In the rapidly evolving workplace, the notions of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are no longer just buzzwords but essential elements shaping the future of professional environments. As such, there’s an emerging realisation that catering to individual needs and differences is imperative for creating a truly inclusive work environment.
However, inclusivity is a constantly evolving multi-layered ethos. Furniture giant Steelcase explored the topic in a pair of Inclusive Design webinars. In the Designing inclusive workplaces session, Steelcase Director of Applications and Design Consulting Elena de Kan framed inclusivity as not a destination or an outcome, but a never-ending journey: “It invites people in, gives them a voice and provides them with the agency to participate,” she said.
Fellow Steelcase colleague Kamara Sudberry, who is the company’s Inclusive Design Global Leader, highlighted the need for deeper empathy and unlearning biases: “Designing with – not just for – is our way of inclusive design,” she remarked.
A diverse landscape
Let’s face it, we’ve all got our little quirks in the workplace – whether it be a preference for sitting with our back to the wall or at a particular desk. There’s also the universal hatred for harsh neon strip lights and the penchant for engaging in aircon wars in summer. But the fundamental truth is we’re all wired differently and process stimuli – be they sensory, cognitive or behavioural – in a manner as unique as our fingerprints.
Increasingly, workplace inclusivity encompasses neurodiversity – a terrain where individuals experience and navigate the sensory landscape in unique ways. While the majority of the population is neurotypical, a significant portion falls outside this boundary, with conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and more.
In the UK, it is estimated one in seven people has a neurodivergent condition. Forward-thinking firms are making it increasingly easier for neurodiverse individuals to enter and remain in the workforce, recognising the skill set and talent on offer. However, many with such conditions fail to thrive as the right environment and support is not provided to foster their needs.
In the recent WORKTECH Academy Expert Session Neuro-inclusion: a Holistic Approach, Kay Sargent, Director of Workplace at architectural firm HOK, stated that by understanding and accommodating diverse sensory thresholds, spaces can become catalysts for thriving rather than sources of disadvantage.
Central to her approach is reimagining spaces – dividing them into zones catering to various sensory modalities. It’s not about exclusion but creating inclusive areas while still sharing a collective environment.
Through thoughtful spatial sequencing, Sargent advocates for designing locations with hyper- and hypo-sensitive options, ensuring everyone finds a zone that resonates with their needs. By allowing stakeholders to contribute their experiences and requirements, a workspace becomes more than just a physical entity; it reflects the diverse community it serves.
In Steelcase’s Inclusive design in practice webinar, Special Olympics Michigan CEO Tim Hileman stressed the necessity to speak to specialists. Referring to the organisation’s inclusion centre project, Hileman explained that the initial master plan included sensory rooms in various corners of the building. However, following a conversation with a partner organisation which serves individuals on the autism spectrum, the stigma of having a labelled room was flagged.
This began the process of talking about incorporating sensory break areas throughout the building which could be utilised by everyone. “True inclusion,” he noted, “goes beyond just being invited to the dance; it’s about being involved in planning it from the start.”
The bottom line is inclusive workplace design isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s a nuanced, ongoing effort that demands constant adaptation to meet the evolving needs of individuals.
The reseller viewpoint
Commercial Sales Director Craig Baldwin and Interior Design Consultant Stuart Hall shed light on the evolving landscape of neurodiversity in the workplace:
Craig Baldwin and Stuart Hall from reseller Commercial express a shared passion for design and inclusivity, each contributing unique perspectives. Drawing from personal experience, Baldwin underscores the diverse range of needs within neurodiversity, saying: “The crucial understanding here is neurodiversity is a spectrum condition and, therefore, everyone is entirely different and will have different needs.”
When it comes to establishing inclusive workplace cultures and environments, he stresses the importance of adaptability, saying: If we understand the person and challenges they experience, which shall, of course, also evolve, we can create the right work environment where they feel part of the puzzle, and it becomes quite an easy fix.”
Is designing a workplace tailored to diverse needs a simple proposition? Hall believes it can be. Contrary to popular belief, he points out that inclusive workspace design principles have been in existence for the past decade or so. “It’s encouraging to hear companies now discussing inclusivity, putting a ‘label’ on it. In practice, we’ve been advocating for a departure from cramming desks into offices and instead promoting choices, collaboration zones and interesting spots for a long time.”
Hall continues: “If we have learnt anything over the years, it is the importance of establishing a realistic work-life balance for those staff members who need more support. Therefore, we must focus on creating work settings that do a far better job of helping these individuals put their own health and wellbeing at the top of their to-do list.
“Workplaces should support and stimulate the neurodiverse, giving them the confidence to perform at the highest levels while feeling accepted as valued members of every company.”
