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Creating a work environment that champions neurodiverse individuals and is welcoming to all

Neurodiversity can no longer be the missing link in inclusive and accessible design

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Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for varying differences in individual brain function that diverges from the typical. To create a truly inclusive workplace, employers and designers must collaborate to create a work environment that champions neurodiverse individuals and is welcoming to all.

26th Jul 2022
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A survey conducted by CIPD found that only 10% of HR professionals specifically tailor people and management processes to the neurodiverse. As one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent, in order to make the workplace truly inclusive, forward-thinking employers must make the conscious decision to bring neurodiversity to the forefront.

While the government’s National Disability Strategy 2021 offered a promising start to making the workplace more accessible to employees with disabilities, there is still a great deal to be done to make the workplace truly inclusive.

Indeed, there remains significant stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding neurodiversity that stifle our progress in achieving truly inclusive workplaces. For example, many organisations lack specific diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies for neurodiversity in the workplace.

Stigmas surrounding neurodiversity are deep-seated. An Institute of Leadership and Management report in 2020 revealed that half of managers were uncomfortable with employing neurodiverse people. Evidently, company leaders need to drive change from the top-down and call for a deeper understanding of the needs and potential of those with neurodiversities.

A 2020 report revealed that half of managers were uncomfortable with employing neurodiverse people.

To begin, it is important to use more inclusive language and positive terminology when referring to individuals with neurodivergent conditions. Moving away from ‘dys…’ terms, to emphasising things like ‘ability’, ‘para-ability’, and ‘people of determination’, are some examples of positive language that can be used.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for differences in individual brain function that diverges from the norm. Neurodiverse talent offers out-of-the-box thinking, as well as a range of new perspectives, experiences, and skills that smart employers will recognise as a competitive advantage. 

As we move back into the office, it is more important than ever for employers to recognise the risk of missing out on top talent should they not adapt. Changes to  processes and the workplace are needed to tackle the challenges faced by neurodiverse employees in the work environment.

Mindful employers will address the challenges and short fallings of the office environment and promote an inclusive and equal space for all.

Barriers facing the neurodiverse

The workplace can be a challenging environment for anyone, but especially for neurodiverse individuals, whose needs are often forgotten. It is important that we celebrate and leverage neurodiversity while also taking the necessary steps to tackle specific barriers faced by neurodiverse people.

The work environment can be disorienting and stressful for people with neurodivergent conditions, such as ADHA, autism, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia. To optimise deep work, we need to eliminate distractions and design an inclusive environment that stimulates productivity for all.

Awareness and consideration of neurodiversity should lead the design process, not merely be added as an afterthought.

Therefore, employers and designers need to work in collaboration to ensure the workplace is considerate of the challenges faced by neurodiverse individuals. A consideration of light, noise, acoustics, colour, sequencing, compartmentalisation, transition, sensory, escape, and restoration are all crucial when making design choices.

Awareness and consideration of neurodiversity should lead the design process, not merely be added as an afterthought. As companies look to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment, it is important that neurodiversity is no longer the missing link.

Below we dive into ways to adapt the office, recruitment process, and HR considerations to ensure an inclusive workplace.

Designing an inclusive workplace

Creating a comfortable and positive work environment is essential to allow individuals to thrive. To champion and support neurodiverse individuals, employers need to eliminate the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and adapt its processes and practices to nurture this talent.

When designing for neurodiversity, it is important to consider the recruitment process. Designing clear job descriptions that welcome neurodiverse individuals is vital to entice this talent.

Recruiters should review competency frameworks to ensure that neurodiverse talent isn’t excluded if they don’t meet the same minimum standards set for neuro-typical people. Likewise, interviewers should be informed of neurodiversity so that the interview process is fair and considerate.

Creating a comfortable and positive work environment is essential to allow individuals to thrive.

For example, interviewers might misconstrue a lack of eye contact or fidgeting as rude rather than understanding that these actions are related to ADHA or autism.

As a way to provide a fairer recruitment process for neurodiverse applicants, in 2015, Microsoft set up its own in-house neurodiversity recruitment programme, which substitutes a conventional interview process with a four-day skills assessment and provides successful candidates with an external expert job coach and internal mention.

For HR professionals, it is important to cultivate employee support networks and tailor resources to neurodiverse individuals. Personalised support, mentoring, and coaching should be clearly offered, and comfort in the workplace should be regularly surveyed.

In creating an inclusive workplace, designers need to consider the five senses and the fundamentals of design. Light, form, line, colour, texture, space, and technology all play into the differing productivity levels of neurodiverse individuals.

Noise levels and light can be disorienting and overwhelming for some people, eliminating their ability to produce deep work. To avoid sensory overload, designers should include quiet spaces to escape from the bustle of the office and offer a place to recharge. The office space should include warm and neutral colours to create a comfortable environment.

The acoustics of a space can vastly impact the productivity of neurodivergent individuals. Being sensitive to noise and playing with the acoustics of the space can enhance the workplace and make it more accessible for certain people.

The acoustics of a space can vastly impact the productivity of neurodivergent individuals.

Designers should increasingly consider using materials to control and shape acoustics through absorption techniques, or look at implementing partitions to separate noise.

Likewise, green spaces and the incorporation of the natural environment throughout the office can have a grounding and calming effect on workers, which ultimately improves mood and performance.

For example, a Human Spaces study found that natural elements, such as potted plants and greenery, can improve employee wellbeing by up to 15%, whilst reducing boredom and acute stress.

As employers continue to drive a diverse workforce, in terms of gender and equality, neurodiversity can no longer be forgotten. The inclusion of some of the described design elements are important next steps for employers to reimage their workplace, champion neurodiversity, and create an accessible environment for all.

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