Workplace leaders, listen up: it’s time to ditch the one-size-fits-all-brain approach to office design. The human brain works in all sorts of ways, which is reflected in today’s neurodiverse workforce—and the workplace needs to do the job, too.
Understanding neurodiversity begins with recognizing that there are a range of cognitions, including autism spectrum conditions, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. While everyone has their own unique characteristics, people with neurodivergent disorders generally experience spaces differently than other members of the population.
Take me, one of many people whose cognitive experience of the world may be slightly different from yours. You’d never know if I hadn’t told you, but I’m dyslexic, which means I approach problems — and, yes, space — differently than other people. It also means the signage isn’t the most helpful tool when I need to quickly navigate an unfamiliar area.
But while neuro-minorities make up at least 15-20% of the world’s population, you will almost never mention them in diversity, equity and inclusion programs. We have to change that now, especially with the “big return” to the office. After more than two years amidst the comforts of home offices, neurodiverse people with higher sensitivity to the physical environment are even more likely than others to experience stress and anxiety when returning to crowded, noisy offices where it is difficult to concentrate, working together in a spirit of trust or just feeling good.
However, with targeted measures, organizations can ensure that their office spaces reflect the different ways employees experience the physical environment.
1. Offer job choice
First and foremost, create distinctive environments that people can move into based on both their work and their sensory comfort. According to BBC research, staff and visitors with neurodiverse disorders often process sounds, sights and smells differently than other staff. And while new ways of collaborating are one of the top things companies are currently looking for when designing new workplaces, Steelcase research shows that privacy can be just as important.
The key way to accommodate the many different ways people work is to offer a menu of conscious spaces – including quiet areas for focused work, environments with higher stimuli for group work and socializing, and charging stations. Charging stations could be a dimly lit, private space with a comfortable couch or chair, soothing music, and perhaps a yoga mat to encourage meditation or restorative exercise. Regardless of the specific approach, be sure to include clear design cues 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, also ensure variety within these categories. While many people thrive in glass-walled conference rooms, others may feel like they are in a fishbowl and less confident sharing their ideas with the team. Provide both types of spaces, including open spaces for collaboration and spaces with solid walls and doors that you can close.
Also consider how excessive and unexpected noise can be stressful for some people. In addition to providing small focus spaces with soundproofing materials where people can trust their conversations to be private, it also helps to create quieter collaborative spaces that use furniture and plants to bring privacy into a larger open plan Bringing space and protecting employees from the distraction of passing conversations.
2. Rethink the power of light and color
Many neurodiverse people, particularly those with ADHD, are sensitive to bright, flickering, unnatural light and glare, as well as sudden movement. Incorporating more natural light throughout a space—not just in common areas, but also in smaller, private spaces—can aid everyone’s focus and mental well-being. Not every room has windows that take in natural light, so in those cases mirrors, glossy furniture, glossy surfaces, greenery, warm soft LED lighting with adjustable settings, brighter color palettes, or even an artificial skylight can help create the illusion of to produce natural light. Dimmable lights and artwork with simple patterns can also help reduce stress.
This also applies to collaboration spaces, which are typically deliberately designed with bright colors and lights. 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 smells wafting through (or worse, lingering) can bother anyone, but it can be particularly bothersome for those with neurogenetic odor sensitivities. An odor sensitivity in particular is known as 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 those with autism, have heightened senses of smell and taste.
It can be very difficult for someone living with hyperosmia to identify what odors trigger it. Strong smell sensitivity can lead to anxiety and even depression because the affected person is not sure which events or places are safe for them. For employees returning to the office for the first time in two years, this can lead to anxiety about walking into an unfamiliar, unpredictable sensory environment.
Because the causes of hyperosmia are difficult to identify, it is imperative that companies do everything they can to limit objectionable odors. Invest in high-performance HVAC equipment and maintenance to promote healthy air quality and circulation. Certain plants such as palm trees, rubber plants and English ivy make excellent natural air purifiers. In particularly pungent spaces like the kitchen or even just the microwave, leaving a bowl of vinegar out overnight will help absorb other odors.
4. Choose a comfortable setup and configure it carefully
Rough, scratchy, and otherwise uninviting desk chairs aren’t exactly going to appeal to every employee, especially neurodiverse individuals with tactile sensibilities. Simple solution: Evaluate the texture as well as the visual aesthetics of desks, chairs, and other high-touch surfaces. Also, consider how you can help employees feel more comfortable in the workplace, for example by encouraging employees to bring their own mugs or family photos. This can also take other forms, such as incorporating neurodiversity into standard diversity training to make employees feel more comfortable sharing what they get from the office’s design and communications.
The different arrangement of furniture can also help people feel better equipped for their work. For example, not everyone’s brain works well when they’re seated at a table, so make room where pacing is welcome. And in open workspaces, you can provide privacy in other ways, such as positioning workstations so they face away from each other and toward an outward-facing window.
5. Consider neurodiversity in layout and pathfinding
It’s easy to get lost in offices where everything looks the same – think cell farms and drab floor plans. This sense of disorientation can overwhelm employees with cognitive differences. For example, as a person with dyslexia, it can be frustrating to have to rely more on environmental cues than on signage to find your way around an environment—but then realize that those cues look the same. Creating more unique spaces with visual landmarks and clear lines of sight helps everyone map their own location within a space, ultimately saving both time and frustration.
Ultimately, a design for neurodiversity benefits all employees—just as a design for the deaf can benefit hearing employees as well. Whether or not you have a neurogenetic disorder, everyone is different, and what you find distracting can just as easily inspire a colleague’s best focus. By designing for the rich diversity of our modern workforce, you can help ensure all your team members have access to spaces in which to thrive.
Claire Shepherd is COO of Unispace, a global strategy, design and engineering firm.