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A Neuro-Inclusive Workplace: Designing Spaces for Everyone

B. Sanborn

As the dust settles and nearly 90 percent of companies return to office in some capacity by the end of 2024, designing inclusive work environments is paramount. What lenses can we put on the concept of inclusive design to find solutions that benefit everyone, while also making the workplace more welcoming for groups that have not always benefited from office design?

Author’s Note: Neurodiversity and neurodivergence are emerging areas of understanding. There are a variety of official diagnoses individuals may receive, in addition to identifying themselves as part of the neurodiverse population. The examples in this article are meant to highlight some common needs, but readers should remember that individual experiences are varied and unique.

New research and media visibility centering on the experiences of people with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have expanded awareness of one such group. Driven by both genetic and environmental factors, an estimated 15-20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. Whether or not they are diagnosed with a specific condition such as ASD, dyslexia, or ADHD, they experience the world in a way that is different than the mainstream population. People with neurodiverse traits bring many strengths and insights to their work; they are often found excelling in STEM fields, entrepreneurship, and as standout leaders who disrupt the status quo. They may have the unique ability to clarify a message until everyone understands it or an attention to detail that helps projects shine.

One common recommendation for neuro-inclusive job roles is to allow more telework and remote work because it allows employees to work in a location that is familiar and comfortable with a high degree of control. However, as many have noticed since experiencing mass remote work due to COVID-19, remote work can also be socially isolating. If working from home is the only option for feeling comfortable and productive for someone who already faces barriers to inclusion, it can severely limit sense of belonging in an organization. Importantly, it can also mean less mentorship or recognition for remote workers as compared to in-office teammates; potentially leading to fewer opportunities for others to learn from them as well.

If we prioritized the needs of neurodiverse people, for example, an employee with ASD or ADHD, in workplace design, what would that look like and how could this environment suit all types of employees seeking a supportive workplace when they choose to be in the office?

Imagine this: It’s your first day at a new job. As you approach the building entrance, you’re greeted by a softly illuminated frame in a radiant, sunshine yellow hue. Stepping inside, you notice a circular, yellow rug nestled within the cozy wooden floor that clearly marks your arrival at the reception desk. The desk itself is surrounded by plants. Wordless music is playing through a discreet directional speaker and hanging on the wall is a map of the office that features color-coded icons for meetings, breakrooms, restrooms, focus areas, and dedicated social space.

Welcomed by your new peers, you prepare for a guided tour of your new workspace. Equipped with a personalized name badge, with the option to select a colored dot indicating your preference for handshakes or no handshakes, you embark on a journey to familiarize yourself with the environment and learn how it can support you.

Office common area with bench seating and arm chairs. Textural green and yellow stripes on wall to right, biophilia plants left

As you explore, your manager highlights an informative icon positioned outside the cafe area, signaling potential for heightened noise levels within, and suggests the option of utilizing sound-canceling headphones for optimal focus. “Thanks,” you say. “I don’t need them right now.”

In observing the office layout, you see a variety of workstations, including sit-stand desks and active, rocking seating. There are a few different relaxation spaces; one has soft blue walls and low lighting, while another is fully equipped with highly textured furniture and walls along with colorful lights and a choice of music to move to. Spaces that act as hubs in the office, such as the tech desk, supply area, and collaboration zone, have a colored light feature just like the entrance along with a soft soundscape.

Providing a sense of direction, a color-coded map is displayed throughout the office orienting employees to the direction they’re facing as they approach each decision. “You can view this on your phone as well, in our office app,” your manager explains. “The app also allows you to book meeting spaces, see who is in the office today, and shows the real-time activity levels throughout each social space.”

What kind of office is this? The imaginary office described above incorporates research-informed design strategies that draw from studies on supporting neurodivergent employees in the workplace. The resulting strategies, however, can also help people of all neuro-types feel welcome and supported in the workplace.

We are living, working, and designing in a time when there is a cacophony of conversation around the state of the office. Some of the topics are focused on disagreements, obstacles, and mandates abound, but there is also discussion around how to encourage and reward employees who show up in person. We’re taking a different approach and asking:

How might we use a research-informed approach to respond to the concerns of comfort, distraction, and predictability as key reasons people prefer to work from home?

This approach to design isn’t entirely new. Workplace designers have long looked to evaluate amenities and how they contribute to the wellbeing of employees. Unlike the era of work leading up to 2020, however, these solutions were generated when many employees didn’t have an alternative option to compare the office to. Now, most employees can compare the office’s functionality to the higher level of comfort and control they often have at home. Recent surveys show that 65% of employees are partial to remote work now due to practical barriers, including commute times, childcare costs, and flexibility. Additional obstacles faced in-office include inability to focus, unpredictability of where to sit and who will be present, feeling overwhelmed by increased concentrated social activity, and not being able to partake in the wellness routines that were created while working from home.

