Nothing About Us, Without Us: Workspace Design that Fits Everybody| David O’Coimin

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The future of work is for everybody, not just a percentage of the population. David O’Coimin, the founder and CEO of DO Company and Nook Wellness Pods, is on a mission to make the workplace more neuro-inclusive and mindful. How? By shaping spaces to tap into our personal neuro advantages, we can create more equitable, purposeful environments that enables everybody to thrive.

GUEST

Transcript

Nothing about us, without us, and it applies to everyone in every situation, really, but I think you can really take it into consideration when you’re thinking about what we should do in the space. But there are really simple things that can be done. And I love that ‘backs to the wall’ idea because it’s so simple, because people will walk into an open office environment and they’ll go, where can I sit here that I won’t constantly be in the spotlight.  

Jo Meunier [00:00:41] Hello and welcome to the Future of Work Podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Jo Meunier. And my guest today is David O’Coimin, the founder and CEO of DO Company and Nook Wellness Pods, who’s on a mission to make our spaces more inclusive and mindful. Now, that mission makes it absolutely clear why I wanted to invite David onto our Future of Work Podcast, because the future of work is for everybody. And the more inclusive and accommodating we can make those spaces, then people will be so much more comfortable, happy, well, and of course, productive. So, David’s here today to talk to us about neurodiversity and about designing workspaces based around a certain philosophy which is: ‘Design for the extreme, benefits the mean’. Or in David’s words, “by shaping our spaces to tap into our personal neuro advantages, we create more equitable, purposeful environments which improve everyone’s ability to bring their full selves to the table and thrive”. So, I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this and learning more about the work that David and his team are doing to make the future of work a happier and more inclusive place. So welcome, David, and thanks for joining us today.  

David O’Coimin [00:01:44] Thanks very much indeed Jo – absolute delight and pleasure to be here.  

Jo Meunier [00:01:48] Brilliant. Well, we’ll dive straight in. Can you tell me, first of all, a little bit about your background and how you came to create the DO Company and Nook?  

David O’Coimin [00:01:57] Absolutely. I’ll try and keep it as elevator pitch as possible. Well, it is a wee long story. I’m a product designer originally, so I wander around the world with a set of eyes that’s always looking for ways to improve the world, thinking about the future, the forward direction of travel, and how I can accelerate our abilities to get there. Typically that was designing for others. But I sold a company in 2011, went to work for an incredibly large organization. So I went from MD of twenty-five people to a colleague of 175,000 at the signing of an acquisition, which was a hell of an experience. But it gave me an amazing insight into the state — and I’m going to use the word pointedly — the state of open office. And it left me very depressed. It left me feeling that open office had no longer been designed or perhaps never was with people in mind but was still hanging on to an industrialized philosophy, of people in rows and operating more like a factory. Henry Ford would have been proud, but I’m not sure the Dalai Lama would have been proud, for example. So I wanted to do something about it Jo, and that’s basically it. Frustration and necessity are the mothers of invention, right? 

Jo Meunier [00:03:12] And thank goodness you did want to do something about it. Because I think I was one of those people who was definitely not thriving in an open plan office.  

Jo Meunier [00:03:19] And so that taps into the work you’re doing now around neurodiversity. And so could you tell us a little bit about that and also what percentage of the population are neurodiverse?  

David O’Coimin [00:03:32] So, yeah, indeed, to be specific about neurodiversity and I want to get this right at the top, and it’s important for me to get it right as much as to help your listeners understand, is that neurodiversity isn’t a subset of the population. Neurodiversity is the population. It relates to the differences in the way that we all think and process information, how we learn, different people learn in different ways, and how we behave, how we act. And most people would be probably categorized as neurotypical, but right over in one corner or in the extremes, I should say, not in one corner, but out at the edges — it’s something that’s called neuro divergent. And there you’d say one in seven people are said to be neuro divergent, which means they have unique traits. And an example of neuro divergent conditions will be things like ADHD, something I’m very familiar with myself, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, Tourette Syndrome. And there’s quite a few to speak of.  

David O’Coimin [00:04:40] But basically what they do is they show up how our systems have been designed for typical minds and leave extreme ways of thinking at the edges. And I think we’re much poorer as a result. 

Jo Meunier And how is the work you’re doing helping the situation? 

David O’Coimin Well, I mean, I was very mindful, if I may use the pun, right back five years ago when I started that I was never going to be a Google or Facebook and I didn’t want to build a huge company and I’d just done something with twenty-three shareholders. 

