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How can workplace design better accommodate neurodiversity?

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Richard Kauntze

CEO, British Council for Offices

As we consider how we can build our offices back better, we must also be conscious of how we can accommodate overlooked forms of diversity in our office design, such as neurodiversity.


Neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain which may affect sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. This can appear in the form of autism, ADHD, Asperger’s and more. Unfortunately, the experiences of these individuals have historically been neglected, particularly in the workplace.

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace

However, greater recent understanding of neurodiversity has led more and more companies – from Microsoft, to SAP and EY – to adopt neurodiversity hiring programmes, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because these programmes have direct (and measurable) benefits. For example, embracing the neurodivergent can be in a business’s best interest as, typically, they encourage their colleagues to approach challenges from unexpected angles, often providing novel insight.

The role of office design

As companies welcome greater neurodiversity into their workforce, how can we ensure that our offices are suitably equipped to maximise the productivity and wellbeing of these individuals?

In their report, Designing an Inclusive Workplace, HOK explored the impact ‘inclusive design’ can have on employees, both neurodiverse and neurotypical. By incorporating natural light and biophilia, avoiding fluorescent lighting and designing distinct, memorable spaces, companies can create a warm environment that is both welcoming and easy to navigate.

Embracing the neurodivergent can be in a business’s best interest as, typically, they encourage their colleagues to approach challenges from unexpected angles, often providing novel insight.

Other design suggestions include avoiding chaotic patterns in work areas, using dividers in appropriate areas to block and reduce noise, and providing well-ventilated workspaces. To assist with wayfinding in the office, it’s beneficial to have spaces that are designed to be intuitive to navigate, with cues emphasised through repetition of signage and clarity of messaging.

Creating varied spaces

Additionally, wherever possible, it can only be beneficial to offer a variety of settings within their workplace, enabling employees to choose the most appropriate space for a task. In this environment, neurodiverse staff could, for example, work on a project in a dedicated “focus room”, with acoustic panels and adjustable lighting to minimise sensory stimulation. Afterwards, they could take a break in an open, active area, to socialise and recharge.

The past year has given so many of us a renewed appreciation for the office. Now that we know just how important it is, when we head back let’s endeavour to make it even more welcoming, enjoyable and inclusive than it was before.

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