Neurodiversity and the future of workplace design 

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller
neurodiversity and the future of workplace design karen haller 

London’s premier design event, Clerkenwell Design Week was held last week, and I was thrilled to be asked by leading floor company Interface to sit down with their team lead for concept design, Laura Light for an ‘in conversation’ style discussion in front of designers and architects the importance of colour selection as we strive to accommodate neurodiversity and sensory needs in the modern workplace.

Interface have found that they are being asked by their clients (and it’s something that I’ve been noticing too) about what are we doing to address this, so it felt this discussion was very timely. And so much so I wanted to share the highlights of that talk in this article with you.

Neither of us are clinical experts in neurodiversity, so we came at this topic from the approach that we were wanting to create an inclusive culture and design spaces to support people to work and feel better.

What is neurodiversity?  

Before we dive into the detail, let’s first baseline what we mean by neurodiversity in this article.

This umbrella term describes people with variation in their mental functions including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette’s and all the many nuances.

Neurodiversity encompasses people who often experience the world around them differently and whose brains operate in ways other than what’s considered neurotypical.

From a 2022 CEO Today magazine issue, said estimates of neurodivergence were at least 30% of the population, with these statistics being higher for the most creative innovators. Around 40% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic. Including maverick entrepreneur Richard Branson and visionary architect Richard Rogers.

The magazine goes on to say that divergent thinking can give a competitive advantage and yet 73% of neurodivergent people don’t disclose their neurological differences during job interviews or any type of selection process due to fear of being discriminated against.

And the irony of that for me is that most companies are looking for innovators and the majority aren’t neurotypical. Yet the stigma around neurodiversity remains.

Why is neurodiversity in the workplace so prominent now?

And for that we need to go back to the pandemic.

Two key things happened in the pandemic when it comes to this conversation.

The first was it forced everyone to work from home and what a lot of people noticed during that time, particularly those who were neurodivergent, was that they felt more at ease and better able to meet their own needs.

The second thing that happened was people were figuring out how to navigate the pandemic being at home and the great changes in our lifestyle. A lot of people began to notice the coping skills they had been using weren’t working. And many people during the pandemic became aware that they were possibly neurodivergent but had been undiagnosed.

Billy Roberts, clinical director of Focused Mind, said there had been a lot of outreach from neurodivergent individuals during that time seeking professional help for both first-time evaluation and treatment.

Not only did the pandemic highlight many people’s neurodivergence when they hadn’t known about it before, it also gave them the opportunity to find a way of working that was better suited to their neurodivergence because they had more control and were better able to self-regulate at home.

So it’s no wonder when the time came for everybody to go back to work there was huge resistance both from neurotypicals who enjoyed the extra time at home and neurodivergent individuals who felt less stressed and more comfortable in their home environment.

Challenges returning to the workplace

In April this year, Leesman, the world’s largest bench marker of employee workplace experience, released research that showed that hybrid working, which is based on an average 2 to 3 days in the office, has gone from 22% in 2020 to 73% in 2023.

And those numbers show us there’s a real reluctance to give up homeworking and return to those pre-pandemic 5 days.

The Leesman report gives us an insight into why that is by going on to state that everyone should have an outstanding workplace experience regardless of how often they go there.

One of the biggest revelations in this report was when it said, “The average home supports the average knowledge worker better than the average office.”

And what they go on to say is that places designed to live in, i.e. our homes, actually supports us to do our work better than offices which are designed for people to work in.

If we want to support everyone to come back to work, neurotypical and neurodivergent alike, we need to do a better job at designing the spaces they work in.

Enticing workers back into the office isn’t as simple as changing the interiors, redesigning our workspaces, or offering more incentives.

Because none of those addressed the main reason why people feel more comfortable in their home environment than they do in a traditional work environment.

From the research I’ve done into the pandemic and the data it gave us from when everyone was working from home, I’ve discovered there are three main challenges why neurodivergent people feel more comfortable in their home than in the traditional working environment.

  • company culture:  the awareness and inclusion of neurodivergent types and their energy management needs

  • management style: being aware of different self-regulation techniques and allowing people the autonomy to meet those needs when they arise

  • built environment:  creating spaces that deliver what neurodivergent individuals need.

We can’t just address one of these challenges because they’re all interlinked.

So if we want to bring neurodivergent people back into the workplace, we need to work on all three areas.

“Whether people are neurodivergent or neurotypical,
they all want to come to work to do their best work
and we need to give them the ability to do that.”

Whether people are neurodivergent or neurotypical, they all want to come to work to do their best work and we need to give them the ability to do that.

And these three pieces are how we deliver safe, constructive, and inclusive workplaces for everyone.

The future of workplace design

So what should designers consider addressing in workplace design to make it more inclusive?