David O’Coimin [00:05:16] And, I recognize my own neuro traits and where I’m strong and I’m a terrible manager. I’m an absolutely terrible manager of people. I’m great with people, but I’m an awful manager. I’m not good at planning, I’m not good at data, I’m brilliant at concepts and people, but not the ones and zeros and the stuff that makes it all work. So I wanted to create something that was a little bit different by watching how the world is moving forward. I see the gig economy, I see freelancers, I see coworking. And I think, OK, let’s build a different kind of company. Let’s build something that’s a little bit more digital first.  

David O’Coimin [00:05:52] That’s remote oriented long before Covid ever came along and forced us all to do so. We don’t have offices for all based in coworking around the world. And it was a little bit more geared towards high levels of dexterity and work life balance for people. And then so the idea was to create an ingredient — not to change the world in one fell swoop, because I know that doesn’t happen easily — but to create an ingredient for ordinary companies who don’t have a global employee wellness director, for example, or big budgets to employ designers. They have, you know, an office manager and an owner, perhaps and maybe somebody in HR. But that’s where the millions of us really work. We really work in ordinary companies. So I wanted to create… I had the idea that if I could create an affordable, open, accessible, hackable, mindful, sustainable, with these wellness characteristics, sanctuary space. If we could create somewhere where — now, I want to talk broader, not just about neurodiversity, not just about neuro divergence — but one in four people are said to be highly sensitive people.  

David O’Coimin [00:07:13] Sometimes 50 to even 75 percent of your workforce could self-identify as introvert. That’s something that we’re not talking about. And workspace, open plan workspace, in my view, has been designed by the loudest voices, the extroverts for avatars of themselves. And I’m guilty of that myself. So you can see I’m no introvert, I’m a bit of an ambivert, I work on the extremes and then I crash and I want to get away from everybody. So I wanted to recognize that open plan workspace has a role, but it’s not the one size fits all, that it can purport to be. And so in order to solve that, I came up with the idea that if I could create little step out spaces, that didn’t isolate you, didn’t remove you from the environment — meeting rooms do that, that’s fine, closed pods do that, that’s fine — but something that was a bit in the middle. And I felt like I could possibly help a lot of people take a step in a good direction.  

Jo Meunier [00:08:09] Absolutely. And how do they work? How do some companies use them? Do they dot them around the space? Or do they have a specific corner where people can go and use them?  

David O’Coimin [00:08:18] Well, as you as you might imagine now, having sold thousands of them around the world at this stage and hired them out to various events, they use them in all sorts of fascinating and interesting ways. But if I was to characterize and try and limit it to something that’s a bit more digestible, I would say they’re used in a couple of different ways. One is a single pod brought into a space to start off a change of mentality, pushed against the wall out of the way so you can step away from the environment.  

David O’Coimin [00:08:49] But still watch… in biophilia, they say refuge and prospect: well the Nook is your refuge and you can prospect out over the savanna being the open office environment. But I also see them like, for example, one customer, BP, they use the Nooks in clusters around the space and they have them back-to-back in in a huddle and a couple of phone booth type pods all together. And so it ends up being a kind of breakout space, which I think we’re going to see a lot more of. I think that function of breakout is going to really change and take a lot of percentage from the rows of desks in the flex space, in the office environment. And then you see them really helping now, especially post Corona, post vaccine, activate new space, because our footprint is so important. Right? And we might not be able to get so many people back in the office. So we need to maximize the use of the space. So we’re activating corridors and spaces under stairs and the lobby of the building, even the roof and things like that. So they’re a way to activate new space or to push them out to the edges or to create a little zone.  

Jo Meunier [00:09:57] I love that word ‘activate’. It’s like it really brings the workplace to life in a good way. It’s more inclusive. It’s for everybody. And like you say, it’s not just for the loudest voice or the squeakiest wheel.  

David O’Coimin [00:10:06] Exactly. And activating brains in a way, too. The way you talked about it in my bio at the start there, too, about neuro advantages. I think we’re leaving so much on the table, Jo. I think we’re leaving so much power and capability in our organizations on the table.  

David O’Coimin [00:10:22] And people are leaving our organizations to go somewhere that understands and appreciates their brains better. And I think if we can be a little bit more mindful, a little bit more, providing options, and the ability to tailor the space in a little way for different kinds of brains, then things can really start to fly.  

