Can your office space help your company be more inclusive?

Can your office space help your company be more inclusive?

Karen Borchert's Layout avatar

When Flywheel first announced that we would be moving to the historic Ashton building, a 1900s millwork shop turned office and retail space in north downtown Omaha, we asked our employees to offer their input on what they wanted to see when it opened in 2020. Truthfully, we were expecting responses like “We want a dog park” or “We need a coffee shop nearby,” but instead our employees immediately asked bigger, more important questions like “Can we find ways for people with different work styles to work together?” and “How can we be good citizens to our new neighborhood?” We knew then that we wanted a space that felt great to every single team member, but we didn’t know how to make that happen.

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, our architecture firm, was an incredible partner in this work, challenging us to bring ideas of transparency, access, and belonging to the design of the space, and creatively thinking about how we could use our space to engage meaningfully in our neighborhood. It led us to challenge ourselves with this question: Can your office space help your company be more inclusive? Spoiler alert: The answer is a resounding yes.

We found four big ways to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with our new office space as we were designing the Ashton: 

  • Location, location, location: Where you are makes a difference
  • Design matters: Does our office allow everyone to do their best work?
  • Being excellent to each other by making space for all
  • Meaningful engagement within our community

Let’s dive in.


Location, location, location: Where you are makes a difference

Flywheel had been thinking about moving into a bigger office for quite some time, as we were rapidly growing and rearranging our office once a month to accommodate all of our new team members. We knew a simple solution to our problem would be finding a relatively central location in Omaha, move into an office park, and call it a day. It would have made a lot of people happy to have shorter commutes and a fresh new building. But, one of our values is centered on being productive community members, and we wanted to use our new space for something bigger. So, when we caught wind that a redevelopment project was happening in north downtown Omaha, we knew we wanted to be a part of it!

When we built our DEI charter at Flywheel, our mentors at Inclusive Communities told us, “you cannot expect diversity without meaningful engagement in the communities you wish to attract.”

It’s much easier to create relationships in communities we want to see represented more at Flywheel when we live and work in the same neighborhood.

By deciding that our new home would be in north downtown Omaha, we gained the opportunity to engage authentically in a neighborhood that isn’t home to many startups or technology companies, allowing us to broaden our perspectives and open our doors wider to this incredible community. 

Once we realized how our location could affect DEI efforts, we began to ask ourselves if our office building and space could also be a part of our DEI philosophy. Is it possible that our space could make Flywheel more inclusive?


Design matters: Does our office allow everyone to do their best work?

Flywheel’s mission is to help creatives do their best work. But to achieve it, we know our own teams must be set up to do their best work, too. When we first started to think about the intentionality and design of our space, our number one goal was to make sure everyone can do their best work here. But this was a unique challenge because not everyone works the same way.

At Flywheel, some people do their best work on a couch with a dog on their lap, some people need to be heads down at a desk with minimal distractions, and some people need to be in a bustling, social environment where they can have a drink and share some laughs with their coworkers at the end of the day. Beyond those preferences, some people have physical needs at work that we want to welcome and accommodate. We wanted to provide a space that meets our team’s physical, emotional, mental, and neurological needs, but the tricky thing was providing a cohesive workspace that allowed all of these types of people to work harmoniously under one roof — that’s when our amazing designers pitched us the heartbeat model.

The heartbeat model works like this: At the center of the office (the heart) you’ll find the bustle, interaction, and “creative collisions” between people who may not work in the same department, but benefit from conversations and discussions in collaborative spaces. But as you move to the edges of our space, you’ll experience less stimulus and noise, creating calm and quiet spaces for focused work.

So, how much “bustle” is enough? We knew we wanted the center to feel like the energy, sound, and excitement of the sales floor on the last day of the month. When we said this to the design team, they sent sound engineers to the office and took readings of just that! To accomplish it in the design, you’ll see that there aren’t any acoustic panels in the center, and there are a lot of hard surfaces (tables, bar stools, etc.). You’ll also find fewer options for soft seating (like couches or booths).

As you venture away from the middle of the office and go out into the team’s workspaces, you’ll hear the difference. These areas have sound-absorbing furniture, acoustic panels, and even acoustic paint (yes, that’s a thing!). The floors are carpeted, there’s sound-absorbing felt on the conference room walls, and at the very edges, you’ll find nooks with soft seating like booths and couches for people to work quietly. 

The heartbeat model is fantastic because it’s such a simple strategy that anyone can implement. 

