Over the past year, commentators have suggested a wide range of strategies for individuals and organizations to become more anti-racist. While these strategies are important and timely, white backlash directed at their implementation threatens to sow further racial division. Indeed, white men, who commonly occupy positions at the top of organizational hierarchies, are more likely to perceive diversity policies and messaging as threatening, which can lead to more rather than less inequality within organizations. This is not a new phenomenon: A review of data from 829 firms over 30 years revealed that diversity programs that attempt to control managers’ behavior (e.g., mandated diversity training, grievance systems, etc.) result in more rather than less bias and, as a result, tend to produce the opposite of their intended results.
In the face of such backlash, leaders who aim to implement lasting change in their organizations need new tools. While current strategies primarily focus on changing hearts and minds, recent research — including our own — demonstrates how an organization’s physical and digital spaces play a powerful yet frequently neglected role. Here, we show how leaders can design workplaces and processes to better facilitate positive contact among members of different racial groups which can, in turn, set off a cascade of positive diversity and inclusion outcomes.
The Intergroup Contact Dilemma
Despite increasing racial diversity at the national level, the U.S. remains highly segregated along racial lines. As the primary gatekeepers to these institutions, white people have disproportionate control over the pipelines to the most influential positions in American business and society. Even employees within the same organization tend to self-segregate along racial lines. This has profound implications for who has access to society’s most elite institutions (e.g., Ivy League universities, prestigious firms, private country clubs, etc.).
One challenge is that racial bias is difficult to meaningfully change, in part because it is perpetuated by the (largely segregated) environments in which people live and work. However, decades of scientific research shows that a powerful way racial attitudes can change is through intergroup contact. Even subtle and casual contact can be effective; for example, during World War II, casual intergroup contact between African American soldiers in the UK and the white local population reduced prejudice among locals. In fact, modern-day residents of communities in which more (vs. fewer) African American soldiers were stationed during WWII continue to express less implicit and explicit racial prejudice. Positive intergroup interactions, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle.
It might seem reasonable to assume that greater racial diversity will automatically lead to increased intergroup contact, and therefore, that intergroup relations will improve as organizations become more diverse. But that’s not what we found in our recently published research. Specifically, we showed that as the racial diversity of their community increased, white residents exhibited a stronger preference to cluster in, and erect physical and psychological barriers around, more racially homogenous residential and institutional environments, providing empirical support for the claim that white America is (quietly) self-segregating. In one experiment, we found that white Americans’ preference to structure their environments in this way was driven, in part, by their anxiety associated with the prospect of interacting with non-white others.
We even found evidence of these preferences embedded in the policies of largely white-run institutions and organizations. Using data from every tennis and golf club in the U.S., we demonstrated that clubs in more versus less racially diverse communities maintain more exclusionary policies (e.g., higher green fees, stricter dress codes, and more restrictive guest policies) which are likely to further limit opportunities for intergroup contact.
Our research therefore highlights a troubling dilemma: Many whites may never reach the threshold of intergroup encounters that may be necessary for organizations (and countries) to reap the benefits of an increasingly diversifying society. Thus, higher levels of racial diversity alone may not necessarily increase intergroup contact, and could even contribute to more (not less) negative intergroup attitudes and greater perceptions of threat. This view aligns with a recent study of Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, Ireland, which found that those who had more negative intergroup contact experiences in the past were less likely to visit public spaces in areas dominated by outgroup members.
Changing Spaces to Change Intergroup Attitudes
Simplistic thinking about how intergroup contact should emerge may further complicate matters. The binary view that intergroup contact is something that should be either mandated or left to emerge completely randomly belies an important middle-ground approach by which intergroup contact can emerge as a consequence of thoughtfully designed spaces. By embracing this middle ground, organizations may be better positioned to develop attractive and creative strategies to not only promote meaningful intergroup contact, but also create spaces that make their employees feel truly welcome.
