Creating Welcoming, Youth-Friendly Spaces

One thing that came up consistently in our research was the question of how to create welcoming, youth-friendly spaces. What do these spaces look like? What do they feel like? How can we ensure that our workplaces and organizations are places where young people feel like they belong, and where they are comfortable engaging with and contributing to our projects, or accessing our services? There is a lot that goes into answering these questions, but below, we’ve pulled together the answers that came up most frequently across our youth surveys, interviews, focus groups, and our Youth Advisory Group.

Build a sense of belonging.

We’ll begin with some of the most talked about recommendations from the youth we spoke with, which have to do with building a sense of belonging. Young people first entering the workforce often feel as if they don’t belong—which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense; they’re stepping into an environment that is unfamiliar, surrounded by people who often have years of experience over them, and who likely also fall into very different age brackets. Fortunately, there are lots of simple things organizations can do to help youth overcome feelings of isolation, and foster connection in the workplace. 

“The first day of work I was invited to work alongside many of the organization’s volunteers to do some tree planting, and I was introduced to and got to know each of them a bit that day. It made me feel like an important component of the organization.” (Youth Survey Participant)

“My biggest challenge was working in a virtual environment. At times I felt isolated and disconnected from my team and the organization. I often felt unmotivated and lonely. By developing a stronger relationship with certain colleagues I was able to overcome this. Additionally, I worked to schedule one-on-one ‘coffee chats,’ with teammates I was eager to learn more about in regards to their professional background. It would have been helpful if the organization itself was able to provide an opportunity like this.” (Youth Survey Participant)

One thing that nearly every youth mentioned was, quite simply, introducing youth to other staff or members of the organization. Whether those introductions happened during an already-scheduled team meeting or Zoom call, in one-on-one meetings with staff, or through a dedicated welcome activity, youth were deeply appreciative of workplaces that took the time to make those introductions happen—and noted that they didn’t feel as valued when introductions fell through the cracks, or when they had to take the lead on making them happen. Starting off the right foot is always important, and welcoming youth into your workplace or organization is no exception.

“They had planned a lunch, and it wasn’t a fancy lunch—it was literally like a soup and sandwich from the local corner store—but it was like, that’s really nice that they thought, oh, we are going to bring a lunch in and we are all going to sit together and introduce ourselves and chit chat. They created this open environment that made you feel like part of a team, and like they wanted you there.” (Youth Interview Participant)

As the young person’s time with your organization continues, making time for informal activities—virtually or in-person—that your staff can partake in as a group is something else youth identified as contributing to their sense of belonging. Ensuring that youth are included in existing workplace festivities when they’re brought on board is also important; if your office throws an annual holiday party, or typically makes gifts to staff on their birthdays or other special occasions, make sure that you aren’t overlooking your youth workers. Youths’ engagement may be through more temporary positions such as summer internships or co-op terms, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t feel like part of the team while they’re there.

While creating a ‘fun’ workplace full of informal activities or staff bonding moments can do some wonderful things for youths’ sense of belonging, young people were also clear that none of these additions can make up for sub-par wages or working conditions, and that employers should concentrate their energy there first.

“We had a chalkboard in the breakroom and stuff where we had everybody’s astrology signs, and other things like that where it was like, okay, you’re trying to make it a fun place. We’d get free food every once and awhile, or sometimes I’d have to stay a few hours late and they’d be like, oh, I got you this chocolate – and it’s like, okay, but I would have appreciated overtime.” (Youth Interview Participant)

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • As a direct supervisor, team member, or member of leadership, make sure that when you’re bringing a youth into your space, you’re taking the time to properly introduce them to others in the organization. 
  • Support youth in connecting with other members of the team one-on-one, to get to know their co-workers or teammates and learn more about their work.
  • If you’re engaging more than one youth at a time, make space for the youth to get to know each other in the beginning, and ensure they have the opportunity to connect and learn from each other throughout their time with the organization. 
  • If you’re working in an office or another physical location, make time to give youth a proper tour, and show them where all the essentials are: the lunchroom, washrooms, other offices, etc.
  • Make an effort to get to know the young person you’re working with—ask genuine questions about their life outside of work, and actively listen to what they have to say.
  • Organize informal, get-to-know-you activities and opportunities for all staff to connect with each other during work hours, but outside of their regular work meetings, and encourage youth to attend. Some youth-suggested activities include:
    • Sharing a meal (if you’re going out to eat or ordering in, the organization should budget to pay for this!)
    • Playing board games or another activity during lunch hour
    • Volunteering for a local charity or non-profit that aligns with the organization’s values, or that is meaningful to their staff
    • In a virtual environment, setting up a Slack or Teams chat (or whatever platform you use to communicate) that’s intended for informal discussion, and inviting people to share questions, memes, photos of their pets or gardens, etc…

Original art by Emma Kuzmyk. 