Our goal here was pretty simple: every single person who walks in should be able to say that they can see themselves working at Flywheel. We don’t often think of work styles, physical limitations, or neurodiversity in conversations about DEI, but feeling safe and comfortable at work is how we help everyone belong.

Speaking of the people who work here, I want to quickly touch on some of my favorite accommodations for our team members that we built into our space.


Being excellent to each other by making space for all

One thing we believed strongly about this space was that it shouldn’t have spaces or amenities that are only for “some people.” In 66,000 square feet of space, we don’t have a single individual office. We all work in the open, and all conference rooms are available to book for private meetings and conversations. This sets up an important idea: our office is for everyone.

We carried this forward in the space design, too. While there are several ways to provide awesome accommodations for your employees, like free parking, snacks, and letting them bring their dogs to the office, there are three specific things we put some extra thought into:

Wellness rooms

I’ve learned from personal experience that there’s a funny thing around the term “nursing mother’s rooms.” While they are meant to be inclusive for nursing mothers, it can actually create the opposite effect. By making the name of them so specific, it can make people feel uncomfortable or uneasy, or like there are places in the office that are “off-limits” to all but one population. That doesn’t feel inclusive! So, instead we built three wellness rooms in our new space, and thought about how they might help everyone.

These rooms are bookable, secure spaces that include comfortable seating, a refrigerator, and a sink, and they can be used for any wellness need for any employee. Whether they’re needed for a nursing mother, someone who needs to administer medicine, or someone who simply needs a bit of privacy, these quiet, discrete rooms are built to support the physical and mental wellness for all of our employees.

Restrooms

While we have plenty of restrooms in our office, we ensured that there was an all-gender restroom included. It’s just a restroom designated for bio breaks, no matter who you are! 

Social Spaces

When most people think of what a tech company’s culture looks like, a “beer fridge”  often comes to mind. But as we started to think about our new office, we realized that not everyone wants to end their day with an alcoholic beverage. So, while our new bar does have a beer tap and a beer fridge, we also have a tap designated for nitro coffee cold brew and a soft drink fridge that has every beverage you could imagine. While this may seem small, we want to ensure that our social space feels excellent for everyone, no matter what they’re drinking.


Meaningful engagement and activation within our community

As I mentioned earlier, it was clear from the beginning that our founders, our employees, and Millwork Commons cared deeply about being an active participant in our new neighborhood. We didn’t want it to feel like an island where we just go into the office at 9 am and we turn around at 5 pm and drive home. Just like the rest of the Ashton building, we wanted our office to feel open and welcoming to our community.

We made this happen in two ways. The first is our “All Hands” space. This area can hold up to 400-450 people in one room. However, Flywheel’s 200+ team members only gather once a week at the most. We knew that more often than not, this space would be underutilized by our team. So, our architects designed this space near the entrance, with its own lockable doors, allowing it to be used by the community whenever it’s available!

Once it’s safe for us to go back to the office post-pandemic, our employees can host technology meetups, nonprofit meetings, and even conferences in this space. It has all the tech amenities that a large group would need, a boardroom, and even a kitchenette. The best part? It’s free of charge for community organizations hosted by a Flywheel team member. 

The second way we’re excited to directly engage with our community is through the Community Canvas program. This program has been a bit of a passion project of a few Flywheelers and it’s the perfect intersection of two of our values: “Design Matters” and “Committed to Give Back.”

The Community Canvas program allows our community to experience art and design in a really cool way. Any employee (or group of employees) can partner with an organization in the community, like a nonprofit or even one of our customers, to propose a show in our gallery. We’ll select one show each quarter, helping our teams experience the extraordinary creative work in our community and inviting those organizations into our space.

Our first Community Canvas project is a partnership between Rise, our Employee Resource Group dedicated to Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and the Union for Contemporary Art, a nonprofit organization located in North Omaha that uses art as a vehicle to inspire positive social change. They collaborated and installed a gallery wall of art created by children with the theme of hope during the pandemic.

This brings me back to why location is so important. Our teams got to work with some extraordinary families in our neighborhood that we might not have met before. And some really talented creative kids now see their art hanging up in our office, which is just a stone’s throw from where they live.

Will each of these young artists and their parents see themselves belonging at Flywheel just a little more as a result? I think so. 


So, can your office space help your company be more inclusive? Absolutely. But, this new space is just the beginning. There is so much work to be done toward more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces in tech, and our company is no different. But in a space thoughtfully designed to make people know they belong here, we’ve set the stage and challenged our teams to continue to build on that foundation.

Because every company benefits when more people see themselves belonging there. Every company benefits when the perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds at the table are diverse. And every company benefits when every employee is set up to do their very best work.

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