Creating inclusive workplaces

Why designing spaces for people with different abilities creates spaces that benefit all users

October 12, 2021

Working from home got off to a bumpy start for more than a few of us at the onset of the pandemic. But, many people established routines and rituals at home that made their workday more enjoyable. As employees return to the office, they want to maintain the same level of comfort and accessibility that was present in their home office.

In this episode, James Cook speaks with two experts about how to create inclusive workplaces that benefit everyone. From designing spaces with accessibility in mind, to offering supplies that employees need like free menstrual products in the office bathrooms, it’s an eye-opening discussion about the seemingly small things that make a big difference.

James Cook: [00:00:00]: A lot of office employees are now really used to working from home. And home is a place where you feel comfortable, you feel accepted where you can really be yourself and employers want employees to feel that kind of comfortable when they come back to the office. So, the question is, how do they do it?

First, we're going to talk to Christina Piper. She's the VP of workplace design at JLL. She's going to tell us how universal design is a tool to make the workplace more appealing to all employees. Then we're going to talk with Claire Coder. Claire is the CEO of Aunt Flow, and she's going to tell us how workplace bathrooms can be more welcoming by stockpiling them with freely accessible menstrual products.

This is Building Places where we look at the world of commercial real estate through the eyes of the experts that study it every day. My name is James Cook. I research real estate for JLL.

Christina Piper: [00:01:09]: I am Christina Piper. I am the workplace design lead for JLL.

James Cook: [00:01:14]: So, what are you hearing right now? What are people anxious about, uh, workplace design?

Christina Piper: [00:01:20]: Our research actually shows that almost 80 percent of the workforce does want to come back to the office in some degree. Not five days a week. It might range from one to three days. And so the question really becomes, what environment are they coming back to? How are we making this a destination? How are we making this something that we desire to do? And really what we're hearing from people is that people miss the peer-to-peer interaction. They miss collaborative run-ins in the break room. Things that we took for granted pre-pandemic that we've missed.

James Cook: [00:01:55]: So, this idea that, you know, a lot of offices might move closer to hybrid, I would guess that most people would want to come in say Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

Christina Piper: [00:02:06]: So, companies have gone about this a few different ways, and many of them are in kind of trial phases or, uh, you know, experimentation where they do have what they call kind of shifted schedule. So we’re working with one client and they've made the decision their organization is so large that they have said you're either on the “A” schedule or the “B” schedule, you know, “A” is Monday, Wednesday, “B” is Tuesday, Thursday with Friday being the outlier.

The name of the game here is really flexibility and all different ways and modules. When we look at putting offices and conference rooms and stationed pads on modules, it's a really important discussion because we know that there probably will be some renovation in the future as people not only come back this year and next year, but looking five years down the line when hopefully this is all behind us.

James Cook: [00:02:58]: We’re talking about where people actually work and where they meet. Are there other parts of the office that are getting a redesign to make them feel more welcoming?

Christina Piper: [00:03:09]: Yeah, absolutely. So you would think if we were talking 10 years ago, everyone was talking about cool reception space, right? I step off the elevator. I want to know all about your brand. I want to be wow-d. I want to be welcomed. Well, we're still talking about welcoming, but in a different way. Not necessarily putting a bunch of couches together for people to sit and wait. The thought is it's a more concierge approach. Someone is coming to retrieve you from the reception area or elevator lobby. Someone is taking you directly to your destination. Someone is taking care of your needs on the way to that destination, whether it be using the restroom, whether it be getting a refreshment, whether it be setting you up on a laptop for a presentation.

James Cook: [00:03:47]: Have you seen a push towards changes in bathrooms at all? Is that a topic you're hearing?

Christina Piper: [00:03:54]: Yes. This timing is so opportune because we just had a conversation with a client where we were relaying information to them from a group of leader interviews when we interviewed a cross section of their leadership. And we found almost half of the leaders brought up gender neutral restrooms and bathrooms in general as something that their staff had strong sentiments about. And one of the leaders was really trying to grasp this concept and saying, why is this such a hot discussion point? There was one segment of the group that was talking about bathrooms in general, just the layout of them, how sterile they feel, how unwelcoming they feel.

And so, many companies are looking at why don't we have cleaner looking facilities, softer lighting, amenities that a hotel would have, or a high-end restaurant would have inside the bathroom? And we're not talking about bathroom attendants, we're talking about subtle things. Lotions, perfumes, feminine products, things that contribute to a positive experience. And then on the other side, we are having the conversations with folks who have talked about gender neutral restrooms as a new reality in the workplace.

And I think it's important to recognize many of our clients are in mid- to high-rise buildings where bathrooms have been provided by their landlords. That is one scenario, but the companies that are really taking this very seriously are the ones exploring, building additional amenities to supplement those restrooms. They're building unisex with single user restrooms in their own spaces. They are making that investment because their staff has mentioned to them that this is a concern, or it's a source of discomfort for them or a source of anxiety. Companies that are coming to us and saying, hey, we've uncovered this need, or this has been expressed or asking for guidance on how we outfit either existing restrooms to become more gender neutral as far as label and what's provided in there. But they're also looking at erecting additional restrooms that can be more inclusive because when we think of a single user restroom, it doesn't just accommodate someone who is looking for a gender neutral need. It accommodates someone who has recently worked out and they're using it as a changing room and accommodate someone who may have a disability and needs more time in the restroom.

When we have a need that's brought up like this, it's important to realize that maybe we're just in our minds thinking it impacts two to five percent of the population, but really more of the population truly benefits from it. And so many of the clients we're talking to are looking at ways to make this inclusive and not make it something that someone has to come to HR and request and talk about. They're really taking the initiative to make this investment knowing that it not only satisfies a small percentage of their workforce, but that it's better for all.

