Space: Inclusion’s Final Frontier?

This morning, I woke to see everything outside was covered in white snow. I could not tell where the street ended and the sidewalk began. I looked for my car to see how buried it was, and I realized that all of the cars looked the same. I could not tell the hatchback from the Mercedes next door. As all of the neighbors came out to uncover their cars, no one looked for their own. Shovels and brooms came out and as the snow fell, the neighborhood came together to uncover all of the cars, taking the same care with others' vehicles as they did with their own. Within 30 minutes each of the 10 cars was out and the owners were on their way. I thought about this for most of the day, as snow continued to fall, cars continued to be plowed in, and neighbors continued to work together so everyone could make it out. If they had all not worked together, some cars would still be buried right now. Later in the morning, I had the opportunity to listen in on a discussion about space and how it is critical to the success of culture change in organizations. When I think of the conditions that need to be met in order to cultivate inclusion and culture change, I would not immediately think about space, or the degree to which it impacts how members of organizations feel included or excluded.

What became clear to me is that your physical position in the organization’s building impacts your perceived level of importance, your ability to make decisions, and the likelihood that you will feel included. Certain spatial metaphors describe levels of success, such as ''moving in to the corner office,'' ''keys to the executive washroom,'' ''going to the top floor.'' In opposition are the "secretarial pool" and ''starting in the mailroom.'' We clearly identify space with position and power.

Changing the way that we actually see one another in the work space is a risk that not only lends itself to a more inclusive environment, but also contributes to the performance of our members and their teams. One of the ways we can do this is to change not just the layout of the office space, but the position of the members inside it. Being able to see one another face to face in space that does not constrain the flow of conversation and problem solving is essential to creating high-performing teams, the teams for today's challenging times. I am aware that many people work as virtual teams, even on those teams we have to figure out ways to get the virtual person in the common space. When we all sit together in space that is accepting, it enables us to connect, encourages us to share, and empowers us to communicate as openly as possible.

Last week, I had the opportunity to work together with a team of colleagues in a very different space. We worked and lived together in a house for seven days, working on writing books for our Firm. As we were preparing for the trip, I was unsure of how this dynamic would work. Where would we set up? Who would sit where? How would we generate material? It was difficult to imagine how we would be successful in the space…which was a large ''vacation'' house.

We moved in and set up in the living room. We sat on couches, recliners, the floor – we talked in the kitchen, on the porch, and as we walked outside. There wasn’t one part of the house that wasn’t utilized for conversation, and the level of work we did was at an all-time high. There was energy when we sat across from one another in the living room and at the kitchen table that was possible because we all felt equally able to contribute. Ideas were passed like the plates we shared, and we built on one another's thoughts each day without hesitation. The change in location and space allowed our perspective to shift from what was allowed or usual to what was possible.

I was thinking about last week and this morning, when the division between street and sidewalk was no longer there, how the snow covered the cars and how it was equally important to get every car moving. No one car was more important than the other, and together the neighbors were able to unbury the cars in less time so everyone could move forward with their day. I thought of the possibilities that exist if we not only think outside of the box, but also open it up, unfold the sides, and create the space so that we can do our best work together.