Event Summary: Designing for a neurodiverse workplace
As we return to the office, many organisations are looking for inspiration on how to best prepare and adapt to the post-COVID hybrid working model. In May 2021, KI had the pleasure of hosting 'Designing for a neurodiverse workspace' with networking group Women in Office Design. The hybrid event brought together a small group of people from across the workspace sector both at the KI Showroom and via Zoom.
During this interactive session, Julie Lecoq of HoK was joined by Sarah Miles from Arcadis, to discuss the growing importance of worker wellbeing, and how companies can optimise their workplaces from very early on in the design phase. There was a strong consensus that there is a business case for diversity, equity and inclusion - and designers are in an important position to help their clients understand early on that it is affordable, achievable, and essential.
Julie did a fantastic job of laying out the research and examples of neurodiversity and its importance in the workplace; whilst Sarah presented a great case study that resulted in a completely new workplace concept developed in collaboration with KI's 'Infinity' design team - Colonnade.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers a range of conditions such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and others. It is estimated that 1 in 8 people fall under this umbrella, and whilst awareness is improving, only half of those affected will know it. The complexity and severity in which these conditions affect different individuals are also highly variable. So, unlike many other considerations when creating more inclusive spaces, neurodiversity factors might often be unknown or unseen.
Why is designing for neurodiversity important in the workplace?
Workplaces that support neurodiverse employees allow every individual to perform to the best of their abilities. This is an exciting opportunity for any organisation, ensuring that everyone in their team has the tools they need. Having a one-size-fits-all approach might deprive a company of hiring or retaining fantastic individuals who have so much to offer, simply because the working environment compromises their wellbeing so badly. For example, vast uninterrupted, busy open-plan spaces can be filled with noise and visual distractions during a workday. For some individuals, this would be overwhelming and overstimulating - so if they aren’t able to find a quieter space, they would not be able to cope and would have no choice but to seek an alternative place of work.
COVID has really disrupted traditional workplace strategies with new emphases on work-life balance, hybrid working models and heightened sensitivities around personal safety. But what's most important to remember is that inclusivity measures will benefit neurotypical individuals as well as those who are neurodiverse.
What can organisations do to help make workspaces more inclusive?
Nurturing individual needs can be enhanced by offering greater user control within the workspace. Rather than expecting individuals to adapt to their environment, create an environment that can be adapted by the user to suit their requirements.
This has already been important for a number of years with growing emphasis on collaborative and creative working, rather than process-driven static work done at an individual workstation. But now, the remote working model has been thrust upon all kinds of organisations, pushing forward a hybrid working model. One of KI's major clients faced these challenges pre-pandemic, working with Arcadis and our design team to create Colonnade to help meet the project requirements.
"Can we have an adaptable space with walls that aren't walls that don't cost the earth?"
Sarah and her team worked with us to develop this brief which manifested in some really clever ideas that maximised user-controlled customisation. It was important for users to have full autonomy to reconfigure the space without having to call in support from facilities or IT. This makes it easier for those with varying physical abilities to be able to use the space. It also facilitates easy modification to help control noise and visual distractions.
HOK's extensive research also looks at other factors that can be quickly and readily addressed such as:
- create zones that are stimulating, and others that are calming
- use different flooring colours and textures to assist with wayfinding
- provision for personal partitioning for user-controlled privacy
- break up large open plan spaces with interior landscaping to create nooks and private spaces
- provide a variety of breakout spaces to ensure there is somewhere for people to gather and be social, but also smaller breakout spaces to support relaxation and regeneration