It is hard to focus on work and do your best when you can’t actually fit in your office chair. When most organizations think about diversity and inclusion, they usually don’t think: “How do we make sure our employees fit comfortably in their chairs so they can perform at their highest level?” Yet as 71% of the country (and 30% of the world) is labeled as overweight or obese according to the CDC, companies need to start considering the implications that their seating options have on their employees.
Eloquii, a Walmart-owned retailer for women who wear sizes 14-28, did just this. Not only is this good for Eloquii’s employees but happier employees are more likely to be more productive and drive better business outcomes. According to one study, happy employees can be up to 20% more productive than unhappy ones.
Eloquii has always been in touch with their customers and actively solicits their feedback. The company applies this mindset to their employees as well. Not only do they want their employees to enjoy their work–they also want them to feel comfortable while they are working.
In order to ensure optimal employee experience, they surveyed their staff to gain feedback across a variety of workplace facets. Some of the key feedback included requests for more ergonomic chairs that would allow associates to feel more comfortable in the workplace. Eloquii looked into various seating options, particularly chairs with wider widths for its associates across both HQ offices.
To more easily source these chairs, they partnered with Walmart’s sourcing team in order to identify Herman Miller chairs with adjustable armrests. They told me employee feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
I am excited about the example Eloquii is setting for other companies. Furthermore, Walmart, Eloquii’s parent company, also has strategies in place to help larger-bodied employees find more comfortable chairs. A Walmart spokesperson said,
“Walmart is proud to offer our associates a simple process by which they can request a workplace job adjustment, such as a larger chair. In addition, we provide a centralized intake process for reasonable accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act for our associates with disabilities. We routinely fulfill thousands of associate requests every year and regularly use surveys and other methods to seek feedback from associates on how to improve their work environment.”
To better serve its larger-bodied customers, Walmart currently features Big & Tall office chairs. However, I believe Walmart has a larger business opportunity to provide supportive and comfortable seating options to the larger-bodied customers who shop at the stores not only for their homes but also for their offices. The office furniture market was listed as $15.5 billion dollars in 2019 and is continuing to grow.
Employers should adopt Eloquii’s example and learn how to better understand the needs of their employees. Although few and far between, there are consultancies popping up that help companies address how to design office space for larger-bodied workers.
One such organization is AllGo. Founded by Rebecca Alexander, who also founded a Yelp-like app that goes by the same name, it aims to help higher-weight people “rate the comfort and accessibility of public spaces so others can know what to expect.” According to Alexander, “Great companies know that good employee morale is critical to their company’s success. For plus-size employees, it is demoralizing to arrive to work every day to chairs that leave bruises on your hips.” Bathrooms designed so poorly that they have just as much space as an airplane is another issue Alexander often sees. “Happy employees are a company’s best asset. And there are lots of great, easy-to-implement, and inexpensive ways to motivate and reward plus-size people,” she explains, “It can be as simple as talking to them. You just have to know the right questions to ask.”
Architecture firms such as ZGF are seeing an increase in companies thinking about inclusive design, including how to better-serve larger-bodied employees, customers, and patients. Alan Gerencer, a Principal at architecture and interior design firm ZGF, in Portland, Oregon, says that his company is focused on ways design can be used to make the world a better place. He notes that the workplace is “not one size fits all,” and that when real estate and people and culture teams are thinking about their office designs, they need to think less about designing offices for 600 of the same people, and more about designing for specific types of users, including users with bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. One of the ways to do this is to provide a variety of spaces where people can feel comfortable and productive.
Like Alexander, Gerencer agrees that providing choice is a key element to creating a better office environment. He also mentioned that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it legally necessary for wheelchairs to access a variety of spaces. Given the width of most wheelchairs, this, in turn, has created doorways and spaces that are more easily accessible to larger-bodied people.
Although Gerencer sees positive trends with regard to the design of more inclusive spaces, he sees a need for better product offerings. For example, bariatric furniture originally came out of the healthcare world, when designers needed to look for hospital and medical furniture that would fit bodies that were over 300 pounds. Most bariatric furniture is still designed with patterns and designs that are not visually appealing and apply a stigma to those who are seated. Gerencer believes that we need to move away from the concept of bariatric furniture and simply design attractive furniture to fit all bodies. I note a similar trend in some people wanting to move away from the term plus-size clothing and simply call it clothing.
It is important to provide various communication options to employees in order for them to be most comfortable expressing their needs when it comes to furniture. Employers should make sure that when all employees start, they ask if they have specific needs around seating and spacing between desks and chairs, so as not to single out larger-bodied employees. Furthermore, when designing an office, keep in mind the public spaces where employees may work or socialize. Make sure there are seating options so all employees can feel comfortable. AllGo has a great guide on how to pick seating plus-size people love. Not only is this important for current and prospective employees, it’s also key for company visitors.
One way to create an environment that supports size-inclusion is to pay attention to the physical needs of larger-bodied employees and candidates for employment. This will lead to an overall happier work environment, which in the long run could lead to better business outcomes.