May 29, 2022
A new report from the British Council for Offices urges landlords and office occupiers to invest in design for neurodiversity, as disabling workspaces continue to hinder wellbeing. The report examines how the neurodiverse community remains underserved and often unsupported in the current employment ecosystem, and in turn, outlines the considerations that built environment practitioners can take to make offices enabling environments, and the crucial role of more inclusive designs.
A significant principle of neurodiversity is the belief that it is not the pathology of the condition that causes barriers to societal inclusion or causes a disability; rather, it is the socio-cultural architecture of a society that is only equipped to support a small range of variability. Understanding the difference can help create a new framework for approaching design, and the ability to make society more just and inclusive.
The report claims to integrate the health aspects of an office environment with how these affect access to employment for those who identify as neurodiverse. Specifically, defining an enabling work environment to be one that supports the mental, social, psychological, and physical health of those inhabiting the space. The characteristics of enabling spaces, include:
- Equity – A space that shows an understanding of the root causes that influence people’s needs
- Safety – A space that provides a sense of psychological safety to people, that they will not be made vulnerable by poor decision-making
- Intuitive – A space that is created with intent rather than ego, that is clear to use and that does not leave a person guessing
- A space that lessens the biological stress burden through the design of comforts and physical elements, ensuring environmental consistencies and freedom for all people to use the space based on their personal needs
- A space that shows an understanding of how various physical comforts can support mental and physical health
- Diverse – A space that is agile and intentionally offers a variety of options to meet the varying cognitive demands [social, restorative, concentration] on a given day
- Dignity – A space that allows a person to belong, to know that they are no longer othered or made vulnerable
- Ecological – Design solutions should not place any further burden on the Earth’s systems, and should play a role in mitigating the climate crisis
As well as considering the characteristics that make an enabling environment, it is important to consider that like all communities, the neurodiverse community is complex and contains a wide range of people with a wide range of needs. Therefore, each office space is an opportunity to build a unique and nuanced relationship with people who will inhabit that space. The report highlights that this starts with creating a set of methods that will delineate how the design team, client and employees will engage in an equitable collaboration with the purpose of creating an enabling environment.
The BCO suggests the following methods for each stage of the design:
Time should be set aside to observe people and place in order to fully understand the various and nuanced needs of the user.
- Method 1: Conduct a survey of potential or current employees.
- Method 2: Observe employees in situ across different times of the day, and on different days, to build up a ‘day in the life’ composite. This will provide a full understanding of the any obstacles and the nuances associated with the use of the space.
- Method 3: Hold ‘town hall’ meetings at which employees, employers and designers can discuss their needs and concerns.
Design concepts should be tested to ensure that they translate from concept to real-world application. This is also a good time to learn how to enable interactions and to address blind spots.
- Method 1: Leave room in the designs for changes to be made after consulting with neurodiverse employees.
- Method 2: Create pathways for feedback from the users.
Improvements can, and should, be made over the long-term management of the building, and there should be the flexibility to enable quick changes to be made to accommodate new people or to adjust to changes in the needs of people.
- Method 1: Conduct periodic surveys to understand if the needs of those who are neurodiverse have changed.
- Method 2: Periodically, bring in a mental health expert to conduct workshops on burnout syndrome. The aim is to both educate staff about the syndrome, and thereby prevent it, and to identify employees who may already have symptoms and to avoid them spiralling into burnout.
- Method 3: Create pathways of communication through which people can state their varying or changing needs of the space.
- Method 4: Make iterative changes to the space based on feedback from workshops, surveys and communication pathways.
The report additionally outlines several considerations to guide this planning, separated by the categories of Place, Building and Space. Some of the elements included in the report to be considered in each of these categories include:
- Sheltered outdoor areas
- Outdoor working areas
- ‘In between’ spaces/courtyards
- Outdoor furniture
- Distraction-free workspace
- Audio-visual navigation
- Distinct design features
- Variable lighting
- Combining multiple elements
- Reducing visual disturbance
- Biophilic design elements
- Variable lighting
Through thinking of the office space beyond employment and as part of a wide societal ecosystem, the BCO is advocating support for the neurodiverse community through these informed design choices that deliver the ability to begin to shift the narrative from productivity to healing. When labour and its physical condition put people’s health at risk it can have a wide societal impact by placing a burden on the NHS and impeding people from developing to their full potential, and even playing a role in future health inequities.
The BCO is therefore calling for more inclusive design and regulatory change, with this new research proposing recommendations that should be adopted for elements of building design to make buildings more accessible to the neurodivergent community and to protect the mental and physical health of neurodivergent people.
Rob Harris, Chair of the BCO Research Committee, said: “In a time where macro-societal trends such as sustainability and the adoption of hybrid working continue to influence office design, it is crucial for future workspace solutions to benefit the lived experience of all occupiers, including those who are neurodiverse. While it is only one element of the employment ecosystem, office design can contribute to creating equitable and nurturing work environments. To be successful, design solutions must be inclusive, functional, and supportive of the wide spectrum of conditions which fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity.”
Designing for Neurodiversity is sponsored by CBRE, Deloitte and Lendlease/IQL Stratford.