Improving Accessibility in Open Office Spaces

Published November 25, 2020

Over the last two decades, the conventional closed-office settings have gradually been replaced in favor of more open office designs, which allocate a greater amount of space to collaborative work areas rather individual workspaces. From a physical accessibility perspective, open work spaces, and flexible layouts for offices are often preferred.

However, some people may find open office spaces distracting or even intrusive. To address these concerns, open office designers may consider innovative solutions such as portable space partitions, desk dividers, sound dampeners, and dedicated getaway spaces — provided these innovations are ADA-compliant. The larger goal should be to improve accessibility for all.

Here are a few things building owners and managers can do to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations and improve accessibility in open office spaces.

Wide pathways

When the office space has a fewer number of doors, walls, and sharp turns, it gets easier for employees and visitors using walkers, canes, and wheelchairs to move around. Pathways should be wide enough, and barriers should be minimized in order to provide a clear passage throughout the space. To determine this, the property managers should take measurements of the hallways and doorways using a yardstick or a measuring tape.

Approach and entry

The entry and approach to the office space are equally important from an accessibility standpoint. At the entrance, it is vital to measure the entryway threshold to see how raised it is from the ground. The approach should address issues such as how easy or difficult it is to push or pull a door.

Electrical outlets and other obstructions

A typical feature in offices with an open design is above-counter electrical outlets used in kitchens during the office break time. The distance to reach the switch from the countertop or base cabinet should not exceed 24 inches.

Care should also be taken to ensure there are no objects hanging from the ceiling or jutting out from the walls in the walkways. These obstructions may not be detected if a person with a visual impairment uses a cane sweep to navigate the space.

Careful use of strobes

Judicious use of strobes is another key thing to remember. Although a person with a hearing disability can be alerted by a flashing strobe, these lights are also known to trigger seizures in some people with epilepsy or photosensitivity. The solution is to place the strobes in correct proportion to the space based on visibility and decibel levels. An open floor plan will reduce the need for strobes, while more walls and doors will usually require more strobes.

Avoiding clutter

Just because the open office space design minimizes the walls and barriers should not mean that the space is cluttered up. Engineers and architects may have designed the space in compliance with the ADA regulations, but it is equally important to maintain the features of accessibility.

For example, placing credenza tables and desk that obstruct the path or having extension cords running across the floor can create hurdles. In open offices, a minimum travel passage of 36 inches must still be provided when any type of fixtures or furniture are used. Office tables with pedestal legs should be limited because these can block toe and knee clearance for a person using a wheelchair.

Restroom accessibility

Even when the design and location of restrooms and drinking fountains is ADA compliant, it is still important to review the placement of washroom accessories, such as toilet seat covers, paper towels, and soap dispensers. Many people nowadays want to open the restroom door while holding a tissue paper in order to avoid surface contact.

If they do not find a clearly marked trash can nearby, some people may simply litter the floor. The housekeeping staff may sometimes move the trash near the entry door in this situation, which can block access for people using walkers or wheelchairs. These issues are easy to ignore, but they can create significant accessibility problems.

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