Our thinking is informed by the work of the famous psychologist, Kurt Lewin, whose three-stage model of change emphasized the importance of unfreezing the status quo, moving to a new equilibrium, and re-freezing to lock-in the change. A key insight derived from Lewin’s model is that identifying and eliminating barriers to change is often a more effective way to change peoples’ behavior than applying increasing pressure to change. Our suggestions are squarely in line with this view: By changing spaces in two key ways, organizations can remove barriers to intergroup contact that may change intergroup attitudes.
Casual Intergroup Encounters in Physical Space
Organizations can create the right conditions to make casual interactions with coworkers of a different race more common. For example, consider a classic study, which found that students randomly assigned to live with a roommate of a different race during their first year of college had more positive intergroup attitudes in their fourth year of study than those randomly assigned to live with same-race roommates. This occurred because sharing the same physical space on a daily basis provided students with plenty of opportunities for casual intergroup encounters. This extends to the workplace too; for example, a recent study at a medical research symposium randomized opportunities for face-to-face encounters among scientists, finding that pairs of scientists who met in this way become more likely to collaborate together.
Just as organizational leaders have worked together to design Covid-safe workspaces, we suggest that re-entry could also include redesigning physical space for more casual intergroup encounters. For example, because physical distance between offices makes it far less likely that employees will interact with each other, organizations could instead offer inclusive meeting spaces that are convenient, accessible, and comfortable for all groups. In an organizational context, spaces that function as architectural funnels (e.g., locating office bathrooms to produce foot traffic through common areas as Steve Jobs did at Pixar) or social magnets (e.g., Microsoft’s giant makerspace, The Garage) may facilitate more casual encounters over shared needs and interests. Creating opportunities for tailored encounters and conversations with and through the local community by reimagining public spaces and communal experiences with the help of organizations such as The Project for Public Spaces and The People’s Supper, respectively, could also help in this regard. More broadly, we suggest that being thoughtful about where people work, who people interact with, and how those interactions arise, should become a focus of DEI work that could involve behavioral scientists, engineers, and architects.
Casual Intergroup Encounters in Digital Space
Designing spaces extends beyond the physical environment and into the digital sphere, as made particularly relevant by the Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, not all employees or organizations may be able to implement changes to their physical spaces that allow for increased casual intergroup contact. And while remote working may be beneficial for many employees, one possible side effect is reduced intergroup contact, given that workplaces are often one of the few places that provide employees who live in segregated neighborhoods with opportunities for casual intergroup encounters.
Technological advances may offer novel ways for employees to interact across group boundaries in digital spaces. One recent study at a large global organization, for example, randomized synchronized and informal virtual meetings between remote interns and senior managers. Other studies have used free lunches as an incentive to randomly pair employees across the organization who may otherwise not interact, finding that these are helpful to bridge organizational hierarchies particularly when lunches are scheduled by a “social bot” rather than arranged by human actors.
Similarly, managers may find creative ways to use apps, including Clubhouse (which could provide a space for people to have casual, drop-in audio conversations with each other) and Gather (which could provide a navigable virtual environment that helps coworkers feel connected while working remotely) to promote more casual intergroup encounters. Indeed, the digital world offers organizational leaders nearly boundless possibilities, such as using virtual reality technology to engineer casual intergroup contact experiences for employees in highly immersive and realistic social environments, which could be used for onboarding or training. There are even opportunities for organizational leaders to pursue these goals beyond the boundaries of the organization. For example, leaders may expose organizational members to other cultures by arranging one-of-a-kind activities hosted by local experts as part of a team building exercise or company retreat.
Achieving and managing diversity and inclusion is hard. Many initiatives focus on changing hearts and minds to overcome resistance to diversity and inclusion, but these initiatives have largely overlooked one of psychology’s most powerful, time-tested tools — designing physical and virtual interaction spaces. A path of less resistance may involve thoughtful design choices.
This article originally appeared at https://hbr.org/2021/08/design-physical-and-digital-spaces-to-foster-inclusion?ab=hero-main-text and is republished with permission.