Jo Meunier [00:10:42] Absolutely. And the fact that you’ve sold thousands of pods, that to me is good news. It suggests that a lot of companies are now thinking about these problems and they want to do something about it and they want to accommodate more and more people. And a few years ago, in the not-so-distant past, I think if an introvert had gone to their manager and said, I want to quiet place to work, they might have been laughed out the building! Come on, here’s your desk, get on with it. So, do you feel that things are starting to change in the modern workplace?  

David O’Coimin [00:11:12] Yes, I think introverts will still have that problem. I think we shouldn’t be hyper optimistic to think that everything’s going to change now because of Covid. I think we have a fight on our hands. You know, the toothpaste may be out of the tube and it’s very difficult to get it back in. Pandora’s box is open, so to speak. But there’s still a lot of organizations that are going to expect you back in the office on the 1st of September, Monday to Friday. And the flexibility they’ll allow is, well you can start an hour later and finish an hour later. But having said that, I’ve never known a time where the employee is more empowered than they are now to be able to say to their employers, I expect this.  

David O’Coimin [00:11:52] And part of the reason for that is often leadership makes decisions from, forgive me for saying this, but a bit of an ivory tower. Do as I say, but I don’t have to do as I say myself. Don’t do as I do. But now everybody has been thrown into the same boat and we’ve seen how remote can work and we’ve seen how people can be more productive. And I think there’s going to be a shift. And I think indeed there has never been a better time to put your hand up and say, I find that challenging, but, you can really help me and people like me in this space to bring ourselves our whole selves, to bear on the challenges that this organization faces and the things that we’re trying to do to build a community, a company, intellectual property, all of the objectives that might be in the mission statement that might not have made it to the factory floor or to the office floor, so to speak. I think that’s never been a better time than now to reorganize ourselves and try to capture this moment.  

Jo Meunier [00:12:53] Absolutely. And you mentioned community just there. And that made me think of Cat Johnson’s Convo that you were on recently. And I remember one of the things you mentioned during that discussion was that a lot of people feel safer when they, for instance, have their back to the wall, and, of course, having their own quiet space and be it a Nook pod or some other booth to sit in, that helps them feel stronger and more empowered, more confident and at the end of the day, more productive. So obviously, using your sanctuary spaces is one way. But what other ways can workspace managers or CEOs create a more inclusive, more accommodating workplace?  

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    David O’Coimin [00:13:35] I’m going to say at the top of these tips, the first one is to talk to your employees.  

    David O’Coimin [00:13:42] Right. There’s an expression in the community which I think is beautiful and should be remembered. And it is: ‘Nothing about us, without us’. And it applies to everyone in every situation, really. But I think you should really take it into consideration when you’re thinking about what should we do in the space. But there are really simple things that can be done. And I love that ‘backs to the wall’ idea because it’s so simple, because people will walk into an open office environment and they’ll go, where can I sit here that I won’t constantly be in the spotlight, that people won’t be coming up to my desk uninvited, that I can give some sort of signal to say I’m going to be here doing this. And when I’m not doing this, I’m going to come back in and join you and then please approach me. And so, indeed, having some sort of permission signaling and spaces that say I’m quiet or even a room, for example, I’ve been in coworking and I have a ‘hush room’ and it’s lovely. You go in there and if someone’s phone rings, they get up and they walk out. Because that’s the room where people are quiet and it really helps to do little things, like, I’m thinking now about practical things in the space, use the natural light that’s there, but also make sure that light can be controlled. Because if you have sunlight blasting into that space at certain times of the day, that can be incredibly disruptive for somebody who has a sensitive brain, loud colors. Think about the difference between a hyper-sensitive mind and hypo-sensitive. My mind would be hypo-sensitive. I love, I thrive on activity, things going on and loud colors. But that would absolutely cause someone to have a meltdown after 15 minutes if they had a hyper-sensitive brain.  