We need to first consider why the average home supports the worker better than the traditional workplace.

The answer is because at home, they have choice and control, which means they can better self-regulate.

And what they specifically have control over are things in their home environment that allow them to manage sensory overload, and that’s what we need to deliver in the workplace as well.  This includes workplace solutions like, but not limited to:

  • Lighting e.g. easy-to-use lighting dimmers
  • Privacy e.g. sliding or pulldown screens
  • Acoustics e.g. designated quiet areas, noise cancelling headsets
  • Layouts e.g. navigate with ease and not overwhelmed with messaging and stimulation
  • Colour & design: ensuring each space is fit for purpose. 

The home-away-from-home trend

What I’ve seen trending in workplace design is something I’ve dubbed the “home-away-from-home” trend.

It makes sense. That’s what designers think because they imagine if people feel comfortable working at home, then replicating that in the office will make them feel comfortable in the office.

But what that has created is a lot of ‘home-away-from-home’ lookalike offices, which are beginning to look more like gentlemen’s clubs.

But these designs are all missing the fundamental piece we need to learn from what happened during the pandemic.

And that is neurodivergent people want to work from home because they can control their environment and self-regulate their behaviours.

These behaviours are the underlying factors we need to address in our future workplace design in order to support neurodivergent individuals back into the office.

There is no one-size-fits-all

“…there is no one-size-fits-all approach… because the needs
of every workplace and their employees will be different.”

But this is easier said than done because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating inclusive spaces.

There is no single colour palette or design style that delivers the positive behaviours that will work for every workplace because the needs of every workplace and their employees will be different.

So we’re not designing for a mood, a feeling or an atmosphere, or a brand or a style, we are designing spaces within a workplace to meet the needs of everyone who’s using the space.

And that’s why I really want to encourage CEOs and management to embrace conscious design their workplaces that meet the emotional and behavioural needs of all of their staff, if they want their employees to come back to the office and more importantly, keep coming back.

The basis of my framework for inclusive design

First, we need to look at the function and purpose of each individual space inside the office environment. For instance, whether it’s the reception, meeting rooms, workspaces, breakout or transition spaces.

The next step that designers typically look at is what mood, feeling or atmosphere their client wants to create.

That’s where I diverge because you can’t see a mood, feeling or atmosphere.

How do you know you’ve got it right based off something you can’t see or measure?

And that’s why I have found a way to make colour and design measurable.

And that’s why I focus on behaviours.

I look at what are the specific behaviours that are desired in each individual space.

The reason my approach supports inclusive design is because it enables you to create all these different spaces that allow people to have choice, feeling in control to self-regulate, and ultimately get what they need from the workplace in order to be able to do their best work.

Using behaviours as the starting point for design is deep work.  

It goes far beyond what traditional design work delivers and that’s why it requires in-depth analysis before going anywhere near putting a colour palette or design scheme together.

It’s only when I have that information from my clients that I can then look to the colours and the design style that will support the behaviours and outcomes that they’ve told me they want in each of those areas in the workplace.

And I include all of this in my signature framework – Nature’s Harmonious System™ which allows me to go onto identify the specific colour family, saturation, proportion, placement as well as the design style needed throughout the entire design to support those positive behaviours.

Up until now we’ve been talking about how to make the workplace inclusive for neurodivergent individuals. But there are other considerations that I factor in to make the design fully inclusive such as colour deficiency, low vision, cultural considerations and any other specific additional needs or support.

And that’s how I deliver inclusive designs whose impact can be measured through the resulting behaviours from employees in that space.

The biggest takeaway designers told me they got when I shared this last week at Clerkenwell Design Week was that the design industry needs to move beyond a mood or a feeling and really begin to understand and incorporate behaviours in their design work.

For many designers this is a brand-new window into how we can consciously use colour and design to create positive outcomes for our clients.

Starting with behaviours is integral to my work and the approach I’ve used for over 15 years both in my consultancy work and as a teacher to many students around the world. I’m really excited to be leading this evolution in the design industry.

I’m fired up to support the creation of more inclusive workspaces across the UK and the world. If you’re someone who wants to bring people back to the office through inclusively designed spaces, and you’d like some help with that, then contact me so we can discuss how I can support you to create that in your workspace. Or if you’re in the design industry and would like to learn more about Nature’s Harmonious System™ then you can check out my colour & design mentoring programme here.

Colourfully yours,

A huge thank you to Interface for inviting me to partner with them in this important conversation. You can find out more about Interface over here.

This article contains original ideas, theories, and frameworks. It may not be reproduced or copied in part or whole without written permission from the author.

2022 CEO Today magazine issue
Billy Roberts, clinical director of Focused Mind
Leeman Report April 2024

Image: taken at the Interface showroom during Clerkenwell Design Week 2024.

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