Recently I had dinner with a two friends who are both workplace strategy directors for large, global, U.S. based companies. They are both very experienced and have done work all over the world – and, I might add, have seen it all.  The topic of “special space requirements” came up during our conversation..  One of my friends talked about a request that came from an employee who wanted their space to be vegan. They had chosen to be vegan for ethical reasons and didn’t want to sit on a cowhide chair or work around any materials that were made from animals. The company decided to accommodate this person’s need, which, in this case, meant using more synthetic materials in the furniture and finishes.

My other friend talked about an employee who was asked to move from a low rise building into a new office tower. Unfortunately for the employee, she had terrible vertigo. She had to be assigned to sit on a lower floor in the building (away from her team) because she would become dizzy and uncomfortable working on high floors.

My friends and I started talking about ethics in workplace design and the growing need to accommodate individual beliefs or needs. In both of cases, the companies where my friends worked had chosen to accommodate these employees, which is pretty impressive, really.

The thing about both of the vegan or vertigo-prone employee is that to look at them, you would never know they needed any specially accommodations. I mean, they did not need a wheelchair or a service animal or anything visible to the outside.  I can’t help but wonder, how many other belief-related, mental, emotional or physical health concerns are we missing in the design of our workplaces?  Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I recently interviewed a company with 15,000 employees in 26 countries. They had just surveyed a sampling of their population and asked their employees, “How many days did your physical or mental health keep you from doing your usual activities over the last 30 days?”  They calculated a loss of 3,513 days lost over the last month due to presenteeism and absenteeism, an equivalent to five percent of their workforce.   Interestingly, employees believed they lost productivity due to mental health issues twice as often as they did physical health problems.

The company was really surprised by this finding, but then again, they hadn’t asked their employees about stress levels before now.  Their immediate response was to bolster their mental health support program for employees, and to pay particular attention to the issue.

The lessons in all these stories for me are that:

  1. There are a number of special considerations that companies can make to improve the happiness and productivity of their staff, many of which they don’t know about, because they just haven’t asked.
  2. Those companies that graciously consider the special needs of employees reap the benefit of increased productivity, and also support a culture of caring for their people, which only helps recruiting and retention.

Of course accommodating everyone’s individual needs and preferences at work can go too far. But as our workforce becomes more global, more diverse and more integrated, we will likely come up against even more personal preferences or needs.  The question is, do we have a process in place to proactively understand and address them?