    David O’Coimin [00:15:25] And it’s good to have both, but allow those options. Those options, I think, are at the heart of how to make a space more neuro inclusive – give people choice. Not just so they can go, I’m going to sit there all day, because our brains aren’t like that, it’s linked to what kind of sleep I’ve had, how I’m feeling today, what kind of work I have to do, is it group work is it deep work. Am I a programmer? Am I in the marketing team? If I’m in the marketing and sales team, I’m probably not introvert. I’ve probably headed in that direction of a career because I love that hypo-sensitive, extrovert kind of ways. But simple things like, you know, if it’s maybe someone with an invisible disability, like they might have some visual impairment challenges, make sure that your floor and your walls and your door frames and your light switches, there are visible, clear differences between them that your signage is sans serif, good contrast between fonts and backgrounds, and indeed spaces where people can, if they do need to relax at the end of the day, don’t put the ping pong table in the middle of the space or the foosball or the pool table. That’s how some people relax. Other people would tend to look for a spa type environment with some calming, you know, some acoustic tunes or something soft and mellow or something that they can maybe plug their own iPhone in and be able to tailor. And lighting is really important too. That’s one of the challenges I think, in these big open spaces is that light has a profound effect on your brain’s ability to process information.  

    David O’Coimin [00:17:06] And we can’t let everybody adjust the light for themselves. But if they have little alcoves where they can grab a color changing remote and adjust it for themselves, it has two big effects. One is, it feels like your space, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. And that feels a connection with the space that helps you engage more in the work. And then, as I say, it can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to process information. And in particular, if that person is dyslexic or autistic, then being able to tune that light for their particular needs could avoid a dyslexic attack, could avoid a meltdown or help them to recover after one where they might otherwise have to leave the premises entirely. So light, options, controllability, thinking about different colors — not too crazy, not too bold — allowing different kinds of options in the space. Small things can have a big effect.  

    Jo Meunier [00:18:03] And does this tap into what we mentioned in the introduction: ‘design for the extreme benefits the mean’?  

    David O’Coimin [00:18:07] Yeah, it really does. And at the cornerstone of that, as well it’s not just the idea of, we need to design for the one in seven, it’s not that. It’s, we need to design for the full seven. The full hundred percent. And I think, and I’ve seen great evidence of this, and I strongly believe, that when you create solutions that are built around the extreme requirements, everybody benefits because we all have moments where we’d love to be able to step out. We all have times where, if you design — for example, a permanent challenge, like, an extreme example — of somebody who has one arm or someone who’s blind.  

    David O’Coimin [00:18:54] Think then about the knock-on benefits that that will have — or someone who has a temporary challenge like an injury or someone who has conjunctivitis, for example — or then think about the even further, deeper, wider benefits that that would have then for somebody who’s carrying a baby or carrying a device and only has one hand to be able to get through the door. So instead of having, you know, a wheelchair access door button, how about just a great big door button that works for everybody and that’s always useful. I mean, I see those, and I think, I want to use that. That’s amazing. That’s convenient. Our world should be built like that. And that’s what I mean by design for the extreme or design with the extreme. It’s benefits for everybody at the end of the day.  

    Jo Meunier [00:19:40] Yeah, absolutely. It does make me think though, that if some workplaces are so difficult for some people to work in, should we really use them at all? And with the situation we’ve had, remote work has actually activated some people and helped them to do better work. Not everybody, obviously. But it’s very, very difficult to walk that balance, isn’t it?  

    David O’Coimin [00:20:01] It is. I think the recognition is, and I think the direction of travel long term, where we’ll look back from in 20 years’ time, I think is a lot around the dexterity and flexibility to be able to choose things that are closer to home and then go to the office when it makes sense to go to the office. And that’s why I say about the percentage of flex desk and third space or break out space, how I think that’s going to change over time, that the office is indeed going to become this space that people go to, to collaborate, to — what do they call it? The architects use the four C’s: community, where you go and you get broadcast at, like a town hall kind of gathering; collaboration where you bump into your colleagues, and you have meetings and group meetings and you schedule things; and concentration.  

    David O’Coimin [00:20:50] And I think the office is going to less and less become a place that you go to concentrate. That you do at home or if at home doesn’t suit you, you’ll find a local coworking. Hospitality — I think there’s going to be an explosion, hospitality as a work resource. I think shopping malls are due for a reinvention that might possibly become social villages when the work and living element gets added to them. And that’s already happening. So, as we see that landscape changing, High Street, I think is due for a revamp and I think work can help, local coworking can help, revamp the High Street. And as those changes start to take place, that’s more options for people. And then what they’ll do is they’ll say, well, I’m going to work from there, like the way I do. I choose a professional coworking environment rather than home when I have a lot of Zoom calls, or I have some meetings and things like that. And I use home for the things that it makes sense for. Coordinate with my partner for when she has a lot of calls, and I don’t want to be there when that’s going on. So, I think that balance is what we’re going to look back on in 20 years’ time. And I also think the neuro inclusivity component of it is something that we’re going to look back on it in decades and go, oh, my gosh, look, we were just at the start of that and now it’s just totally integrated into the ways and means that we operate.  

