Workplace Restrooms Building To Serve Everyone – 1/13/13

Workplace restrooms reflect new realities

Amenities serve nursing mothers, transgender workers and others


Workplace restrooms reflect new realitiesA decade ago, it was rare for an employer to design a building with transgender employees, new mothers or cycling enthusiasts in mind.

No longer.

As workforce demographics have shifted, workplace amenities have, too, especially for large employers in competitive industries with a bit of extra money to spare.

UNS Energy Corp. – Tucson’s third-largest private employer – took employee input when it began designing its new downtown headquarters.

It ended up with two lactation rooms and three single-occupancy unisex bathrooms, among other things. The restrooms came out of talks about which bathroom employees who are transitioning from one gender to another ought to use.

Employers trying to attract and retain the best workers look closely at the benefits they offer, and those now range from child-care benefits and gym memberships to health insurance for domestic partners and flexibility to work outside the office. At some Silicon Valley companies, there’s even free food.

Some of the benefits offered, however, are more concrete – or perhaps more glass. Many new office buildings are designed to maximize natural light, encourage physical fitness and provide floor plans more conducive to collaboration.

That’s true at UNS headquarters, where low-walled cubicles are located near the perimeter of the building, lined with windows, while managers occupy rooms near the building’s core.

Managers’ offices are interchangeable with conference rooms to maximize flexibility, company spokesman Joseph Barrios said.

Furniture is modular and adjustable; stairs connect several floors; and each floor has a seating area designed for impromptu meetings.

“There was an overall philosophy to be forward-looking and design it right,” Barrios said. “Lots of employees are going to be here a long time, so there are a lot of flexible features.”

The building incorporated many workplace design trends seen across the country, from an emphasis on ergonomic design to indoor bike lockers.

“It’s not the typical 100 acres of cubicles that you see anymore,” said Ed Marley, a principal at Swaim Associates Architects, a local firm that together with Davis in Phoenix designed the UNS building. “The new workplace is not just about accommodating people, but about giving them choices.”

The desirability of a more flexible and informal work atmosphere is reflected in the throngs of people tapping on laptops in local cafes, said Lucinda Smedley, coordinator of the new real estate development program at the University of Arizona.

Some companies focused on being nimble prefer quick-built or even leased walls and electronic systems such as those sold by Dirtt, a modular interiors company that opened a Phoenix factory two years ago.

One of the most dramatic demographic changes in the workplace over the past few decades has been the increase in women – among them new mothers.

In 1975, fewer than half of mothers with children under 18 worked. By 2011, that proportion had risen to more than three-quarters, including a majority of women with infants, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show.

There has also been a rise in the proportion of young women who report wanting more job responsibility.

Between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of women under 29 who wanted to move up the ladder jumped from 54 percent to 65 percent, now nearly equal the proportion of men, according to the most recent National Study of the Changing Workforce released by the Families and Work Institute.

Awareness of these trends, together with men’s increased role in parenting, has led many employers to offer more telecommuting and flex time in addition to lactation rooms, said Laura Vertes, another architect with Swaim.

She telecommuted for the first year of her baby’s life. “It worked out great,” Marley said. “Everything that needed to get done got done.”

Statistics about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, often known as LGBT workers, are more difficult to come by, but the group’s influence on employers is indisputably increasing.

The Human Rights Campaign ranks major employers by their LGBT-related policies, and this year, 252 big employers got a 100 percent rating, compared with 13 a decade ago.

Criteria include whether a company includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy and whether health-care benefits cover treatments necessary when transitioning from one gender to another.

Transgender people – those whose birth-assigned sex does not match their inner sense of gender – represent the most recent vanguard in advocacy for equal treatment in the workplace.

Raytheon Co. – the parent company of Tucson’s biggest private employer, Raytheon Missile Systems – has been a leader in adjusting its policies.

The company got its first perfect rating from the HRC in 2005 after a Tucson engineer and test pilot transitioned from male to female and helped push for change.

Other defense industry companies followed suit.

“They’re competing for talent, and that is leading them to be leaders in the area of inclusion,” said Kevin Jones, deputy director of San Francisco-based Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

Bathrooms have been a flash point in workplaces all over the country as the visibility of transgender workers has steadily increased. For LGBT advocates, however, the issue simply comes down to privacy.

Out & Equal supports single-occupancy or otherwise very private bathrooms, but not just for use by transgender people.

They may be desirable to people who feel uncomfortable about a co-worker who uses a certain bathroom, or employees may appreciate the privacy for some other reason, Jones said.

The University of Arizona, Tucson’s largest employer, has also responded. It instituted a new bathroom policy in 2006 when it added gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy.

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