Workplace leaders, listen up: It’s time to ditch the one-size-fits-all approach to office design. The human brain works in all sorts of ways, as evidenced by today’s neurodiverse workforce, and the workplace must also adapt.
Understanding neurodiversity begins with recognizing that there is a range of cognitions, including autism spectrum condition, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. Although everyone has their own unique attributes, people with neurodivergent diseases typically experience spaces differently than other members of the population.
Take me, one of many people whose cognitive experience of the world may differ somewhat from yours. You’d never know if I didn’t tell you, but I’m dyslexic, which means I approach issues — and, yes, space — differently than other people. It also means that signage isn’t the most useful tool when I need to quickly navigate through unfamiliar space.
But while neuro-minorities make up at least 15-20% of the world’s population, you’ll hardly ever hear about them in diversity, equity and inclusion programs. We need to change that now, especially with the “big comeback” to the office. After more than two years in the comfort of home offices, neurodiverse people with greater sensitivity to the physical environment are still more likely than others to experience stress and anxiety upon returning to crowded and noisy offices. where it’s hard to focus, collaborate confidently, or just feel comfortable.
However, by taking targeted action, organizations can ensure that their office spaces reflect the diverse ways employees experience the physical environment.
1. Offer workplace choice
Above all, create distinctive places where people can choose to go based on their work and sensory comfort. According to BBC research, employees and visitors with neurodiseases often process sounds, sights and smells differently than other staff. And while new opportunities for collaboration are one of the key elements organizations are looking for in redesigning the workplace today, Steelcase research shows that privacy can be just as important.
The best way to accommodate the many different ways of working is to offer a menu of intentional spaces, including quiet zones for focused work, higher stimulus settings for group work and socializing, and charging stations. Charging stations can be a dimly lit private room with a comfortable couch or chair, soothing music, and perhaps a yoga mat to encourage meditation or restorative movement. Whatever the specific approach, be sure to incorporate clear design elements about the intent of the space so people know what to expect in terms of acoustics, privacy, light and other sensory elements.
When designing different workspaces, provide variety within these categories as well. While many people may thrive in conference rooms surrounded by glass walls, others may feel like they’re in a fishbowl and feel less confident sharing their ideas with the team. . Provide both types of space, including open collaboration spaces and rooms with solid walls and doors you can close.
Also consider how stressful excessive and unexpected sounds can be for some people. In addition to providing small chat rooms with sound-deadening materials where people can be sure their conversations will be private, it’s also helpful to create quieter collaboration areas that use furniture and plants to bring some light. privacy in a larger open space and protect employees from the distraction of passing. conversations.
2. Rethink the power of light and color
Many neurodiverse people, especially those with ADHD, are sensitive to bright, flickering, and unnatural lighting and glare, as well as sudden movements. Incorporating more natural light throughout the space, not just in common areas, but also in small private spaces, can promote concentration and mental well-being for everyone. Not all spaces will have windows that welcome natural light, so in these cases mirrors, shiny furniture, glossy surfaces, greenery, warm and soft LED lighting with adjustable settings, color palettes lighters or even a faux skylight can help give the illusion of natural light. . Dimmable lights and artwork with simple patterns can also help reduce stress.
This also goes for collaboration spaces, which are usually outfitted with bright colors and lights on purpose. While some people’s brains are indeed stimulated by bright colors and lights, people like me find them incredibly distracting. So offer a mix.
3. Prioritize air quality
Stuffy air with random odors floating around (or, worse, lingering) can bother anyone, but it can be especially bothersome for people with neurogenic olfactory sensitivities. Sensitivity to smell in particular is called hyperosmia and, depending on the severity of the sensitivity, a co-worker’s perfume or a smelly lunch can trigger migraines, nausea and other forms of discomfort. For example, some neurodiverse people, such as people with autism, have an increased sense of smell and taste.
It can be very difficult for someone with hyperosmia to identify the smells that will trigger it. Severe smell sensitivities can lead to anxiety and even depression, as the affected person cannot be sure of events or places that it will be safe for them to visit. For employees returning to the office for the first time in two years, it can cause anxiety about walking through an unfamiliar and unpredictable sensory environment.
As the causes of hyperosmia can be difficult to identify, it is imperative that companies make every effort to limit intrusive odors. Invest in high-performance HVAC equipment and maintenance to promote healthy air quality and circulation. Certain plants like palm trees, rubber plants and English ivy make excellent natural air purifiers. For particularly pungent spaces like the kitchen, or even just the microwave, leaving a bowl of vinegar overnight helps absorb other odors.
4. Choose comfortable furniture and set it up wisely
Rough, rough, and otherwise unappealing office chairs won’t convince any employee, especially neurodiverse people with tactile sensitivity. Simple solution: Evaluate texture as much as you would the visual aesthetics of desks, chairs, and any other high-touch surface. Also consider ways to help employees feel more comfortable in the workplace, such as encouraging people to bring their own mugs or family photos. It could also take other forms, like including neurodiversity in standard diversity training, so employees feel more comfortable sharing what they need outside of office design and communications.
Arranging furniture in different ways can also help people feel better equipped to do their jobs. For example, not everyone’s brain works well when seated at a table, so plan a space where the pace is welcome. And in open workspaces, you can provide privacy in other ways by positioning workstations so they face each other and toward an outside window, for example.
5. Consider neurodiversity in design and orientation
It’s easy to get lost in offices where everything looks the same – think cubicle trusses and monotonous floor layouts. This feeling of disorientation can overwhelm employees with cognitive differences. For example, as someone with dyslexia, it can be frustrating to have to rely on environmental cues more than signage to orient oneself in a setting, only to find that those cues look the same. Creating more unique spaces with visual cues and clear sight lines will help everyone map their own location in a space, saving time and frustration.
Ultimately, designing for neurodiversity benefits all employees, just as designing for deaf people can also help hearing employees. Whether or not you have a neurogenetic disorder, everyone is different, and what you find distracting may just as well inspire the best focus in a colleague. By designing for the rich diversity of our modern workforce, you can help ensure that everyone on your team has access to a space where they can thrive.
Claire Shepherd is COO of Unispace, a global strategy, design and construction firm.