Businesses are realising the advantages of a neurodiverse workforce – and the importance of design in unlocking this. LOM associates Emily Cassel and Tom Hofton explore the fundamentals of designing neurodiverse workspaces that can be inclusive to a range of needs.
Everyone thinks and experiences the world in a different way, and there is a growing onus on businesses to create more inclusive, neurodiverse workplaces. Many employers increasingly acknowledge the potential benefits of having a variety of people in a team who are able to assess tasks and problems from different angles and have unique skills. We don’t want ‘group think’.
In the education sector inclusivity of those with Special Educational Needs (SENs) is reasonably well established. But in the corporate world, neurodiverse individuals can find they are not supported or set up to succeed.
How we design the workplace matters. We know, more than ever post lockdown, what an important role our working environments play in our productivity and our wellbeing.
Designing for such a wide spectrum of neurodiversity can be a challenge, but one we should embrace if we are to make our workplaces truly equal, diverse and inclusive – and to fully take advantage of the skills neurodiverse people have to offer.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a term referring to the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, such as Autism Spectrum Condition, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dyspraxia. The term aims to reduce stigma by promoting the view that such differences are part of normal variation, and that neurodiverse people offer unique perspectives and interpretations on the world.
Understanding an employee’s journey
Neurodiversity involves a difference in perception – and can mean some senses are heightened or more prone to overstimulation. As designers, we need to be conscious of this and focus on gradual transitions. From light and noise levels to how a building smells, we should consider every step of an employee’s journey, from a busy high street to a workstation.
Rather than sharp changes, eg jumping to fluorescent strip lights and silent workspace, it’s better to bring levels down gradually. For example in a neurodiverse workplace, lead people through a buzzing lobby area with a café that’s finished with warm colours and feature lighting, then draw them through transition spaces like lift lobbies or ‘watercooler’ areas before arriving in quieter workspaces.
The freedom to choose
Zoning spaces can be an effective way of supporting a wide range of needs. Designing spaces for different work styles, from quiet spaces for focused tasks to convivial collaborative areas, or tech-free break out zones. This gives individuals the choice to work how and where they want, matching these environments to their current mindset or specific tasks. However, it’s worth considering the placement of these zones in the context of gradual transitions, eg avoiding the noise leakage of having a social hub next to a silent work area.
Inclusive design isn’t prescriptive to its users, rather it should be intuitive, and give options. That’s where wayfinding comes in – designing clear paths to encourage people to take different journeys through the space and have different experiences. For instance, the choice to get to your desk either via a quiet corridor or through a busy social space. People then have the freedom to choose their own path to suit their preferences.
Designing inclusive interiors
The challenge is not just to provide a variety of spaces, but to also make them appealing. Workspaces need to inspire people. Over the years there has been a tendency to design neutral, ‘greige’ offices which are arguably the most inclusive from a design point of view. But they can be devoid of soul. Similarly, you can go too far the other way. Neon lights, bright colours and thumping music can overwhelm the senses.
Spaces that encourage creativity from everybody on the neurological spectrum need to be balanced. One simple way to achieve this is through biophilic design – bringing in greenery and natural materials that provide life, colour and ambiance to any space.
Designing for a neurodiverse workplace helps businesses to become more inclusive and will also create a more pleasant work environment for everybody, not just neurodiverse colleagues. These aren’t major design changes and they don’t need to be costly. All it takes is the drive to do it, and the consideration of these issues and ideas at the earliest planning stages.
Neurodiverse inclusivity is too important to be an afterthought.