Make sure your space is physically friendly.

The youth we spoke to had a lot of ideas about what welcoming, youth-friendly spaces look like, and what makes spaces physically friendly. The number of youth who shared workplace stories about being given desks in windowless, dark closets or basements, or who spoke about feeling as if their presence was an afterthought was much higher than it should have been. They spoke about how being given their own space (at the same level as more established employees) made them feel valued, and how the existence of shared spaces and spaces dedicated to collaboration also played a role in helping them feel welcome and connected within the workplace. Youth also identified that being able to see themselves reflected in the space was something that made them feel more comfortable. Simple things like allowing employees to bring in personal items to display on their desks, or getting staff input on how to decorate common spaces, can have a big impact. 

Also to consider within the realm of physically-friendly spaces is accessibility. The youth we spoke to about welcoming spaces were very intentional in highlighting the connection between the words “accessible” and “welcoming,” and pointing out how the latter can’t exist without the first. A welcoming space should be inclusive of all youth, and consider the different supports they may need to access it. Seeing organizations put in the effort to meet the different needs of young people coming to their spaces was something that youth said certainly made them feel welcomed and valued (even more so if that effort was proactive!). The CEI is by no means an expert in accessible spaces—like many of you, we are still learning. The following accessibility-related recommendations came directly from youth (many with lived experience); we’ve also included a number of resources and readings that come from those who work primarily in accessibility, and who can offer more in-depth explanations of what to do and why. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Before bringing youth into your space, make sure you have a space for them that’s held to the same standard as for more established employees.
  • When the nature of the workplace allows, encourage youth to add their own personal touches to their desks or workspaces. 
  • In communal spaces, include decorative touches that speak to your values as an organization, such as pride flags or pieces of culturally relevant artwork.
  • Create spaces for collaboration and conversation, where youth and more established employees can work together. 
  • Create a space that people from your organization can use to take a break, or catch up socially, and make sure youth know they’re welcome there. In many organizations, this space might be a lunchroom—if that’s the case, keeping some simple snacks and drinks in stock is a great way to help ensure that people use the space, and help all feel welcome.
  • If you’re looking to design a new space or redesign an old one, ask for youth input!
  • Proactively incorporate accessible features into your spaces, such as: 
    • Ramps, door buttons or automatic doors, accessible washrooms, and elevators for facilitating access.
    • Sensory-friendly rooms or workspaces that include calm or dimmable lighting options, and that are designated quiet spaces.
    • Offer multiple means (visual, written, auditory, etc.) of communication and presenting information.
  • Ensure that staff are aware of how to support people with various accessibility needs, and provide regular opportunities for workshops and trainings with experts. The provincial government has compiled a directorate of resources that is quite extensive, and The Rick Hansen Foundation is another reputable organization doing significant work on accessibility in Nova Scotia, and which offers a training program for businesses and professionals. 
  • If a young person asks you for an accommodation, follow through—and don’t ask them to justify it.

Original art by Emma Kuzmyk.Original art by Emma Kuzmyk.

Show off your values.

Today’s youth want to know what your organization stands for. Gone are the days of trying to maintain a neutral stance on social issues—youth want to know that the organizations and employers they’re engaging with share their values and care about similar things, and they want to see them show that off. 

“I think a lot of people do care about the social movements that are happening but want to seem neutral. But I don’t think that young people want that anymore. They want to see that their parents and the older generations see that these are problems and that these are problems that they care about. … if I was looking for a job and I saw that an organization cared about the climate crisis and were taking real steps to try to mitigate their impact on the environment, I would be more likely to work there than for an organization that didn’t really say anything about it.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Now, that doesn’t mean figuring out what youth care about and capitalizing on it, or choosing to support a social issue just to make your organization look good—believe us when we say that youth can see through it! Instead, take time to reflect on your organization’s values, and be vocal about what you land on. If your organization is taking steps to be more climate conscious, talk about it. If you value diversity and inclusion, back up those values with monetary support, or lend your physical presence to protests and rallies. Demonstrating your values will help attract young people who care about the same things, and who want to be doing good work in those areas.

