Designing the Neurodiverse Workplace

Research suggests that a more neurodiverse workforce - individuals with ADHD, Tourettes, Dyslexia and Autism Spectrum Disorders - can help unlock innovation, creativity, and big picture thinking in organizations.

An estimated 1 in 8 people are considered neurodiverse, but less than 50% are aware of their condition and very few businesses are designing workplaces to accommodate their particular needs.

The benefits of designing accommodating spaces for neurodiverse individuals are clear. For example, in the right setting, autistic professionals can be 92% more productive than other employees.

In a recent webinar, I spoke with Kay Sargent, senior principal at global design firm, HOK, and her colleagues Sarah Oppenhuizen and Mary Kate Cassidy to explore how workplace design can bring the best out of these extraordinary individuals and create truly inclusive workplaces.

New Era

Many neurodiverse individuals experience sensory challenges; being either under and over stimulated in many workspaces making it difficult for them to concentrate - or collaborate. The pandemic has also meant that many employees - with or without these challenges - now have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and there is a renewed focus on spaces that promote health and wellbeing.

“We have learned a lot about sensory intelligence that can be applied in this new era,” said Sargent. “Whether we spike high or low in our response to sensory stimulation or sit in the middle as neurotypical, we are all impacted by the sensory realm that we’re in.

“That’s why we’ve taken all of the principles that impact neurodiversity and incorporated them into best workplace practices that have a positive impact and make everyone feel welcome. A space that’s good for diversity, is good for everyone.”

Design For All

The HOK team highlights that neurodiverse design is greater than the sum of its parts. Every element has to work together to create a thriving environment for all.

“The key is that nothing in a space works independently. Every element of the workplace has to work together to create a successful environment,” said Cassidy. “All our design needs to provide people with choice and control over where and how they work. This means incorporating a variety of different types of spaces and adding diverse environments.”

Taking the six modalities that make up the modern workplace, including areas for focus, meetings, and socializing, HOK created a design matrix highlighting the ideal environment for each stage of the neurodiversity spectrum, ranging from hypersensitive to hyposensitive.

A hypersensitive individual needs spaces that are quiet, calm and soothing in every sense, while a hyposensitive person is looking for a highly stimulating work environment with colour, sound and interaction to stay motivated.

“The goal is to take these six modalities and blend them into the environment seamlessly to provide people with options and choices about how they work,” Cassidy continues.

“That’s why we say that while there’s an art behind everything that we do, there’s also science. We examine the research undertaken about each workforce and base our designs around those findings.”

Looking to the Future

Now, Covid-19 has reinforced the compelling human and business case around greater mindfulness in workplace design. Not only are we creating inclusive spaces for neurodiverse individuals, but we are also designing to address and promote the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone.

Oppenhuizen concludes: “We are no longer designing environments. We are designing an experience for the wellbeing of all people.”

View the full ‘Neurodiversity and Workplace Inclusivity’ webinar here.

Leslie Thompson Director of Workplace Strategy, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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