    Jo Meunier [00:22:04] It’s all about choice, isn’t it, giving people the choice to work wherever they feel best.  

    David O’Coimin [00:22:09] And where does choice come from? Trust. You know, to give people choice, you have to trust them.  

    David O’Coimin [00:22:15] But all of the research and all of what we’ve proven now over the last 18 months is that we need to stop designing for the five percent who take advantage of trust and design for the ninety five percent who don’t. And that’s how I think we build a world for the future, which is equitable and balanced and where work and life, you know, play a role in satisfaction, in how we operate and even in greater sustainability. Look at the last eight months and how little we’ve travelled and the impact that’s had, or will have long term, on the environment, the lack of commuting, all of those things, I think play into where we need to get to in this emergency situation. And we can’t solve this emergency without using all the brainpower that we have, which we’re not using.  

    Jo Meunier [00:23:05] Yeah, and I’m just thinking we’ve talked a lot about people who are classified as neuro diverse, but the people that do enjoy these busy, big open plan offices, the open plan office has had a pretty bad rap in recent years. So, is it still going to be part of our future, do you think? Or will it be a combination of things? We might still have the busy open office, but then we’ll have these sanctuary spaces. How do you see that panning out?  

    David O’Coimin [00:23:32] I think the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated. What we’ve seen in the first phase of this situation was people who were very quick to write it off. But even those amongst us who cherish the opportunity to get away from the office have been longing for the opportunity to get back in contact again with our fellow human. And the office is still a central place to do that.  

    David O’Coimin [00:24:02] And until such a time that that doesn’t make sense anymore and I can’t see that time, I honestly can’t, I think the office plays a really valuable, important function in helping us to understand the organizations that we work for, the people that we work with, the community and culture that we evolve, onboarding new people. You can’t do all of that remotely and we don’t want to do all of that remotely. So I think it’ll maintain its role. But as you say, it’ll be a balanced position which fits into hopefully a plethora of options. But high level: it’s home, third space, office. And you choose between the three whatever works for you or your brain for the task at hand. 

    Jo Meunier And we’re very nearly out of time. But just one last question for you. What’s your utopian vision for the future of work? How do you see us working in 10, 20 years’ time? 

    David O’Coimin I think it’s a lot like we’ve described a couple of times over the course of this chat is that notion of, at the core of it, being a choice and with a huge integrated component around equity and understanding and taking advantage of those neuro advantages that exist. Look, we’re communicating today on a device which was essentially kickstarted or really advanced into the future by somebody with Asperger’s. If you think about Alan Turing, you may not know, but the architect for the Sydney Opera House, which, again, if you look at it — that I know this, I look at that architecture and I think, oh, yeah, that makes sense — the guy had dyslexia, and dyspraxia, I believe, which is extraordinary considering the maths involved. And there are so many incredible examples of how neuro divergent brains and inclusive thinking has helped us to move forward as a species.  

    David O’Coimin [00:25:56] So my utopian view of the future is that we take leaps forward and that we get out of our own way with this traditional mindset and that we integrate these beautiful neuro advantages into our ways of thinking and into how we grow our organization.  

    Jo Meunier [00:26:12] Fantastic. Well, that’s been absolutely fascinating. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today, David, and learning about everything that you’re doing to make the future of work a happier, and more inclusive place. Thank you so much for your time today.  

    David O’Coimin [00:26:23] Thanks very much indeed, Jo, absolute pleasure to chat.  

    Jo Meunier [00:26:26] And one last thing. How can our listeners find out more about you? Can they get in touch with you?  

    David O’Coimin [00:26:31] Of course. Absolutely. Yes. So, the website to find out a little bit more about Nook, is simply, Nookpod.com And my surname is pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. So if you look me up there, you’ll find me and I’d be absolutely delighted to connect because I love to connect and collaborate and build new things. And Nook was intended to be a collaborative canvas on which others could apply their technology and it’s very hackable. And so I’m really open to what that product is going to evolve to in the future, and I’m looking for collaboration partners.  

    Jo Meunier [00:27:02] Perfect. Thanks so much, David.  

    David O’Coimin [00:27:05] Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Jo. Bye.  

    Jo Meunier [00:27:07] Thank you.  

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