- The workplace is designed like a theatre stage where we always have to be ‘On’.
- It may be ideal for extroverts, but most offices are missing a place of quiet for those who experience the world in a different way.
- Here are simple, cost-efficient ways to create an accessible and neurodiverse-friendly workspace.
We live in a world designed for noisy neurotypical extroverts. Have you noticed?
They speak up in meetings and they’re good at bouncing ideas and scribbling on whiteboards in front of large groups of people.
Not that there’s anything wrong with noisy extroverts. They’re important and valuable. The thing is, we aren’t all like that. And even those who are, can’t be like that all the time. And yet the traditional workspace is, on the whole, designed like a theatre stage, where we always have to be “On.”
An estimated 15-20 percent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence (NIH). This means 15-20 percent of people are experiencing the world in a completely different way.
Extroverts often find they’re fuelled by activity, social interaction, sound and various other stimuli, and traditionally, offices have been designed in a way that serves that need. Workplaces are often set up in a way that benefits those people.
Think about big open-plan rooms with lots of desks, group creative thinking sessions and lots of chatter — fun, right? The exact kind of environment you need to apparently get those creative juices flowing.
Not always. In fact, what modern workspaces are often missing is quiet.
Covid has accelerated a move away from presenteeism and towards a much more people-focused model. Wellbeing has become a priority for many and is therefore being reflected in workplace design. This is great news for neurodivergent folks — but only if the term “wellbeing” is being properly understood.
It’s something I feel passionately about and recently spoke to Flexible Space Association (FlexSA) members about — many of whom are keen to understand more and implement changes to their space design, which is brilliant.
Wellbeing in the workplace is often thought of as creating time and space for play — foosball tables and a coffee bar, right? But wellbeing is about so much more. Wellbeing should ultimately come back to a sense of literal and psychological safety. Creating a safe space for workers means better engagement, lower turnover and better friendships (which in turn has been proven to improve performance).
What’s “cool” for some might actually be psychologically traumatic for others. For example, something as seemingly simple as someone having their back to an opening and closing door can be incredibly anxiety-inducing and does not contribute to a feeling of safety.
Creating a workplace tuned for the complex human mind
The way the wider working world is currently set up isn’t attuned to the complexity and diversity of the human mind. We shouldn’t be scared of talking about this and talking about minds as a whole — how they work, how they’re the same and how they’re different.
We live in a complex and ever-changing world. If we want to solve the problems in the future of work, we need to create spaces that suit and support our amazing brains.
The cost barrier
Cost is often a question that comes up when it comes to thinking about how our workspaces can be altered to better accommodate neurodiversity. But let me tell you this: creating an accessible, neurodiverse friendly office space could start with as little as a piece of A4 paper.
I’ll explain — noise is a big issue. Often workplaces are designed to suit hyposensitive people, meaning there’s lots going on and lots of stimulating noise. Hypersensitive people can find this incredibly difficult to deal with. People who are hypersensitive can experience sensory overload, whereas hyposensitive people often seek stimulation out.
How can this be solved with a piece of paper?
Take a sheet of A4 and write the word library on it. Pick an appropriate area to designate as a “Quiet Zone” and stick it up.
This is permission signalling. Libraries are quiet zones. People won’t play music in a quiet zone. They won’t take phone calls in a quiet zone. By simply creating a sign using a sheet of A4 you have created a safe space for those seeking quiet. A way for someone to say “I need this right now,” without having to draw attention to themselves by actually saying it.
Workspace’s Development Director Angus Boag talks about how they’ve adapted their spaces in line with this: “We have different types of space for when you are in different moods, everything from phone booths for private conversations, to spaces to have a chat, to common areas in the atrium.”
Zoning like this is a fantastic place to start when it comes to creating a more accessible working environment. Zoning can be done in a variety of simple ways, but the best place to begin is the basics.
Step by step
It’s clear that creating an accessible and neurodiverse-friendly workspace is important, but where can you start. As I mentioned, it doesn’t have to be an expensive process. But, before you start writing on lots of A4 sheets, ask five basic questions.
- Who is here and what are they doing? Before you launch in to making changes, it’s important to take time to stop and reflect. Think about the purpose of the space. Who uses it and what do they use it for?
- What are your plans? Is this a space you’ll be staying in for the long term, or are you planning on moving or downsizing?
- What freedoms do you have? Does the space belong to you, or does it belong to someone else? Are you restricted with the type of changes you can make at this time?
- Are you putting people first? Have you asked what your people want? Are you listening?
Taking a sort of mini-survey of your people is a great way to ensure you understand what it is they actually want. You also want to try your best to get involved with conversations regarding accessibility in workspaces. Reach out to other industry professionals to share ideas, talk about challenges and hear different perspectives all from people within your industry.
- How can you establish zones in your space? Zoning is a fantastic way to create safe spaces for different workplace needs. It can be done in a variety of ways, from something as simple as signage to lighting or planters separating spaces.
Keeping choice at the heart
At the heart of all of this is choice. Any changes made need to be hackable, changeable — they need to be able to evolve. The important thing is to keep talking, keep listening, be open to understanding and getting more involved.
Organizations like FlexSA often hold events to carry conversations like these forwards. There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience out there — let’s work on solving this one together.