By Judith Carlson, LEED AP
With companies looking for ways to attract team members back to the office, the importance of finding new ways to support our workforce has become more apparent. Especially after the collective trauma of the pandemic and workplace shutdowns that has left many frightened and overwhelmed, creating a safe space that provides a greater sense of security within the office is paramount. One segment that would greatly benefit from this approach and is often overlooked is neurodiverse workers.
Some studies estimate that as many as 30% of workers are neurodiverse. Whether they have dyslexia, ADHD, a learning disability, or any other cognitive difference, it’s our duty as workplace strategists to take steps to ensure they are included and appropriately equipped to perform their best work. Though there’s more research being conducted in this area, preliminary studies suggest that neurodiverse workers are more productive and bring valuable contributions to their companies. Therefore, creating accessible accommodations for this vital workforce is essential for creating an overall harmonious and productive workplace.
Unfortunately, people who are neurodiverse often face unfair stigmas and encounter additional barriers in the workplace. Whether they suffer from a chronic mental health issue, have a learning disability, or can be classified with another cognitive difference, it’s vital to advocate for these individuals and provide the support they need to succeed in their employment.
When strategizing workplaces that are more accommodating and inclusive, one challenge is helping employers understand how their choices impact the day-to-day lives of their neurodiverse workers. This process requires looking at the office through different lenses and prioritizing balance while creating opportunities to emphasize ease of access and recognizing that everyone has different needs.
Educating the industry on the value that neurodiverse thinkers bring to their places of employment is also crucial. As designers and architects in the field witness this strategy and its tactics taking place in the field, they have been regularly contributing to literature and research about the topic and can be leaned on for valuable insights. Additionally, one key resource for understanding the need for neurodiversity accommodation comes from listening to employees and seeking greater understanding.
Designing The Workplace For Varying Needs
Considering the emotional and mental well-being of a company’s staff and customizing the office design to offer tailored solutions, a facility manager’s responsibility is to find ways that the office can adapt to the needs of the neurodiverse worker as well as everyone else. Examples of how they might do this run the gamut from thoughtful choices in color, textures, and sustainability, as well as providing different zones or atmospheres within the work environment that allows options for the staff. With the overall goal being to improve accessibility and create a functional space that is intuitive and easy to use for everybody, providing flexible orientation to adapt to the individual’s needs should be prioritized. These decisions also include creating the appropriate balance between open and collaborative spaces as well as locations in the office that are more enclosed or private, creating a layout for conferencing and meetings but also solitude.
In terms of light, some people prefer brighter spaces while others have light sensitivity or work best in dim lighting. Additionally, accounting for sound, smell, and visual clutter is one of those topics that’s becoming very hotly debated and remains at the forefront of design as we bring people back to the office. We know that we can’t plan for everything the team members do in this regard, but there are certain things the organization can accomplish through utilizing change management and managerial skills to lead by example. Creating new norms and managing cultural expectations is a massive part of this and can be as simple as adopting a clean desk policy or other rules to help minimize environmental disturbance. From the designer’s standpoint, planning for as much as they can and creating opportunities that help to reinforce those change management decisions is key.
Including Biophilic Design
For its ability to improve positive emotions and increase productivity, another aspect that comes into play for designing for neurodiversity is biophilia. By incorporating elements of nature into designs, architects, facility managers, and interior designers are able to achieve aesthetically pleasing and functional workplace experiences that aid mental wellness. Some notable effects of incorporating biophilic design into the workplace include reduced absenteeism and mental fatigue and improved emotional satisfaction and productivity. For neurodiverse workers, these tactics can help promote feelings of safety and calm.
Providing daylight and views to the outdoors are some of the first tactics for bringing nature into a building and have been at the top of the LEED checklist from the start. The biophilic strategy now goes much deeper. Beyond adding plantlife to the built environment, a holistic approach to biophilic design requires a commitment to a broader strategy and considers the use of color, natural textures, and representational natural elements such as artwork. Carefully strategizing the floorplan is also a major consideration, as its best practice to tailor the design and situational layout of the space to account for the surrounding buildings and natural views. On a lower floor, for example, it’s often better to design additional visual stimulation as they usually don’t have much of an overlook.
Helping The Workforce
As companies are creating more appealing spaces that attract workers back to the office, providing elements that promote inclusivity for neurodiverse workers should not be left out. From providing flexible spaces that account for diverse range of needs to incorporating biophilia into the layout to prioritize mental health, strategizing a workspace for individuals with cognitive differences is essential to support talent in the office.
Carlson is a Workplace Strategy Manager at Ted Moudis Associates with over 15 years of experience working in strategy and design. With a background in interior design, she has worked on both the design and client sides and recognizes the impact of a holistic approach to architecture and design.