Designing for neurodiversity builds healthier workplaces for all

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DIRTT shares three key design elements that can enhance workspace conditions, making them more inclusive and welcoming for all.

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As people transition from the remote-work norms of pandemic life and return to the office, some organizations are adapting their workplaces to support more collaborative engagement, and better meet the needs of neurodivergent employees.

Neurodiversity (as well as “neurodivergent” or “neurodifferent”) refers to “the diversity of human cognition” and includes conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Dyspraxia, explains the BBC. As much as 30% of the population is neurodiverse according to some studies. Neurodiverse people simply process information in different ways.

Increasingly, employers are realizing that neurodivergent-friendly workspaces – which accommodate and embrace the varied sensorial responses people have to a shared environment – ultimately benefit the health and wellbeing of all employees.

With more inclusive design, people do not have to change who they are to fit a space, says the report Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace from global design company HOK. Rather, an environment can be adjusted to better serve everyone, neurotypical (those with more normative brain function) and neurodivergent alike.

One of the overarching tenets of inclusive workplace design is creation of versatile spaces that allow people to choose conditions that are best for their needs.

Here are three key design elements that can enhance the visual, scent, and auditory experiences and conditions of workspaces, making them more inclusive and welcoming for all.

Calgary DIRTT Experience Center (DXC) – Photo credit: Hero Images

Offer employees noise level options

Workplaces can be noisy. And in addition to light and scent, auditory stimuli can be a challenge for all employees, but especially those who are neurodiverse.

“A busy, loud, motion-heavy, open-atmosphere working environment, even if divided by cubicles, would have been very difficult for me to navigate as a neurodivergent person who thrives in the ability to focus and for whom ‘small’ distractions (like a coworker popping in unexpectedly to chat) can lead to a lot of lost productivity,” writes an Autistic author in Psychology Today.

Indeed, research indicates that general noise can decrease workers’ accuracy in tasks by as much as 67% — neurodivergent or otherwise. And variable volume, such as background conversation or sudden laughter, can be distracting to neurodivergent people with more analytic personalities.

To combat noise, designers are building with materials that better control sound in the workplace. Some materials can absorb sound, or walls and partitions can be added to  provide acoustic baffling, as well as privacy. Strategically placed plants can also help to quiet a space because their leaves, stems, and branches absorb, deflect, and refract sound.

At the other end of the auditory spectrum, the HOK report notes that workspaces can on occasion be too quiet for some neurodiverse people, who might need low-level ambient sound. This is why providing employees a variety of auditory settings they can choose from is ideal.

Bring the outside in

Environmental elements such as light, sound, and smell cause discomfort for some neurodiverse individuals. For instance, a 2020 report from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education outlines various sensory stimuli that can be distracting and uncomfortable, such as overpowering or fluorescent lighting, external or sudden noises, and even unwelcome scents such as food.

Biophilia, or “design that tries to bring nature indoors,” is an efficient (and beautiful) way to offset or minimize some of these triggers. Access to daylight and incorporating natural elements such as plants throughout a space can have a calming effect and improve air quality for neurodiverse workers who are overstimulated, says the HOK report.

It’s not just neurodiverse people who benefit from biophilia. A Human Spaces study found that employees’ two most desired elements in a space are natural light and indoor plants.

Feeling connected to nature in the office has a significantly positive impact on all workers, says the report. Wellbeing can increase by up to 15%, while boredom and stress are reduced. Meanwhile, productivity and creativity are also boosted, and staff report feeling more valued and supported by their employer when workspaces include more internal green space, sunlight, and even brighter colors.

For spaces where it might be challenging to integrate biophilic options, organizations can opt to expand access to sunlight that’s already available via glass walls or sliding doors, or add a leaf wall to an interior space.

Whatever the scale, incorporating biophilic design features can create a more effective workspace for a diverse array of employees.

Calgary DIRTT Experience Center (DXC) – Photo by: Hero Images

Provide dedicated wellness space for recharging

Those who work outside the home spend one-third (33%) of their day in the workplace. When they’re working on an intense project, for example, they may need a place to “escape” for 15 minutes that isn’t the lunchroom, or the restroom. Neurodiverse staff in particular often require a break from sensory overload.

A wellness or quiet room can provide a much-needed oasis for employees to recharge. But the solution shouldn’t be four walls cut off from the rest of the office. The space should feature thoughtful and inclusive lighting, color, sound, and amenity choices.

A workplace designer and father of a neurodiverse child suggests, “the ubiquitous quiet room should be given a complete makeover – from the traditional desk and task chair for concentrated knowledge work, to comfy darkened lounges that enable stretching out to think and read, to anechoic chambers where your music can be played as loud as your ears can bear, greenhouses where you can truly immerse yourself inside a world of softly moving air, plants, and butterflies.”

Some design options to consider include the use of warm, neutral colors to promote calmness, and perhaps a sectioned-off area that incorporates natural light which can be less stressful than artificial sources. Dimmable lamps are a great addition for those who may want a midday catnap or for neurodiverse individuals who need a break from light exposure.

By designing workplaces with different human conditions at the forefront of our thinking, writes diversity and inclusion architect Toby Mildon, “we will make workplaces better for everybody.”

From incorporating biophilic elements at the office and offering employees a variety of environment and recharge space options, more inclusive design will better serve the individual needs of every type of person at an organization. And in turn, everyone can experience greater wellbeing, productivity, and creativity.

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