More and more organizations are beginning to understand the advantages of workplace diversity and are working to create an environment where everyone feels valued and part of the team. A new consideration in this discussion is neurodiversity—creating spaces that account for a range of differences in brain function. Here renowned expert Kay Sargent, senior principal and director of workplace at HOK, explains what it means to design for neurodiversity and the role it plays in an overall effort to foster truly inclusive environments.

Kay Sargent, Senior Principal and Director of Workplace at HOK
Kay Sargent, Senior Principal and Director of Workplace at HOK

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the natural range of variation in neurocognitive function. It’s an umbrella term that includes both neurotypical and neurodivergent people. Approximately 15–20% of people are neurodivergent, which includes autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome, among others.

People who are neurodivergent also can have neurological challenges resulting from brain injury or other environmental causes. 

Even among those considered neurotypical, one in four will experience a mental health challenge, such as depression or stress, at some point in life.  Because of widespread under-diagnosis, more than half of those on what are considered neurodivergent areas of the continuum don’t even know they are.

How did this become a topic of conversation in the design community?

For us, it started with a simple question from a client: “How do you design space for someone with ADHD?“ We have some insights from our work in the education sector but wanted to be able to address the topic more specifically for workplaces. We found was some information regarding onboarding and operational elements, but there was a total lack of information on how to design work spaces to accommodate people who are neurodivergent. So we started doing research and from there it snowballed. We are designing pilots and partnering with manufacturers to create better solutions that address the specific needs of the neurodivergent community. And to date we have only shared a fraction of the insights and material we have created, so stay tuned.

Why is it important to the way humans experience a building?

As humans we all relate to the built environment and the sensory stimulation in different ways. As we come out of quarantine and determine what our new work norms will be, most of us will emerge with heightened sensitivities about what we touch, how close we are to others, and sensitivities to other elements of the spaces we occupy. This makes HOK’s research on designing inclusive work environments that support the neurodiversity of employees—many with hypo- or hyper-tolerances for sensory stimulation—especially relevant going forward.

What factors are most important to consider to design for neurodiversity?

Workplace designers will need to become more attuned to employees’ “sensory intelligence.” People often can be over-or under-stimulated by factors such as lighting, sound, texture, smells, temperature, air quality, or overall sense of security. Any comprehensive approach to design should carefully consider these experiential aspects of the space. Our ability to do this will determine how well spaces address the diverse needs of the workforce by being welcoming and inclusive.

Can you share any examples of how intentionally designing in neurodiversity has impacted a workplace or building?

Workplaces that offer a variety of settings enable workers to choose the most appropriate environment for each task. Having choices also allows people to find a comfortable level of social exposure and interaction. For example, it’s instinctive for most people to feel vaguely uneasy in a workstation that leaves their back open to a room. Yet for neurodivergent people that feeling is more than vague—it’s intolerable. An enclosed office, on the other hand, can foster feelings of security and autonomy. Or it can leave a person who already feels “different” feeling more isolated than ever. Providing a variety of activity-based workspaces, including nooks, alcoves, and areas of refuge, as well as clusters and neighborhoods, gathering places, and spaces for movement, enables everyone to find the best place for their work. If offering choices about work spaces isn’t possible, then simply asking employees about their preferences can help.

What’s next when it comes to neurodiversity or the role of design in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

We continue to evolve and expand our research on the neurodiversity of employees so we can design inclusive spaces. But COVID-19 has shed new light on longstanding problems related to social inequity, systemic racism, and social injustice. To create inclusive spaces that serve all people and communities give everyone an opportunity to thrive, designers for a global workforce need to consider multiple perspectives including race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, physical abilities, mental health, cognitive/neural differences, and religion.

If we can comprehend the nuances of how all people will experience a space and build that understanding into our design processes, we can create welcoming environments that foster social equity.