How to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Office Design
The workplace is an incredibly diverse environment. Each employee is distinct, with their life experiences and interests influencing how they like to work and complete tasks. Because of diversity, great things happen in the workplace, and organisations are becoming increasingly proactive in providing support as they recognise the positive aspects diversity brings.
Yet, although making up an estimated 4% of the population in Ireland and at least 15% to 20% of the global population, diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes seldom mention neuro-minorities. Similarly, many organisations have yet to consider neurodiversity when designing the layout of their office space. With research indicating that teams with neurodivergent individuals can be as much as 30% more productive than those without, organisations should be placing a higher emphasis on creating a neurodiverse-friendly workplace when designing their office space in order to support neurodiversity in the workplace.
Ireland’s organisations are becoming better at adapting to and recognising the fundamental benefit of a neurodiverse workforce. Corporations like Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprises, who have HQs in Ireland, have well-documented how they leverage a neurodivergent workforce. But there is still a long way to go; according to the latest research stats, 51% of neurodivergent employees are willing to quit their jobs as they do not feel supported by their employer.
What is Neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” was first coined in the late 1990s by Prof. Judy Singer, an Australian disability rights activist. Singer stated that rather than being treated as a medical issue; neurological differences should be seen as a natural variation in human experience. She advocated that people with neurological impairments should be acknowledged and encouraged rather than being pathologised and stigmatised, with the term intended to positively represent the "neurological diversity" of the human brain. The concept of neurodiversity defines the variation of human brain functions relating to sociability, learning, attention and mood.
Neurodiverse individuals often consider and see the world differently, making them a great asset to the workplace.
Recognising the variety of cognition, such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia, is the first step towards comprehending neurodiversity. Although each has its distinctive qualities, neurodiverse people typically see settings in ways that are different from those of the general public.
How to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Neurodiverse office design has become imperative since the “great return” to the workplace. Working environments can be challenging for employees with neuro differences, especially when returning to crowded, noisy offices after working at home for two or more years. Neurodiverse people who are more sensitive to their physical environment are likelier than others to feel stressed and anxious. These environments make it difficult to concentrate, collaborate confidently, or relax. Consider dyslexia, for example. Individuals with dyslexia approach problems and space differently than most people and often find signage unhelpful when discovering their way around a new area.
Today's neurodiverse workforce proves that the human brain can function in various ways, and the workplace must adapt. However, many organisations are slow to do so. New research conducted by City & Guides and neurodiversity experts Do-IT Solutions found that employers currently fail to support neurodivergent employees, with 40% of neurodivergent employees feeling impacted almost daily by their condition due to a lack of training, neurodiversity awareness, and resources in the workplace.
If you're wondering how to be inclusive in the workplace, you can start by including DE&I as a fundamental organisational value and incorporating neurodiversity into regular diversity training to encourage employees to speak up about what they want from the office's layout and communications.
DCU – The World’s First Autism-Friendly University
At Codex, we understand the requirement for inclusive office design, having partnered with several organisations across various industries, including educational, health and manufacturing, in recent years.
As part of our overall Codex Cares efforts to support our local community, we are delighted to be partnering with DCU, which became the world’s first designated autism-friendly university in 2016, in creating a dedicated Quiet Space on campus that considers the effects of light, sound, and comfort for DCU's neurodivergent students.
Phase one of this project was completed last year and included the installation of three sensory pods on campus. Since then, the university has seen a 60% increase in students disclosing diagnoses.
Codex is excited to be involved in phase two of this project which will focus on building capacity to support autistic DCU employees, the development of the Quiet Space and the piloting of an indoor navigation app with a dashboard that informs users of current noise levels, the location of noisy and quiet hotspots, and the location of quiet zones on campus.
We look forward to seeing the DCU Quiet Space vision come to life in 2023!
Designing a Neurodiverse-Friendly Workplace – Where to Begin
Understanding and accommodating cognitive differences involves knowing what to include when designing a neurodiverse-friendly workplace. In terms of the office design itself, the impact of space design on the five senses is well documented. Colours, textures, acoustics, temperature... Everything has the potential to affect a person's productivity and well-being negatively.
And while most organisations cannot design for individual requirements, they can combine a spectrum of needs with a range of spaces for every individual to work as effectively and efficiently as possible. CIPD Ireland’s guide raises neurodiversity awareness among employers of neurodiversity and what to consider when creating a neurodiverse workplace.
Components of an Inclusive Office Space
Minimising the appearance of difference within the office, here are some essentials when designing a neurodiverse-friendly office:
- Low-stimulation environments for hyper-focus.
- Social spaces for stimulation breaks.
- Quiet rooms for intense concentration.
- Low-traffic areas to reduce social anxiety.
- Collaborative hubs to foster extraversion.
