In recent years, we have seen a growing civil rights movement focused on change in the workplace and in terms of office design, revolving around differences in brain function. Advocates for neurodiversity say that it’s just as critical to business success as gender or racial diversity in the labour force.
The workplace has become significantly more accessible and diverse in recent years, recognising that one size does not fit all. There have been many discussions about accommodating both introverts and extroverts, supporting the needs of different generations and encouraging people to thrive in different situations.
It is important to think about how the workplace can be better supportive of the widest group of contributors
The word ´neurodiversity´ is often used to describe variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions – a workplace in which all participants can contribute to the best of their ability will inevitably be the most productive. Given that we are starting to place value on diverse approaches in the workplace it is also important to think about how the workplace can be better supportive of the widest group of contributors.
To get an insight into how office design may better support our differing behaviours, let’s look at an everyday event to understand how people may react in dissimilar ways, which can be translated into a workplace environment.
Imagine a street performer, perhaps a juggler, street magician or comedian – inevitably, these performers will set up their pitch in a place that is visible to passers-by. Their aim is to disrupt pedestrian flow, create impact, draw a crowd and hopefully earn some money.
Now imagine the passers-by. We know from experience that passers-by react in a variety of different ways to an event such as this. If you observe the public in the vicinity of a street performer you will rather quickly gain an insight into a large range of human behaviour.
Inevitably the gathering crowd will initially be composed of people who want to hear and see what’s happening. These people will be unafraid of standing in the front row, of reacting to the jokes and sharing in the fun. They´ll be there for the experience and interested in how the experience may play out. Some may be exhibitionists desperate to get involved when a volunteer is asked for.
For some people the thought of being involved in a large-scale public event is terrifying. At the merest view of a gathering they will immediately look for ways to avoid it. They will deliberately go out of their way to avoid someone as frightening as a street performer. What if they were picked out and asked a question? For these people it is the unpredictability of the event that is the worst aspect. What will happen? How will this play out? Better to go the opposite direction.
The ‘Go Along With It’
These people could be friends with engagers. They wouldn’t choose to engage themselves if they had the choice but equally wouldn’t want their engager friends to think that they were anything other than enjoying the experience. They´ll stop and watch, but you won’t find these people in the front row. They may just slightly move to one side to hide behind that tall person in front.
The ‘I’m Just Here’ guys
These are the people who spot the street performer and deliberately don’t change a single thing about their demeanour or the speed of their walk. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves but do want to know what’s happening. They´ll carry on as if there is nothing happening at all. But, at a safe distance, they´ll stop and unemotionally observe the proceedings. They want to be involved but don’t necessarily want the others to know that.
Agility and interaction
The people we’ve just met may be exactly as described or they could exhibit a mix of these different approaches. Regardless of this we can see how these people types might react very differently in situations that occur naturally in the workplace. A workplace that is increasingly using office design to promote agility and interaction.
Consider the Town hall. An opportunity to hear from senior leadership about the future of the business. This is an unpredictable event. Who could be standing nearby? Could there be a call for questions from the audience? Is there the opportunity to hear the town hall without being potentially forced to stand in the front row?
Consider shared working areas. These could be composed of unassigned desks, breakout spaces, agile project areas or the central coffee bar. Will people have options other than potentially having to work in a busy, acoustically challenging environment? Some people with hearing impairments may seek less buzzy spaces. Who will my neighbour be? Does my business unit at least have a neighbourhood anchor point where I can be certain to be able to check in with direct, known colleagues? Spaces with less exposed areas, informal tiered seating and spaces that can be used for a variety of uses all provide locations that can feel more comfortable for the participant.
Consider quiet spaces. One client installed a series of closed shed-type rooms with their own doors and windows with blinds that could be pulled down for further privacy. They weren’t getting used. Some subtle questioning revealed one reason why; If I’m uncomfortable being around people, the last thing I want to do is advertise to everyone that I’m uncomfortable around people by going into a shed, closing a door and dropping a blind! So too much privacy could also be a thing.
The increased awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace follows the agile working revolution and the recent workplace trends of sustainability and wellness. Taken together, we now have more knowledge to make considered choices in order to ensure that our workplaces and office design can support the widest possible range of contributors.
Julian Sharpe is Principal Director at tp bennett