Perkins&Will’s Julie Gauthier explores how designing for neurodiversity can attract and maintain talent, build stronger teams, and develop a competitive edge.
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Bringing together an array of skills and unique perspectives is an essential part of building diverse teams. Supporting neurodiversity within our organizations is paramount and calls us to consider ways that the work environment can support everyone.
When people talk about neurodiversity, there’s often a line drawn between ‘us,’ and ‘them.’ The neurotypical and the neurodivergent, or vice versa. The intent of the term ”neurodiversity” is to consider the entire range of cognitive function, acknowledging that we are all wired differently. We all fit somewhere along the neurodiverse spectra.
As with biodiversity, which identifies a diverse ecosystem of unique but interconnected species, there is no “normal” form of life—simply different forms of life, each contributing their own strengths and jointly creating a resilient whole.
Neurodiversity speaks to all the various ways our brains work. A discussion about supporting neurodiversity in the workplace is not about defining or categorizing a subset of people. It’s about the basic questions of universal design: How do we make spaces better for everyone? How do we meet a wide variety of often competing needs at the same time?
When people who think differently are supported equitably, the resulting exchange can elevate problem solving, create richer interactions, and result in more innovative solutions. Designing for neurodiversity is not only a worthy pursuit in terms of inclusion, it’s a way for employers to attract and maintain talent, build stronger teams, and develop a competitive edge.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The human condition is built on many levels of physiological and physical needs. In many cases, the optimal space for one person can be a nightmare for another. The examples are almost endless, but temperature or noise level rank among the variables most often polarizing in a shared work environment.
Research has identified user group sensitivities across a spectrum of categories, including:
- Audible (noise and hearing needs)
- Visual (lighting and visual distractions)
- Environmental (temperature and smells)
- Physical (ergonomics, tactile sensations, movement requirements)
- Social (interactions with others)
- Cognitive (information processing)
The takeaway from so much variation is that a truly universal design approach is crucial and should embrace three key concepts: choice, flexibility, and variety.
An open dialogue empowers workers with choice. The first step an organization can take in delivering an inclusive work environment is to gather insights from users. Individual feedback identifying preferences and needs will outline the accommodations that can have the most impact. This can be facilitated through a questionnaire, survey, or focus groups. Key impacts identified for a specific population can then be influenced by universal design principles to drive flexible and varied solutions, instead of a single solution that accommodates some but not all.
Flexibility and Variety
Universal Design strategies aim to present a gradient of options that allow individuals to adjust their experience to find accommodation throughout the day, or day to day, and in response to different types of tasks. It’s important to offer both flexible furnishings and access to a variety of space types to facilitate workstyles and preferences.
A few solutions for variable needs:
- Adopt dimmable LED lights, which also eliminate the potential distractors of buzzing and flickering in fluorescent fixtures.
- Add operable shades to windows and facilitate views to nature from a variety of work settings.
- Provide or allow equipment for noise cancelation, like headphones.
- Incorporate acoustic design considerations to reduce echoes.
- Maintain clear sight lines and minimize barriers in social zones to decrease a sense of crowding.
- Provide focus rooms with warm upholstered furniture to be an enclave of low stimulation.
- Offer flexible furnishings like sit-to-stand desks and ergonomic task seating.
Ideally, a work environment will provide a mix—proportionate to need—of the following: enclosed offices, open workstations, collaboration spaces for varied group sizes, and social areas and alcoves away from high-stimuli areas that satisfy and appeal to numerous users’ preferences.
While choice, flexibility, and variety are essential to this holistic approach to designing for neurodiversity, there are additional solutions that are broadly inclusive. It’s useful across the board to design spacious, well-defined paths throughout the office. The cognitive load of wayfinding varies from one person to the next, but there’s no downside to predictable visual cues and clear circulation.
A few solutions for clear wayfinding:
- Distinguish main entrances and exits by color or other graphics to limit stress.
- Install clear signage throughout to provide cognitive support.
- Offer flooring changes to define primary circulation paths.
- Offer views to the outside for at least 75% of workspaces to help orient people within a building and support emotional well-being.
- Use doors and frames that contrast with surrounding walls to make distinguishing rooms more intuitive.
Many of these solutions are cost effective and can be implemented without major disruption to existing spaces or incorporated into renovation or first-generation office environments that are under development.
There is No Normal
People are reevaluating how they want to work and are now, perhaps, more sensitive to what allows them to be productive. By supporting differences—allowing people to bring their whole selves to work—universal design strategies support innovative teams.
Everyone benefits from design that meets you where you are, rather than attempting to bend your habits toward the gray area that is “normalcy”. Hybrid and dynamic workstyles have become cemented into the work-life experience for many of us, giving us more options in delivering our work and contributing to our organizations’ goals. At the same time, universal design strategies present a compelling opportunity to support the office environment as a mutually preferred destination.
The idea is simple: business leaders want engaged employees who can develop innovative solutions and contribute to a thriving culture. A work environment that embraces choice, flexibility, and variety can deliver that competitive edge by providing a collaborative hub that supports a broad spectrum of people and perspectives.