- Active zones to stimulate movement.
- Materiality and lighting to cue behaviours.
- Layout and furniture to indicate the purpose.
These and more features can be added to an office to support neurodiversity in the workplace that helps remove the daily challenges many neurodiverse employees face.
What to Consider When Designing a Neurodiverse-Friendly Workplace
To reflect how employees interact with the physical environment, organisations should consider the following in the design of their office space:
1. Provide Workspace Options
Provide distinct environments where people can go based on their work and level of comfort with their surroundings. Neurodiverse employees and guests frequently perceive noises, images, and smells differently than other staff members. And while expanded collaboration spaces are one of the main features businesses seek in new office designs, research demonstrates that privacy can be just as crucial.
Offering a variety of purposeful spaces, like quiet spots for focused work, and high-stimuli locations, such as breakout areas for group work and socialising, is the best approach to accommodate the many ways people operate. Breakout areas could be a private, dimly lit space with a comfy couch or chair, soothing music, and a yoga mat to promote restorative movement or meditation. Whatever the method, make sure to include clear design clues about the space's purpose so visitors understand what to expect regarding acoustics, seclusion, light, and other sensory factors.
Also, remember that some people may find loud or sudden noises disrupting. It is helpful to create quieter collaboration areas that use furniture and plants to bring privacy within a larger open space and shield employees from the distraction of passing conversations, in addition to providing small focus rooms with soundproofing materials where people can trust their discussions will be private.
2. Review the Effectiveness of Light and Sound
Many neurodiverse people are sensitive to bright, flickering, artificial lighting, glare, and abrupt movement, especially those with ADHD. More natural light can improve everyone's concentration and mental health throughout the room, including smaller, private areas and common ones. Not every room will have windows that let in natural light, so in those cases, mirrors, glossy surfaces, bright furniture, plants, warm, soft LED lighting with adjustable settings, lighter colour schemes, or even a fake skylight can assist in creating the sense of natural light. Simple pattern artwork and dimmable lighting can both make you feel less stressed.
This also applies to collaboration areas frequently designed with vibrant lighting and colours. Bright colours and lights can stimulate some people's brains but are immensely distracting for others. So, provide a variety.
3. Value High-Quality Air
Nobody likes stuffy air with lingering strange scents, but those with neurogenetic sensitivity may find it particularly bothersome. Hyperosmia is a term for a specific sensitivity to smell. Depending on its severity, a co-worker’s perfume or a strong-smelling lunch can cause migraines, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms. For instance, specific neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism, have enhanced senses of taste and smell.
It can be difficult for someone with hyperosmia to determine which smells cause an attack. As they are unaware of what events or places are safe for them to attend, people with acute smell sensitivity may feel anxious or even depressed. As a result, employees returning to the workplace for the first time in two years may experience anxiety when they step into a new, uncertain sensory environment.
4. Choose Comfortable Furnishings
Uninviting desk chairs will not win over any employees, especially neurodiverse employees. Examine the texture of office desks, chairs, and other high-touch surfaces like you would the aesthetics. Invest in good quality office chairs and seating to make your office space more comfortable and professional. Ergonomic chairs are designed to support the body, promote good posture, and prevent discomfort, making them the ideal choice for office chairs.
Think about methods to make employees feel more at home. Different furniture arrangements can also make people more prepared to perform their jobs. For instance, not everyone's brain functions well while seated at a table, so designate a location where standing desks are available. There are also ways to provide privacy in open workspaces, such as by turning workstations so they face outward and away from other people.
5. Consider Neurodiversity in Wayfinding and Office Layout
In offices with uniform decor, it can be easy to get lost. Employees with cognitive impairments may become overwhelmed by this feeling of confusion. For instance, it can be irritating for someone with dyslexia to rely more on environmental cues than signage to locate a space—only to discover that those cues all appear to be the same. Everyone can map their place inside the area if there are more distinctive locations with visual cues and clear lines of sight, eventually saving time and irritation.
The Power to Choose
Gaining the input of your neurodiverse employees is vital when creating an office space because they will most likely have a thorough awareness of their working methods.
Designing adaptable and flexible workspaces demonstrates an organisation's support to all employees, regardless of their background. These requirements may be minor, such as requiring dimmable lighting in conference rooms and quiet areas, but it is crucial to keep in mind that employees are used to having freedom of choice when working remotely, so they should not have to give it up when they frequently return to the office.
At Codex, our company values are central. We constantly incorporate DE&I initiatives into our culture and processes to create an environment where employees and partners feel valued and respected.
Our team of office design experts would love to help you create a neurodiverse office that champions inclusivity. From initial concept to installation, we offer a complete office fit-out service that includes space design and furniture allocation to office supplies. Open an account today or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you require further information!
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