Workplace design has already acknowledged that one-size doesn’t fit all, and organisations are increasingly creating workplaces that offer a range of spaces for people to choose where and how they work.
Now, workplace design is starting to go one step further, to create spaces that support the full range of neurodiversity in employees.
The neurodiversity challenge
“Approximately 15-20 percent of people are neurodivergent, i.e., have one of a collection of conditions that includes autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.”
Neurodiversity is the idea that human brains don’t come in a one-size-fits-all “normal” package. It refers to variation regarding learning, attention, mood and other mental functions.
Space for all
The modern workplace is challenging for many people. The bustle and noise that comes with an open-plan office can be distracting for those who need quiet to do their best work. But for people with neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia, autism and ADHD, it can be a great hindrance.
Neurodiverse people tend to be over- or under-stimulated by parts of their environment, such as noise, lighting, texture, smells and temperature. This makes background noise and bright lighting, for example, common problems.
A report by HOK’s WorkPlace group highlights that while neurodiverse staff can bring exceptional talents, like creative storytelling, coding, empathy and pattern recognition, they can’t always thrive within existing workplace norms and practices.
Martin Raymond, co-founder of The Future Laboratory, agrees. As more organisations recognise that worker’s creativity levels are influenced by the design of the workplace, they are increasingly looking at ways to refresh the workplace to boost creativity. But Raymond says we need to go one step further than creating "beautiful" spaces by designing workplaces that are neurologically diverse:
“Diversity enhances creativity, especially across race, gender and social lines. But research is also coming through that suggests neurodiversity as well as social diversity is part of this process.
About 20% of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Similarly, many people with autism, ADHD or epilepsy can find that their very difference is an advantage if neurodivergencies are embraced effectively.”
Designing for neurodiversity
HOK’s report highlights some ways designers can help organisations to create physical work environments that support all employees.
- Spatial design strategies, e.g. creating spaces that are memorable and use a rhythm of common elements to generate a reassuring sense of order, and use of landmarks and focal points such as a staircase or artwork to help workers orient themselves.
- Consideration of spatial character, e.g. offering a variety of settings so workers can choose the most appropriate environment for their task, such as shared open spaces for socialising, enclosed spaces for more focused work, dedicated phone and meeting areas, places to pause, and quiet areas with lounge seats.
Other design strategies highlighted include placing work points in low-traffic areas, using dividers in appropriate areas to block and reduce noise and incorporating natural elements for a calming effect.
Martin Raymond talks of how designing for neurodiversity will evolve in the future:
“Office design tomorrow will consider how noise, overly aggressive visual patterns, bright lights, even busy open-plan areas with repetitive gridding or layouts, can be hugely impairing to neurodivergent employees.
So the push towards closed spaces, low lighting, noise-cancelling materials, quiet zones and the rise of focused work styles will make the workplace even more welcoming for a group that remain invisible merely because their challenges are neurological rather than physiological.”
Neurodiverse workplaces at the BBC
At the BBC, Sean Gilroy and Leena Haque created an environment checklist to help the broadcaster’s estate teams consider cognitive accessibility in their design.
Sean Gilroy, Head of neurodiversity and cognitive design at the BBC, explains:
“A lot of organisations are good at physical accessibility but considering cognitive accessibility isn’t really well appreciated. This checklist takes into account visual design, so the use of patterns and colours and the contrasts of those things, such as shiny surfaces and the way that light comes through windows and creates reflections. There is also the audio consideration. Open-plan offices are cited as being a poor environment [for people with neurodivergent conditions].
"You’ve often got tactile issues, the materials that we use, and thinking about the type of mouse or laptop, or what kind of wrist guards, mouse mats or chairs. We also have the olfactory considerations – the smells of food or cleaning products, how do they affect people?"
The neurodiverse workplace of the future
With choice and variety high on the agenda, ability to adapt spaces to fit workers' favourite modes of working, or their mood at the time, will become a big part of workspace design in the future.
The Future Laboratory predicts that smart technologies will be used to create spaces that can be altered seamlessly between different modes. And research shows that 72% of people think the future workplace should automatically adjust and update itself.
“Able to respond to their inhabitants, Sentient Spaces will be home to smart systems that seamlessly alter the indoor environment to optimise workers’ performance, sharpen their focus and encourage conviviality.” Workplace Futures report
Furniture in these spaces will also become more adaptable. Free-standing meeting tables, project tables, desks, and pods can be added to create a variety of mixed spaces so people can choose where best suits their task.
Furniture company Into the Nordic Silence have jumped on the trend for pod rooms, spaces where people can find some quiet to take calls or work on focused tasks. The Cube Solo, for example, is a single-seat pod that envelopes the worker, giving them privacy in a comfortable environment.
Pushing inclusivity up the agenda
As more organisations seek to create versatile environments that provide for a range of preferences to suit each individual employee, now is the time to bring the neurodiversity challenge into the agenda, so that organisations can create physical work environments that allow all employees to thrive.
In turn, a neurodiverse workplace can offer organisations a distinct competitive advantage. Not only will employees be more comfortable and more productive, but it will help your business to attract and retain the best talent.