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Knocking down physical walls to help demolish barriers to inclusion


Can changing a physical workplace foster inclusion? Barbara Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer at Scotiabank, explains how an “Activity-Based Working” approach to their office design created a space that enables all employees to work when, where, and how they choose — demolishing barriers, increasing engagement, and ensuring everyone is enabled to be their very best.


By Barbara Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer, Scotiabank




The workforce has never been more diverse than it is today — a “one size fits all” approach to both physical workplace and workplace policies is no longer acceptable. 

Out of the available labour market, 52 per cent are women, more than 30 per cent are visible minorities, 10 per cent are people with disabilities, we have four generations now represented, along with greater diversity in sexual orientation and gender. The variety of perspectives this mosaic brings leads to richer solutions, greater creativity and ideation, and demands that workplaces be more inclusive. It also means a widely varying set of expectations and needs for employers to consider in order to attract and retain the best possible talent. 

At Scotiabank, an effort began a few years ago with the initial objective to decrease costs by reducing our real estate our employees occupied. What quickly emerged in our research in looking at other organizations outside of Canada was that we could learn from them and move well past the typical densification options, like hoteling. We had an opportunity to build a physical workplace, with accompanying “how to use” policies, that delivers a wonderfully enhanced employee experience to all employees. At the root of that experience was a simple concept — choice.

Several months of surveying our downtown Toronto population revealed what we already knew but hadn’t built a workplace for — employees are human. They have preferences, pet peeves, personal requirements, and unique quirks. They’re more than the sum of their tasks. And, if we put the responsibility in their hands to plan their day and where they’d like to work, then they would be truly enabled to perform at their very best. 


Employees are human. They have preferences, pet peeves, personal requirements, and unique quirks. They’re more than the sum of their tasks.


Enter Activity-Based Working (ABW) — an approach that recognizes that people perform different activities in their day-to-day work, and therefore requires the right technology and variety of spaces in order to complete that work in the most effective way possible. It’s a workplace that equips you with the tools needed to work when, where, and however you choose. 

We introduced training for managers on how to manage their teams remotely, allowing for more opportunities to work from home, and our spaces range from ergonomic chairs and standing desks to private offices, quiet zones, alone in silence, or somewhere where there’s a bit of a buzz. The spaces are equipped to be accessible by design in order to make the work environment more comfortable, user-friendly, and easier to navigate for persons with disabilities. ABW helps build an inclusive culture by offering everyone the same experience regardless of seniority.

To date, we have more than 6,000 employees working in ABW space. There is equal satisfaction amongst represented genders with the new space and we saw a significant boost in engagement amongst women working in ABW compared to those who are not, most noting they were far more engaged as a result of greater opportunity around flex working hours and working from home. More than 80% say they would never go back to their old way of working.

How employees use their space is their personal choice, and those preferences inform how we build. The future of the employee experience is one they design for themselves.