Why center design around neurodiversity? The list of return to office challenges shared by employees shows similarities with the barriers neurodiverse people already experience every day. Individual comfort, a distraction-free environment, and the ability to predict and control interactions are things that everyone wants and needs – but some need it more crucially than others to show up and thrive.

So, how can employers create a better and more inclusive workplace where employees want to be? How do you compete with the comfort, flexibility, and personalization of a home office? Where do we start?

people working at a light wood table in a room with dark blue walls and ceilings, dark blue carpet and light wood chandeliers
  • Create a High-Performing Acoustic Environment: Background and unexpected noises are commonly known as focus-destroyers in workplace research. Tuning out or trying to concentrate through these distractions is not ideal for anyone’s productive focus time. For neurodiverse employees who have an auditory processing difference, however, it is especially crucial to have speech be clear over background noise. Engaging a skilled acoustician to help buffer sound between spaces and from mechanical systems is helpful, but working with an acoustician who also understands psychoacoustics, how the body perceives and processes noises, adds an evidence-based approach to sound control.
  • Offer Clearly Delineated Quiet and Social Zones: Neurodiverse people may thrive in noisier settings or find it overwhelming, depending on individual traits, time of day, and the type of work they’re engaged in that day. Similarly, there are work tasks that are easiest with silence and others that benefit from light background noise. Offering a work environment with clearly delineated quiet and noisier spaces, and implementing policies that firmly enforce those guidelines, allows people to self-select the place they need for their current task. This also includes desking, not just social and focus spaces.
  • Provide Various Furniture Options (Posture, Location, and Texture): Many office designs aspire to a range of flexible seating types so that users can choose the work environment that best supports their current task. Research on neurodiversity suggests extending this concept to include a range of options for textured surfaces, such as smooth versus nubbly upholstery, and postures including upright, leaning, or rocking. Along with variety in seating, offering variety in location, too as some may work best when they’re able to sit with their back to a wall or low-traffic area.
  • Layers of Individual Control: Normalizing sound-masking headphones in the office allow employees to use personal headphones to mask background noise when focusing on work. Some may find it more pleasant to be in highly active social or collaboration areas if they can dampen that sound with headphones. Similarly, offer options for working without overhead lighting or using a shade system over the workstation in areas where overhead lights cannot be turned off. These choices for individual control and work location need to be available to all employees and supported by policy, so that younger or newer staff feel empowered to ask for accommodation.
  • Lower the Word Count: Neurodiverse people often develop strategies for using space based on mental maps. At the same time, research on how we all process information reveals that too many words can cause visual clutter instead of helping us navigate intuitively. A cohesive strategy of from entrance to desk, including color-coded floor plans, visual wayfinding, icons, or pictorial instructions showing room configuration can help all users move about with ease.
  • Self-Preparation: Consider distinctive design features or iconography at transition points between noisy and quiet spaces or public and private spaces. Neurodiverse people may avoid an area based on their stimulation level or don headphones or sunglasses to reduce stimulus. All types of users benefit from looking before they leap, though. Design transitions of flooring and finishes, colors, and even lighting that are drawn out in the approach to a new space can create a real sense of movement towards new space types.
  • Combine Sensory Inputs for Strong Cues: Studies indicate that combinations of color, sound, and texture can reinforce information for neurodiverse individuals. Like other topics mentioned throughout, this strategy benefits everyone and sensory integration creates powerful impressions. Using distinctly different combinations of texture, color, and sound in key areas (e.g., arrival, decision points, or transitions) can help build place-based memories around navigating and using the office.
  • Continue Investing in Restoration: Workplace design has emphasized restorative break spaces for many years; this is not only a feature people are seeking as they return to the office, but also a crucial support system for neurodiverse employees. A space to restore, come down, or simply be alone – where one is not expected to produce work or respond to calls, etc. – allows someone to take a pause in the middle of the day and emerge ready to re-engage. These spaces also benefit employees who may need extra time to mentally shift gears between projects, instead of immediately moving from one kind of task to the next.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to designing a neuro-inclusive workplace. By considering these strategies as a framework and taking the first step to designing inclusive spaces, we can create customized, flexible spaces that offer options for sensory seeking and sensory regulation that enhance the workplace experience for all employees.

Learn more about our approach to research-informed workplace design.

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Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ B. Sanborn, Design Research Leader


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