Design Considerations to Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace
- October 18, 2023
- Sean Downey
As the workplace has transformed over the past few years, companies have come to understand that employee wellbeing is one of their greatest assets. The foundation of a positive employee experience is cultivating a diverse workplace that is accommodating and inclusive of all individuals’ needs.
Promoting a diverse and inclusive company culture is beneficial to all stakeholders, increasing employee wellbeing and resulting in significant returns for companies. In fact, a 2018 Deloitte report found that inclusive companies were six times more likely to be innovative and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. Being inclusive of diverse employees also brings a wider range of perspectives, skills, and life experiences to the table.
When designing an inclusive work environment, it’s critical to consider the needs of all individuals who will use the space, including those who are neurodivergent. ‘Neurodivergent’ is an umbrella term, which includes those with conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and Tourette syndrome.
Between 15 and 20 percent of the population is neurodivergent, making it essential for all companies to create accommodating and inclusive workplace environments. By meeting the needs of neurodiverse employees, companies can leverage the unique talents of these individuals to improve business outcomes, while also cultivating a vibrant and diverse workforce.
Many neurodivergent individuals display special talents in pattern recognition, memory, mathematics, and creativity. According to the National Autistic Society, people on the autistic spectrum often demonstrate greater than average skills in concentration, persistence, accuracy and attention to detail, and memory retention. Likewise, individuals with ADHD can experience a symptom called “hyperfocus,” where they are able to focus intensely on a specific project or activity for extended periods of time.
All of these unique skills and traits make neurodivergent individuals exceptional employees and can result in improved productivity, innovation, and employee retention at companies that embrace neurodiversity in the workplace. However, companies must first create an accommodating and inclusive work environment that supports and nourishes these special talents.
Creating an environment where neurodivergent individuals are comfortable and focused is key to an inclusive workspace. Different design considerations, such as furnishings, layout, and sensory aspects of the workspace are all factors in creating a supportive environment for neurodivergent employees.
The layout of an office plays an important role in helping neurodivergent individuals stay focused and calm at work. Wide open spaces tend to come with more distractions, such as noises, clutter, and movement.
Creating zones throughout an open-concept space, providing mobile partitions, and even implementing quiet spaces or sensory rooms are all effective ways to accommodate the needs of all employees. All of these options allow employees to find a space in the office that fits their personal, sensory, and productivity needs throughout each day. Plus, the flexibility and choice provided by an inclusive office layout makes coming into the workplace more inviting and comfortable for everyone.
Sensory sensitivities are common among neurodivergent individuals. Typical office sounds, lights, and clutter can quickly become overwhelming for employees with sensory sensitivities. To create an inclusive office environment, workplaces should be designed with varying sensory needs in mind.
Optimal lighting is key in an effective and inclusive work environment. Too much or too little light can make it challenging for neurodivergent individuals with sensory sensitivities to stay focused on work throughout the day.
Sensory-friendly workplaces can replace harsh fluorescent lighting with natural light, warm-toned bulbs, and dimmable LED lights. Ideally, employees with sensory sensitivities will have some level of individual lighting control––such as blinds, dimmers, or individual task lamps at workstations––enabling lighting adjustability to accommodate differing sensory needs.
Noise and clutter control are also important factors in cultivating a comfortable office environment for individuals with sensory sensitivities. Between echoing office sounds and visual over-stimulation, open-concept offices can be challenging for neurodivergent employees.
Adding partitions or soft lounge furniture throughout the office space is one way to dampen distracting noises. Alternatively, noise-canceling headphones are a good alternative for spaces that can’t be modified to minimize sound.
To reduce clutter, organization and storage are key. Particularly in an open-concept, flexible workspace, employees need a secure space to store their personal items as they move around the office. Any bulky wires, office supplies, or extra technology should also be stored away neatly for easy access and to minimize visual distractions.
Before designing an inclusive workplace, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no “one size fits all” solution to support neurodivergent employees’ needs. Providing a variety of options and opportunities for employees to choose how they interact with their workspace is crucial to support wellbeing, productivity, and employee retention. Plus, creating an inclusive work environment helps neurodivergent individuals feel valued and included.
By offering flexibility and choice in the workspace, companies demonstrate that they respect the differences every employee brings to the table. Cultivating an inclusive environment that accommodates the differing needs of all employees can help companies attract and retain a diverse workforce, including neurodivergent employees who bring a wealth of skills and unique perspectives to your team.