Designing to embrace difference

A workplace dedicated to the people who use it is vital to long-term business success, and that means designing it for everyone. Our understanding of the diversity of our workforces and the value each individual brings to business has come a long way - and it’s still improving. But it’s not enough just to see difference differently; we need to design workplaces that cater to the wide range of priorities, tastes and needs of a diverse workforce if we want to unlock its intrinsic value and create work environments that are happy and healthy for everyone.

This includes office interior design for neurodiversity. Acknowledging and celebrating different neurotypes through workplace design inherently provides spaces in which everyone can do their best work.

Power to the people

Neurodiversity is a broad term that spans many neurotypes, each experiencing the workplace differently. This means there’s no out-of-the-box solution, particularly given that what we need from a working environment will differ day-to-day and hour-to hour. Instead, the answer is to put people in the driving seat by providing variety. Many individuals now have experience creating their own workspaces at home, and are more in touch with how they work best, so we can now lean into that.

People with autism, for example, may work best in quieter, library-style spaces with less artificial light, while those with social anxiety often value secluded, low traffic areas. Those with ADHD are likely to favour organic spaces with access to natural light. Too often, design for neurodiversity is taken to mean low stimulation, but this is just half the story. Active spaces such as standing rooms, gyms and those containing active furniture are just as important as calm spaces, white or colourful rooms, and biophilia-focused areas.

This is a long wish list for one workplace, which is why making spaces adaptable and agile is smart. Put people in charge of the lighting, temperature and volume. Lights that are dimmable can prevent headaches, while sound systems can weave a tapestry of sensory experience to spaces that feel empty; even furniture made from different fabrics offers choice. Workplaces that get this right will make a difference to everyone, especially neurodiverse employees. Even if we understand ourselves as neurotypical, every business comprises a multitude of different personalities and therefore working styles; someone who is introverted will have different needs and preferences to someone who is extroverted, which can even fluctuate throughout the day.

This is why designing for neurodiversity is as much about designing for the inherent diversity within everyone.

Sensory adaptations

There are more specific design changes that can be made, however, and implementing these is where having a detailed understanding of employees’ specific needs is crucial. It’s estimated that dyslexia, which primarily affects reading and writing skills, affects up to 10% of the UK population. Importantly, these individuals can be some of the most creative, innovative, and effective of a team’s workforce, but will interpret certain design features differently. Large walls of text, abstract fonts or written signs can challenge with people with dyslexia, so it’s an opportunity to think differently and convey information using visual imagery, iconography or clear lettering.

Subtle adjustments can also be made to help those with dyspraxia, which impacts physical coordination. These adjustments will also make the workplace more accessible as a whole. Make door frames wider and simpler to use and provide step-by-step instructions on how to navigate the workplace or use the coffee machine, for example. Crucially, these provisions can’t be an afterthought – they need to be in the design from day one, otherwise they risk alienating the very people they’re intended to include.

A virtuous cycle

The business case for getting this right is impossible to understate, and will likely assert itself in unconventional and unexpected ways. An underestimated one is the message that it sends to people who haven’t felt confident enough to ask for their needs to be met.

In a world where thinking differently is worth its weight in gold, we are stifling our ability with workplaces that don’t cater to neurodiversity, or don’t acknowledge that different types of thinking require different spaces. Real inclusivity breeds success, which breeds inclusivity, which breeds success.

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