How Microsoft and its Partners are Designing for a More Accessible and Inclusive Workplace

By Jack Stubbs

“Microsoft wants to think about how we design space so that we do more for more people, and that everybody has one solution they can use, rather than having separate [solutions] for separate people,” said Martha Clarkson, senior program manager and global workplace design strategist at Microsoft.

In the current day and age, many companies are looking for ways to design to promote accessibility and inclusion in the workplace. Microsoft’s Supported Employment program, an initiative started in 2013, is one such effort aimed at promoting accessibility throughout the workplace for individuals who are intellectually or developmentally disabled.

On Tuesday, January 16th, at an event hosted by CoreNet Global held at the Meydenbauer Center in downtown Bellevue, Clarkson and four other panelists spoke about how Microsoft’s Real Estate and Facilities division and its partners are implementing new programs at their Redmond campus to improve accessibility and inclusivity in their buildings and workforce.

Clarkson was joined on the panel by Brian Collins, senior program manager of real estate and facilities at Microsoft; Chad Guse, assistant maintenance tech at CBRE; Gillian Maguire, program manager of supported employment with CBRE and Jean Hodgson, employment consultant at PROVAIL, an organization that helps to employ people with disabilities through its Employment Services programs.

At the event, members of Microsoft’s real estate and facilities team discussed two primary elements of their accessibility initiatives: accessible design in the built-environment and Microsoft’s Supported Employment program—launched in 2013—which creates job opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Kicking off the panel, Clarkson contextualized the importance of Microsoft’s Inclusive Design program and the need for the organization to go well beyond merely designing to meet code. “The best thing I’m doing now is being able to design for people with disabilities…not separately, but integrated into what we do. Microsoft is very focused on going beyond code,” she said. “There is no normal when we talk about people. The dictionary definition of normal is conforming to a standard or common type…[but] people are different, and everyone’s disability is different and manifests in different ways,” she added.

The mission of Microsoft’s program is to partner with vendors and local employment agencies to make a difference in the lives of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities who might otherwise be overlooked in the job market, according to the description on Microsoft’s web site. The program provides training and support for these individuals, giving them jobs that match their interests and abilities in order to help them become more fully-integrated members of their communities.

Microsoft’s Supported Employment Program strives to address these loftier community issues. However, one of the challenges that it faces is a lack of recognition about people with disabilities when it comes to building design, according to Clarkson. “Architects love to build grand stairs…and just put the ramp around the back [of the building]. But there’s no reason why these [features] can’t be integrated…there are always great aesthetic solutions to integrate things for everybody,” she said.

Designing buildings to account for accessibility and inclusion starts at the very beginning of the process. “Designers want to solve problems [and] do what works with the human form…but if we just use our own filter for this, we’ll create [designs] that will be easy for some and very difficult for others,” Clarkson added.

Designing to support accessibility and inclusion in the workplace might require a broader shift in mindset moving forward, according to Clarkson—and designing for aesthetic value does not need to replace designing for inclusivity. “These options [promoting accessibility and inclusion] are free, but it takes people pushing the designers to do this. It can be an aesthetic that you want and also address a more equal experience,” she said.

One of the most prominent and established corporations in Washington, Microsoft works with hundreds of vendor companies and local employment agencies throughout Puget Sound—from dining and transportation, to facility services, office administration and more—as part of the program to create opportunities for people with disabilities at its various Microsoft facilities throughout the region, according to the description of the program on Microsoft’s web site. Some of these roles include café ambassador, café busser, shuttle fueler/washer, move team support, reception/office assistant, and mail processing clerk.

As part of the program, Microsoft partnered with employment agencies specializing in supported employment for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Some of the participating employment agencies include AtWork!, Cares of Washington, PROVAIL, Puget Sound Personnel and University of Washington Employment Program.

Since Microsoft began the program in 2013, over 200 people have gotten jobs at the company through the various vendor organizations, and there are currently 211 individuals enrolled. And while this figure might seem relatively small, it is indicative of a wider impact that the program has begun to have, according to Maguire. “[It] might not sound like very many [people]…but it is more than 200 individuals and their families…and in a bigger sense the community…that have been impacted,” she said. During the course of the program, individuals have been working in jobs of about 30 different types at the various vendor organizations, and the program is happening at six different locations throughout the Puget Sound region.

The supported employment agencies are usually non-profit organizations who to supported employment work throughout King County, thirteen of which are currently working with Microsoft as part of the program, according to Maguire.

The various local employment agencies support these individuals by providing them with specialized, ongoing training and one-on-one coaching—and these workers with disabilities receive wages and benefits from their vendors employers, in addition to the social benefits of working alongside colleagues of all abilities, according to Maguire. “The built environment is one way to think bringing inclusion and diversity to your organization…you know you have supported employment when you see an employee with a disability working alongside non-disabled peers, working at a job in the community, earning a wage commensurate with their job, and receiving ongoing needs-based support,” she said.

According to Hodgson, the three main pillars of the foundation are executive sponsorship, provider alignment and an enduring commitment to the people working as supported employees—elements that all bring something unique to the program. “It’s important to have an champion at the executive level to help a program like this really come to life and be adopted as part of the organizational culture,” Hodgson said. “[Our vendor organizations] who are employing people with disabilities come to the table with their own cultures, their own human resource systems and internal processes, [so] It’s important to have them at the table from the beginning,” she added.

In September 2017, Microsoft held a stakeholder meeting attended by supported employees, facility members, community coaches and community members to see how advocacy for the program could be improved moving forward. Microsoft’s real estate and facilities team is also considering the importance of career growth and development as the program expands beyond the Puget Sound region to other locations in North America.

In terms of funding for the program, Microsoft’s vendor organizations receive support for its employees through a combination of community advocacy for the individuals in the program, and state funding from the government, according to Hodgson. At the county level, individuals who are part of this vulnerable population are least likely to find employment: in some cases, there is some support for long-term employment options. As part of the program, the job coach is paid for through a combination of funding, private pay, and government resources, with no cost to the employer to engage with these agencies.

According to Collins, much of the program’s infrastructure is centered around how to best leverage time. “Agencies like PROVAIL are spending a lot of their time advocating for supported employment…what we do [at Microsoft] is try to guarantee these positions,” he said. “Then they can use those hours and resources working with the employers and the individuals…which is a time-saving solution,” he added.

Microsoft’s mission and program, aimed at emphasizing inclusion and accessibility to employment opportunities, circles back to how those in the industry think about programming physical spaces, according to Clarkson. “The choices with physical space have to be considered with planned buildings, renovations and new projects,” she said.

But ultimately, reframing the narrative around inclusion and accessibility is more than just a practical concern, and will require a shift in collective perspective. “The more we talk about it and make people aware of the language we use…we can encourage the inclusive mindset,” Clarkson added.

And although the scope of Microsoft’s program has up till now been focused largely in King County and the Puget Sound region, the hope is that it will be scalable internationally as well, according to Collins, in order to aid the more than 1 billion people on the planet who have a disability. “The United Nations Resolution suggests that every individual on the planet is entitled to work…that’s a fundamental across the world. Non-profit and legislative bodies across the globe are pushing inclusivity across those borders,” he said.