Original art by Emma Kuzmyk.

Be Flexible.

We shared a lot about the importance of flexibility in our section on Supporting Youth Mental Well-Being, but it’s also something that’s come up a lot when discussing youth-friendly spaces. Young people play a lot of different roles in their lives—work, school, volunteering, sports, family, etc. Many younger youth also identified barriers to transportation that impact their ability to get to and from work, events, or volunteer commitments (particularly if they live rurally), and commented on how certain workplace standards such as inflexible dress codes caused additional stress. Balancing all of these things can be tough, and having support from the employers, organizations, or service providers around them can make a huge difference. 

“If you are hiring a student, school is going to be the first priority for them. If you get mad because they have to go to class or they have a project that they have to work on, that is just going to make them want to leave and it’s not going to work out in the way the organization or the employer wants.” (Youth Interview Participant)

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • When hosting events… 
    • Consider the fact that youth will likely have a number of other commitments to contend with—try and schedule your events during evenings or on weekends to avoid overlapping with school hours. 
    • When possible, give youth a say in the timing of events and meetings. There are lots of online tools that can help you survey a group for potential times—our favourites are When2Meet, Doodle Poll, and Google Forms
  • When hiring a young person…
    • For scheduling interviews or one-on-one meetings, do your best to adapt to the young person’s schedule. They likely have far less flexibility than you do! Tools such as Calendly can be helpful for giving youth a say in meeting times, as they allow the user to see all possible meeting times and choose the one that works best for them (plus, they allow the meeting host to skip the back-and-forth that normally comes with juggling multiple schedules!).
    • Recognize that many young people may not have business attire ready and waiting in their closets. Buying new clothes can be expensive, and potentially unaffordable—if your workplace subscribes to a dress code, consider offering young people a certain sum of money they can put towards paying for clothes that fit the guidelines. 
    • Confront false assumptions that young people are removed from certain barriers such as finding childcare—whenever possible, offer flexible hours or the option to work remotely (we know living in this era of Covid that flexibility is rarely impossible, depending on the nature of the job).

Original art by Emma Kuzmyk.

Prioritize diversity and inclusion.

“I think the best working teams value the diversity that they have and part of that is being a youth, part of it is being a youth who is part of a marginalized group.” (Youth Interview Participant)

The youth we spoke with place a great deal of value on diversity and inclusion. They want to be part of teams that are inclusive of those from all different backgrounds, and they want to work for companies that recognize the importance of diversity, and put in the work to welcome and support it. Somewhere youth feel welcome, they shared, is somewhere that all youth feel welcome.

“I think that there are general challenges associated with different communication styles and generational differences in perspectives. I don’t know what could be done to address these types of issues, other than ongoing training on anti-racist practice, positive space training, etc. I think that if an organization wants to work with youth, they need to be attuned to the concerns of youth, like the climate crisis, BLM…” (Youth Survey Participant)

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Dedicate the time, energy, and resources to building understanding and capacity amongst your staff—including (and emphasizing) management and organizational leadership. Share resources, and offer regular training sessions on the subjects of anti-oppression, anti-racism, positive space, and intercultural awareness, and ensure that everyone participates.
    • YouthREX’s certificate in Centering Black Youth Wellbeing is one well-researched and reliable training option.
    • The Halifax Chamber of Commerce has compiled a DEAI toolkit specifically geared towards employers, which has many helpful resources surrounding inclusive hiring practices, policy, engagement, and education.
    • Specifically in regard to working with 2SLGBTQIA+ youth, our friends at YouthREX have created a number of valuable resources, including this one: Asking About Gender: A Toolkit for Youth Workers. Legal Info NS also hosts a number of informative resources such as policy templates, as well as free trainings for employers, which you can find here
  • Know how to recognize, call out, and work towards eliminating acts of microaggression—The Micropedia is a wonderful resource to start learning. 
  • For more information, check out this database of organizations offering awareness training in the realm of diversity and inclusion, created by CEI Research Assistant Alaa Salih:

Download Diversity & Inclusion Database

Original art by Emma Kuzmyk.

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