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Neurodiversity in the workplace: designing office spaces for inclusivity

Published:

December 5, 2023

Updated:

January 10, 2024

Modern offices are often fast-paced environments filled with sensory information. The clacking of keyboards, impromptu team meetings, last-minute calendar changes, and office music playlists may not register for some employees. For others, it can be immensely stressful.

Neurodivergent individuals have differences in the way their brain functions. Like anyone else, they have unique strengths and challenges that alter their work environment.

It’s important to stress that being neurodivergent doesn’t mean they are less effective employees. In many cases, quite the opposite is true. However,  they may have additional needs beyond a typical employee that should be catered for to get the best results from their work. 

Why is it essential to recognize neurodivergence?

Employees who do not feel supported at work will not perform to the best of their ability. This can lead to a whole host of problems for  employees and employers: staff will feel demoralized, and businesses will suffer high turnover.

Ultimately, your employees are your most valuable asset. They provide the work that makes the entire business operate successfully. This is why businesses invest so much in human capital management HCM solutions to manage people at scale.

We want everyone on our team to always feel their best and embrace the traits that help them   excel, so anything that can help make the workplace environment safe will go a long way.  Realistically, every single person operates differently, and their tolerance for external stimuli will be different. It’s estimated that between 15-20% of people are neurodivergent, which means that a large portion of your workforce may be affected.

Furthermore, many individuals are not even aware they possess neurodivergent traits. They might falsely believe they’re just sensitive, forgetful, or distractible. A simple task might have unexpected paper cuts that turn into problems without a supportive environment.

The steps taken to embrace neurodivergent individuals and design your workplace with their needs in mind will likely benefit many more people than you think.

A group of colleagues working together

What factors impact how inclusive your workspace is?

Several factors can affect an individual’s ability to work effectively in a space. While these triggers and challenges will not be the same for any single person, it’s likely that at least one or more will play a part. Some of the important factors to consider when making changes to your office space include: 

Visual stimuli

Consider areas with many visual distractions, harsh lighting, or frequently changing over time, such as TV screens or common areas. 

Noise levels and frequency

Noise can create stress and cause a loss of performance. This can come from intermittent noise or the ambient sound levels in a busy open-plan office.

Footfall in areas

Areas with consistent and frequent footfall can be incredibly distracting for some individuals. 

Assistive features

Are any assistive features or technology in place to help create a positive space for individuals? Consider the ergonomics of workstations and whether they are helpful or a hindrance. There are often software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to your team's everyday issues, so explore them where possible.

This is not an exhaustive list of negative stimuli, as each individual reacts to inputs in a different way and to different severity. It’s often best to get direct feedback where possible, though this isn’t always possible in some workplace situations.

Some or all of the above can affect your choices when designing parts of the office and will have a marked impact on the well-being of your neurodivergent employees.

How to design an inclusive workplace

Fortunately, there are several ways to improve your employees' workspace. These approaches will target different triggers and promote a calm, welcoming atmosphere and working culture in which employees feel psychologically safe.. Design your office to be calming, relaxing, and as simple visually as possible. Borrowing ideas from areas like accessible design and visual merchandising techniques can be helpful here.

Keep in mind that the process of creating an inclusive workplace isn’t a one-and-done task. You should always look for opportunities to create a better atmosphere and take any feedback and requests from employees seriously. 

Create private spaces throughout your office

Isolated booths, private workstations, and pods can all be fantastic ways to create areas people can move to for peace when they need to escape distractions or periods of stress. 

Individuals who struggle with excessive noise and distractions will benefit from the isolated location, and it will help anyone with social anxiety to work effectively without feeling overwhelmed by a bustling office. These spaces can also operate as areas for one-to-one meetings, making them ideal for well-being checkups and coffee breaks. 

Change the layout of your office

As your office grows larger, the likelihood that employees will be working in closer proximity rises, as does the general traffic in and around the office. People moving between projects or meetings, using the restroom, getting a beverage from the kitchen… and the list goes on. 

Review your office floor plan and see whether there are opportunities to give employees more space at their workstations. Understand where most  of the footfall occurs throughout the office and ensure that sensitive employees are positioned away from those locations. 

Some employers will move to a hot desk-style approach to employee seating. This removes the need to micromanage the layout as much, as employees can generally find a space they’re comfortable working from. Sometimes, people might benefit from moving to quieter or busier areas throughout the day.

happy colleagues working in a hybrid office

Provide assistive technology

Assistive technology can help employees to succeed in situations where they may have struggled previously. Assistive technology should be as transparent as possible, integrating into existing work practices and affecting workflow as little as possible. This ensures that those who benefit from it are given the best chance to succeed, while those who don’t are not impacted by its addition. 

For example, a neurodivergent employee might struggle with anonymous calls coming in; they have no idea what will happen. It might be a customer, a boss, or a random scam caller. Preview dialer software can make these moments much less stressful and gives them a second to prepare for this call with this person.

Create a support network for employees to thrive in

Simply designing your workplace to be inclusive isn’t enough; it needs to be brought into your company culture as well. Employees need to feel that their voices can be heard and have an outlet for any problems or difficulties they face at work.

Begin by forming a support structure through trusted line managers. Ensure employees have regular meetings with their respective line managers, where they can discuss their workloads, progress, and if they are under any pressure. Line managers should work to resolve issues where possible and seek to make the workplace as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

Consider creating a portal for employees to field feedback or complaints. This can allow for anonymous feedback, which can be the safest method for some individuals to voice their challenges and can be easily collated to see where problems need to be resolved. 

Allow employees to work from home

As counterproductive as it seems to discuss stepping away from the office, the reality is that for neurodivergent employees, the safest and most productive space may very well be outside the office environment. By giving them express control over their surroundings through hybrid working practices, you offer the employee the ability to create their ideal place of work. 

This may be simpler for some businesses than others, though there are a range of technologies that can help make remote working a success.

For businesses with on-site workstations, use software to enable remote access to a computer with RealVNC, and consider whether your software suite can be brought to the cloud for easier remote access. 

We all want to feel we’re given the best opportunity to thrive in our careers and lives. As our understanding of neurodiversity has grown in recent years, it’s clear that they are valued members of the workforce and can be as effective - if not more so - than neurotypical employees when given the right tools to succeed. 

It should be a point of pride to do everything in your power to make your company a safe and inclusive environment, not a burden. By working with the advice provided in this guide, you should be well on your way to actioning real change that will help improve your team’s working lives dramatically.

Neurodiversity in the workplace: designing office spaces for inclusivity