It’s long been acknowledged that there is no one-size fits all approach to workplace design. But in recent years, more focus has been given to creating workspaces that support the full range of neurodiversity in employees.
This blog post explores why organisations must put the needs of neurodiverse individuals at the forefront when designing their workplaces - and how to do it.
Neurodiversity is gaining traction
"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.”
Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace, HOK
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.
The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s to increase acceptance and inclusion of all individuals while celebrating and embracing neurological differences.
More recently, there's been a growing awareness of the importance of neurodiversity and the unique strengths and perspectives that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workplace.
A competitive advantage
Research shows that when neurodiverse individuals are given the support and accommodations they need, they can bring exceptional talent to the workplace, like creative storytelling, coding, empathy and pattern recognition.
Leading companies like Microsoft, SAP, and EY even have dedicated hiring programmes to attract individuals with autism.
Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program is one of the most notable initiatives in the area. It began as a pilot project in 2015 and has since grown to include hundreds of employees across the company. As well as supporting a better experience for autistic employees, the program also focused on educating and raising awareness across the entire company about autism and neurodiversity.
By valuing and supporting the unique contributions of all employees, these companies are creating more inclusive, innovative, and successful organisations.
Space for all
The trouble is many traditional office environments are designed in ways that can be overwhelming or distracting for neurodiverse individuals, which can impede their ability to work effectively.
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.
Designing for neurodiversity
HOK’s Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace report highlights some of the ways designers can help organisations to create physical work environments that support all employees:
- Spatial design - 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
- Spatial character - 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
- Acoustic quality - offering autistic comfort within spaces and acoustic separation between them, e.g. with the use of acoustic screens
- Thermal comfort - providing individual temperature controls so workers can adjust it to their liking
- Lighting - having adequate access to daylight, providing dimly lit quiet rooms to encourage relaxation
- Degree of stimulation - using predictable patterns and incorporating symmetry can help people understand, manage and navigate their world
Sean Gilroy, Head of Neurodiversity and Cognitive Design at the BBC, says it’s also important to consider cognitive accessibility in workplace design:
“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 power of choice
The ability to adapt spaces to fit workers' favourite modes of working or their mood at the time is also a big part of workspace design today.
And giving workers a choice over where they work is especially important for neurodiverse individuals. A ‘menu’ of intentional spaces includes quiet areas for focused work, higher-stimuli settings for group work and socialising, and wellness rooms.
Furniture in these spaces should also be 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.
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.”
Neurodiverse workplaces - what does best in class look like?
The Barclays campus in Glasgow is an excellent example of how companies can design their workplaces to support the needs of neurodiverse employees. It was designed with input from neurodiverse individuals to ensure that it meets their needs and supports their success. The campus includes a range of features including:
- Sensory rooms - providing a calming and soothing environment for workers who may be overwhelmed by sensory input.
- Quiet spaces - offering employees a space to work in a more peaceful, focused environment
- Visual aids - colour-coded signage and large, clear text help individuals with different visual needs navigate the workspace more easily
- Flexible workspaces - a range of flexible spaces including standing desks accommodate the needs of workers with different physical needs
- Supportive culture - beyond the physical features, managers and colleagues receive training to help them support neurodiverse employees and create a more inclusive and successful workplace culture
Pushing neurodiversity up the agenda
As more organisations seek to create versatile environments that provide for a range of preferences to suit each individual employee, the neurodiversity challenge is top of the agenda. Organisations are focused on creating 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.
This blog post was first published in January 2020, and has since been updated in May 2023 for accuracy.