Re-thinking office space to foster neurodiversity

Many organisations are actively addressing workplace neurodiversity and embracing it. As employees transition from the entirely remote lifestyle of the pandemic to a new hybrid work schedule, their employers are upgrading their environments to promote increased collaborative participation.

The recent pandemic has brought attention to how important it is to treat each employee as an individual, but there had already been a cultural shift in workplace attitudes before we knew anything about the Coronavirus.

Fortunately, the last 24 months have had a catalytic effect, and businesses are now beginning to prioritise the physical and mental health and wellness of their staff, as seen by new, more flexible working arrangements. However, inclusion encompasses so much more than that; so how can we ensure that the neurodivergent workforce is involved in the diversity and inclusivity discussion?

More than 15% of adults in the UK are neurodivergent, according to recent research, which means that their brains function, acquire knowledge, and process information differently from what is considered normal by society. This includes people who are affected by a variety of disorders, including dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia and ADHD (attention deficit disorder).

One size does not fit all
Many organisations are actively addressing this diversity and embracing it. As employees transition from the entirely remote lifestyle of the pandemic to a new hybrid work schedule, their employers are upgrading their environments to promote increased collaborative participation.

Employers are increasingly realising that neurodivergent-friendly workplaces, which accommodate and embrace employees’ varied sensory responses to a shared environment, significantly improve everyone’s health and well-being.

More inclusive design means that people do not have to modify who they are in order to fit into a space. Instead, a setting may be changed to better accommodate both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals.

Why addressing neurodiversity should be a priority
Numerous studies reveal that while neurodiverse workers can bring special skills to the office, such as imaginative storytelling, coding, and empathy, they may not always thrive in the rules and rigidity of the conventional workplace.

Working in the modern office is challenging for many people. The commotion of an open-plan workplace may be disturbing for people who operate best in a quiet setting. However, for people who have neurodivergent conditions, this barrier may be considerably higher.

Lack of consideration for neurodiversity in office design can be frustrating and, ultimately, disabling. A work environment without enough acoustic protection to muffle noise pollution may be crippling for someone with sensory sensitivity, and harsh overhead fluorescent lighting can be overpowering for someone with autism. Even overlooked aspects like texture, colour, sequencing, compartmentalization, temperature, and odours can cause neurodivergent individuals to be over- or under-stimulated.

Depending on how acute the sensitivities are, biological stress levels might increase over time, which can reduce productivity and increase absenteeism. Performance and confidence are affected, and in extreme conditions, this might lead to forced or voluntary unemployment. For instance, just 21% of individuals with autism and 50% of those with disabilities work. I really feel that one evident contributing factor to the issue is the way we design and plan out our workspaces.

Little changes that make a big difference
Understanding that not everyone approaches certain tasks in the same way is essential when dealing with neurodiversity. In fact, designing for neurodiversity calls for a far more nuanced strategy.

As previously noted, neurodivergent workers may find it difficult to fit in at a standard workspace, but with a few minor changes that will benefit everyone, you’ll be able to leverage their unique skills and talents while fostering a more inclusive workplace.

Of course, expecting organisations to design for specific requirements is unrealistic. However, by fusing a range of preferences with a variety of settings, we may still accomplish the desired outcome—a location where everyone feels comfortable working efficiently. Most of all, this lessens the appearance of difference.

Since everyone has different needs and preferences, it is essential to provide a range of settings so that employees may select the one that is most appropriate for their mood or for doing particular activities. This entails designing communal open spaces for mingling and working together, enclosed silent spaces for more intense concentration, designated phone and meeting zones, resting rooms, and relaxation spaces.

In this regard, there are a few important design factors to take into account when attempting to improve the sensory experiences and conditions of office users, making the workplace more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.

Sound control and acoustics
Even when separated by cubicles, a noisy, active open-plan workplace can create a lot of distractions for employees. Additionally, it’s very hard to stop a natural office culture from developing, which often entails chitchat in the background, unexpected laughs, and more often than not, virtual calls.

More and more designers are gravitating toward sound-controlling workplace solutions as a means of combating noise. In addition to providing acoustic baffling and a private workspace, walls and partition systems may be placed to efficiently absorb sound.

Bringing the outdoors indoors
According to the concept of biophilia, people have an inbuilt need to connect with nature and other living things. It is a practical (and aesthetically pleasing) way to reduce or get rid of some of the distractions and triggers that are frequently encountered in offices.

Access to sunlight and adding natural elements like plants surrounding a workspace may have a calming impact and improve air quality for neurodiverse workers who are overstimulated.

Everyone benefits from biophilia, not only those with neurodivergent conditions. A recent poll found that having a connection to nature at work had a significant beneficial impact on all employees. Well-being can increase by up to 15%, and boredom and tension are also greatly reduced. Meanwhile, more internal green areas, natural light, and even brighter colours boost creativity and productivity, and staff members say they feel more appreciated and supported by their employer.

One of the most efficient methods to let natural light enter the area is using glass walls and partitions. This simple design choice will keep noise and privacy levels the same while instantly enhancing office users’ sense of connection to the outside world.

One thing we must understand is that in order to create an immersive experience rather than just an office where people work, designing for neurodiversity requires consideration of all five senses.

People are encouraged to go back to work since they know they will have a sensory experience or work environment that suits their personalities and work styles and can accommodate anyone who is neurodivergent or has a disability.

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    6 December 2023


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