Riding the wave
As hybrid working has transformed many offices into meeting hubs, starting the design process with the location of collaborative spaces makes sense. Hall recommends strategically positioning meeting rooms between teams to break up the area and address acoustics and noise levels, for example. Once these building blocks are in place, incorporating biophilia, colours, fabrics, textures, furniture and products becomes relatively straightforward.
He adds: “These elements not only support neurodiverse individuals but also contribute to a more pleasant work environment for everyone, aligning with the trend towards increased flexibility and adaptability to help future-proof the workplace.”
Inclusivity is gaining prominence as a priority for businesses, and Baldwin notes it’s a facet of working life the younger generations are deeply passionate about. “I believe it will be a big wave that is here to stay and keeps on coming,” he says.
The consultants’ viewpoint
Debbie Watts and Hayley O’Connor, co-founders of design consultancy ZoneND, discuss how to create neuro-inclusive workspaces:
Workplace360: What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
Hayley O’Connor: Being neurodivergent, in essence, refers to possessing a way of thinking, communicating, learning and processing information differently from the rest of the population. Thankfully, we’re moving away from the traditional medical model of disability that viewed neurodiversity as something to be fixed to the more progressive social model of disability, with an emphasis on removing societal barriers.
It’s a positive flip for genuine inclusivity and, as a neurodivergent community, we have become our own advocates, driving us to overcome the stigma that hindered such progress in the past.
W360: What are the key elements for a neuro-inclusive workplace?
Debbie Watts: Creating inclusive spaces involves an understanding of the different needs of neurodivergent individuals. If you think about how the workplace has evolved over the decades, it’s changed from pods with high screens to open-plan environments. It’s gone from one extreme to another.
While those who are neurodivergent can function in various office settings, it can be challenging and, for some, detrimental, so certain criteria are needed to alleviate sensory overwhelm. Factors such as open-plan, frequent changes in seating arrangements and sensory triggers must be carefully considered.
Addressing loud environments and repetitive sounds and providing privacy options (high-back sofas or booths), along with incorporating biophilic elements and investing in acoustic solutions (wall panels and ceiling treatments), can contribute to a more neuro-inclusive workplace. Recognising those needs and allowing for flexibility, even in terms of workspace location, is crucial.
HO’C: Most neurotypical people get fatigued on certain days, which could be down to specific sensory input factors – noise, flickering lights, or maybe the temperature was not quite right.
We all have sensory preferences. What’s really important to understand is if you are designing workplaces with neurodiversity in mind, you’re accommodating everybody.
W360: Are there specific considerations for office furniture, for example?
DW: It’s an interesting question. There should ideally be a subcategory for furniture that caters to neurodivergent needs. As consultants, we physically experience and assess every piece of furniture for its suitability.
W360: How hard is it to design a workplace that works for everyone?
DW: As Hayley mentioned, finding a starting point that encompasses neurodivergent needs inherently creates a nurturing environment for everyone. It’s about blending and creating a recipe that caters to introverts and extroverts within the neurotypical population. There are simple sensory aspects that, as human beings, we all need and crave. Workplace design, when done in consultation with neurodivergent individuals, strikes a delicate balance that is entirely achievable.
W360: Where does the responsibility for neurodiversity inclusion in the workplace lie?
DW: Embracing neurodiversity is more about company culture than size. Those businesses that champion it find it beneficial, as neurodivergent individuals bring unique perspectives and talents to the table.
While large corporations may have dedicated roles like HR or diversity and inclusion, smaller companies can still be proactive. To facilitate, we use our ‘inclusion triangle’, which I’ll let Hayley explain.
HO’C: The inclusion triangle model puts the environment as the spearhead of neurodivergent support in the workplace. You can have individual support (mentorship, reasonable adjustments, coaching) and organisational culture (awareness and training), but if you’re not accommodating the environment, it’s simply not going to work. All three elements need to knit together and work in harmony. Once this happens, you create a community where individuals are not only seen and accepted but also deeply understood, thereby cultivating a strong support network.
W360: Finally, tell us about your company ZoneND. What services do you offer and what are your plans?
HO’C: ZoneND, established in March last year, is driven by our shared passion for creating neuro-inclusive environments. We offer consulting services in workplace design, health and education, aiming to effect positive change through inclusive practices.
In a recent project at the British Motor Show, we created a ‘sensory pit-stop’, witnessing firsthand how powerful inclusion can be – we constructed a psychologically safe environment where people felt safe, seen and heard.
DW: We design through an overt neurodivergent lens and have partnered with psychologists, charities and organisations that are all working towards our same vision of creating a sense of community to bring about meaningful change.