For people living with conditions such as autism and ADHD, regular offices can be an energy-sapping mix of noise and distractions. A new report co-authored by Skanska suggests that tweaks to workplace design could improve working environments for both ‘neuroatypical’ and ‘neurotypical’ people alike.
If you’re reading this article in a shared space, like a train or a bus or an office, take a moment to look around before you read any further. Now consider this. Statistics suggest that up to one in five of the people around you is ‘neuroatypical,’ meaning that they have a brain that functions slightly differently from the norm. Whether they are living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia or one of a range of other conditions, their unique ‘neurotype’ or brain type presents them with both challenges and opportunities in their daily lives. There’s a 20 percent chance that you are neuroatypical yourself.
With recognition of neuroatypical people growing rapidly, staff at Skanska’s Commercial Development unit in Central and Eastern Europe recently wondered how well conventional workspaces served the needs of such individuals. How do factors such as lighting, layout, smells and textures interact with their sensory requirements? And could design changes empower neuroatypical people to become even more creative, engaged and productive at work?
In collaboration with the Workplace design studio and other partners, the Skanska team has produced a new report, Neurodiversity in the Office: How to Create Neuroinclusive Workspaces. It suggests a range of practical ways in which building owners and their tenants can modify workplaces to make them more comfortable for both neuroatypical and neurotypical people alike.
Identifying strengths and challenges
The report starts by defining the strengths and challenges of various groups of neuroatypical people.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for instance, are typically strong at recognizing patterns and problem solving, but may struggle with social interactions and a lack of routine. People with ADHD tend to be great at creative thinking but are often easily distracted by sensory stimuli. Meanwhile, people with information processing disorders (IPD), such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, are often wonderful at leadership and innovation, but can have trouble with organization and time management.
The authors then use this understanding to model work environments for individual and group work, cooperation and “restoration” that better suit neuroatypical individuals.
Control over sensory input
In the realm of “individual open workspaces,” the report suggests using greenery and panels to create acoustic and visual barriers between individual desks as well as between desks and corridors. Reducing distractions in this way could help people with ADHD and ASD to focus better on the tasks at hand. Meanwhile, providing active seating, such as balls, stools and steppers, could help people with ADHD to burn off excess energy and provide a stimulation outlet for those with ASD. Providing workers with control of their lighting would allow them to manage their sensory input, while long-term seat bookings would provide those with ASD with a sense of control over their environments.
The report suggests that the optimal “closed workspace” for neuroatypical people is a room containing two to four people. Ideally, different rooms should be made available for people with different sensory preferences. People with ADHD, for instance, typically prefer a room in which they can move around freely, use different seats and listen to music. Someone with ASD might find this kind of environment overwhelming and prefer a quieter, more controlled workspace. Providing a water point in each room would allow people with ADHD to get a drink without needing to go to the distracting environment in the kitchen.
Comfortable shared spaces
A similar approach could make spaces for cooperation – such as meeting rooms and lecture halls – more comfortable and productive for neurotypical individuals. High ceilings could make a space more pleasant for people with ASD, who can feel oppressed and nervous in rooms with low ceilings. Placing seats at varying distances from the meeting table can allow participation from people with ASD, who may want to set their own personal space boundaries. Active furniture such as balls, stools and swings can help those with ASD and ADHD relax.
In ‘social restoration zones,’ like dining halls, closed kitchens can prevent strong odors overpowering those with sensory conditions. A range of seating configurations and seats should be provided to allow individuals to choose how they engage with others.
Finally, the report suggests the provision of a ‘sensory restoration zone’ in the office. This is a dedicated space where neuroatypical individuals and others can go to manage their feelings and sensory load. Features could include squeezable pillows to release tension, soft furnishings, mood lighting and a sensory floor to provide tactile stimulation for those with ADHD and ASD.
Office of the future
While the science is evolving, the Skanska Commercial Development unit team for Central and Eastern Europe and other report authors are hopeful that the office of the future will be a more comfortable place for the neuroatypical.
“We deeply believe that the future belongs to everyone, including those who, due to their age, gender or cognitive challenges, have lived in a world of limited possibilities,” they write. “We are happy that with our report we were able to take a small step towards this great, ambitious and necessary goal.”