions. A series of semi-structured interviews provided additional anecdotal data.

Survey respondents used Likert scales to rate their agreement on the presence of 23 workplace cultural factors, determined through the initial literature review, and survey responses were analyzed along axes of respondent identity including race, ethnicity, and gender. Answers from the Likert scale questions, which asked specifically about workplace cultural factors, were converted into numeric values, averaged, and compared for both different respondent subgroups and different questions. The averages were used for a ranking analysis and a discrepancy analysis to compare and contrast respectively respondent perceptions.

Word cloud generated survey responses to the prompt “Describe your workplace culture in 3 words.” / image: Equity at Work Report

Findings

Preliminary findings show the demographic range of all respondents and briefly illustrate the need for this research through a snapshot of workplace representational gaps which reinforce previous research findings. Survey responses reveal two simultaneous yet divergent stories of workplace culture. The first finding tells a story of alignment where the lowest scoring cultural factors are agreed upon by nearly all respondents. This demonstrates that most employees, independent of race and ethnicity, desire similar improvements to workplace culture. There is a general alignment in how people want to be treated at work and what individuals value, like equitable and transparent compensation systems, clear promotional criteria, and feedback on performance. Many of the lowest scoring factors have clearer and more actionable solutions than other cultural factors. Though the solutions to many low scoring factors are complex and nuanced, a path forward is more clearly identifiable. These are considered tangible cultural factors. They identify a specific need that can be ameliorated through a relatively short-term, low-expenditure effort that is more readily apparent.

In the second finding, certain factors received scores with high degrees of discrepancy between respondent subgroups, indicating an uneven experience of work. A different type of factor emerges in the lists of greatest discrepancies. The cultural factors identified here are intangible cultural factors, which are typically driven by social and emotional experiences, and more personally determined. Intangible factors involve softer, more affective qualities like trust, shared values, growth opportunities, sense of belonging, inclusion, interpersonal relationships, psychological safety, fairness, and finding work meaningful. The improvement of intangible cultural factors requires a more complex and nuanced approach which involves a greater investment of time and thoughtfulness to build relationships and trust, align values, and feel belongingness and inclusion.

Derived from primary findings, this spectrum of tangibility arranges workplace cultural factors by their qualitative nature and actionability. Tangible cultural factors are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of workplace culture improvement. Generally, positive changes to tangible cultural factors are more easily implemented. Intangible factors involve trust, belongingness, and care. Improving intangible factors is difficult, gradual, and requires authentic, supportive action. / image: Equity at Work Report

These two primary findings reveal the presence and perceptions of different types of cultural factors, tangible and intangible, which are visualized in the image above. While both types of factors are important, when compared to the retention data, intangible cultural factors displayed stronger relationships to predicted retention than tangible culture factors. This means that the more likely someone is to feel the presence of intangible cultural factors the more likely that they have no plans to leave their current workplace. The improvement of both intangible and tangible cultural factors are important in designing a more equitable and inclusive workplace culture within built environment design practice.

Looking Forward

The resultant recommendations come directly from the primary findings. The first four recommendations attempt to ameliorate negative workplace perceptions identified in the story of discrepancies by focusing on intangible factors. The specific actionable items are extracted from anecdotal interview data, where interviewees described measures taken within their workplaces that were successful in building trust and aligning values.

The remaining six recommendations are pulled from the lowest ranking cultural factors that emerged from the ranking analysis. Though their execution will be nuanced and complex, these recommendations address specific and clear issues identified by all respondents. These tangible factors can be shifted on a shorter timeline and with more understandable causes and effects.

Exploring specific execution of the recommendations was beyond the scope of this project, but future endeavors around these topics and the implementation of the recommendations is exciting, highly important, and full of potential. The set of recommendations is intended to be used in whatever way is most useful for each workplace. Workplaces are highly varied in their structures, sizes, cultures, equity efforts, and goals. By creating a menu options of equitable workplace cultural practices, workplaces are able to pick and choose one or more recommendations to implement, discuss, or explore based on their own internal analysis of their workplace culture.

To learn more and aid the effort to positively shift design practice, read the full report.

For any questions related to the research or report, please contact Jake Minden.

Jake Minden is a former Fellow with the Applied Research Consortium at the University of Washington. He is currently a landscape designer at Mithun, in Seattle.

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