James Cook: [00:06:53]: There's this design concept I heard about where if you design a place to be accessible for people with disabilities, you also actually make it easier for everybody else.

Christina Piper: [00:07:05]: Yes, I think we can all relate to that. Any of us who have ever traveled with kids, with two suitcases at a time, we truly don't recognize things that were designed with people with disabilities in mind or mobility challenged folks but that make our lives easier and that we almost take for granted. Having done business internationally and designed spaces internationally, the United States really is at the forefront of some of these design initiatives that are more universal in nature. You know, there's a lot of landmarks throughout the world that if you were in a wheelchair you would not be able to participate in so I think we do a great job in this country of making sure we are thinking of people with all types of abilities.

James Cook: [00:07:48]: Excellent. Well, Christina, this has been a fascinating conversation. I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I really learned a lot.

Christina Piper: [00:07:57]: Thank you so much, James. I really appreciate it. And hope to talk to you soon.

James Cook: [00:08:01]: So from Christina Piper, I heard about the need for welcoming workplaces that includes inclusive restrooms. Now for more on better restrooms, we're going to talk with Claire Coder.

Claire Coder: [00:08:13]: My name is Claire Coder and I'm the founder and CEO of Aunt Flow.

James Cook: [00:08:18]: Aunt Flow in a nutshell, tell me what Aunt Flow does.

Claire Coder: [00:08:24]: This idea all happened when I was 18 years old and now the company has grown to design and develop a free vend menstrual product dispensing system that replaces those old school, yucky, tampon, and pad dispensers and creates a sustainable way for businesses to offer quality menstrual products for free to their employees, students and guests.

James Cook: [00:08:45]: I don't really have a sense overall of how many bathrooms do offer free menstrual products.

Claire Coder: [00:08:52]: From an office standpoint, the data isn't as strong there. Growth over the past few years is based on awareness. If you're looking at a coin operated dispenser, you open it up and it holds 10 tampons and 10 pads which is very low capacity. Ours holds 50 tampons and 50 pads so you have to reload those old dispensers much more frequently. And if you're reloading it, you have to reload it tampon by tampon for those old dispensers. And so for us, we really took on the design challenge, make it aesthetically pleasing, inviting, but also the challenge of making sure that people who have to service the dispenser have a good experience with it. And so we have a cartridge model. It's easy to reload. And then obviously too, if you look at one of those old coin operated dispensers that were designed in the sixties, there's no window. You can't see what's in there. And so for transparency, we included a window on our dispenser, so a janitor can easily spot check, do I need to reload it? And then as a user myself, I know, when I press a button, I'm going to get the product that I need. And all of our products are 100 percent organic cotton sustainable for the environment.

James Cook: [00:09:59]: Many office users have been working from home for a while now and so are very comfortable in their own bathrooms. Are there other things that you've seen in bathrooms that alienate people that could be done differently that could make them feel more welcome?

Claire Coder: [00:10:13]: You know, James, as folks start reentering the workplace or attending more conventions or attending games at sports stadiums, really think about what they have had at their home and how we can make sure that they now have that same experience and expectation out and about in the world. And so for us, that is menstrual care, right? The basic necessities. But as we go back out into the world, people are looking for additional necessities in the bathroom, right? That is making sure that they have access to sanitizer as they walk out of the bathroom. We also think about not just the dispensing of menstrual products, but also the disposal of menstrual products, right? When you're at your home you can just roll your product up and put it on the side bin. But when you're at a place of work or at a large facility, oftentimes the current disposal units are kind of nasty at a touch. Like you don't really want to lift the lid on the trash can. And then there's the little brown liner bag that doesn't exactly fit the disposal, the thing. And so then the used pad ends up on one side or the other, and then the janitor has to fish it out. I’m being graphic but this is what happens. And our folks that are servicing these disposal units, they're like, yes, we get it. We are here. This is our problem. And so when we think about a whole menstrual solution at Aunt Flow, we have, obviously designed a dispensing system, but also a disposal system that’s great for an end user, right? Like you don't have to touch the nasty little bin. It's a touchless activation to get your disposal open. As we go back into the workplace and out and about, we really do have expectations that we might not even know that we have. But if you go into your bathroom and expect to see menstrual products at home, you might now expect to see that out in the workplace as well.

Back in 2013, there was a national study commissioned by Free the Tampons, and they found that 86 percent of people with their periods unexpectedly got their period in public without the supplies they needed. Eighty six percent have had this experience where you get your period in public. You don't have a menstrual product. And out of that, 86 percent, 64 percent, if they were at a place of work, left work to go get the products that they needed. So when we think about access to menstrual care, it's really also leveling the playing field to make sure that everybody has the same opportunities to have access to events, access to opportunities. Right? Think about that 64 percent of women who have left work now, and they're no longer able to be participating in meetings or general day-to-day activities.

And so for us, I first started Aunt Flow with my personal experience. And now over the years, we've gotten more and more information and data and insights as to how, you know, this personal experience is actually impacting people more than I even anticipated. So it's been really beautiful to understand, and then also have a solution to help workplaces make a change.

James Cook: [00:13:02]: Claire, I really appreciate your spending the time and joining me today, it's been a really fascinating conversation. I feel like I've learned a lot.

 Claire Coder: [00:13:09]: Yeah.

James Cook: [00:13:10]: If you enjoyed today's episode, do me a favor and tell a friend about it. Let them know they can subscribe to Building Places on the iPhone podcast app on Spotify, or really any place you listen to podcasts. For the latest research about commercial real estate, you can check us out on the web at This episode of Building Places was produced by Alexandra Vliet. Our theme music was written and performed by Joel Caracci.