Designing Inclusive Environments for a Neurodiverse Workforce


“Neurodiversity” refers to the natural range of variation in human neurocognition.


It’s an umbrella term for people who aren’t neurotypical, and includes autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder) and Tourette syndrome, among other conditions.


Approximately 15-20 percent of people are “neurodivergent.”


Instead of seeing natural variations in the brain as pathologies, the emerging neurodiversity paradigm among progressive employers welcomes and facilitates the diverse talents of those of us who think differently.


Neurodiverse thinkers often possess exceptional talents when it comes to innovation, creative storytelling, empathy, design thinking, pattern recognition, coding and problem solving.


The challenge is that neurodiverse workers may not always be able to thrive within existing workplace norms and practices.


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Along with their sought-after advantages and specialty skill sets, people with certain kinds of neurodivergence may have difficulty concentrating, managing distractions, regulating emotions, recalling information, processing details quickly or communicating effectively.


Despite their upside talents, they often face obstacles in getting and staying hired.


In addition to just being the right thing to do, some progressive employers are recognising that accommodating the different brain wiring of neurodiverse people can provide a huge competitive advantage.


This is leading to a range of more inclusive policies, programs and procedures, though this recognition is only just beginning to affect workplace design.




HOK’s WorkPlace and Consulting teams use design to help generate and sustain a culture of diversity and inclusivity.


The premise of inclusive design is that instead of trying to choose or change people to fit their environment, an organization can get the right people for its needs—and simultaneously help them live more fulfilling lives—by changing the environment to welcome all those people who offer unique talents.


While an organisational culture of inclusion and respect is the single most essential element in the success of a biodiverse workplace, design has a major role to play by removing barriers, improving access to opportunities, reinforcing organizational values and facilitating success.


The most common workplace challenges center on the issue of sensitivity. Neurodiverse thinkers often can be over- or under-stimulated by factors in their environment such as lighting, sound, texture, smells, temperature, air quality or overall sense of security. Any comprehensive approach to designing for neurodiversity should carefully consider these experiential aspects of the work environment.


That said, different neurological conditions manifest in different ways, and even people who share the same condition may experience it to varying degrees and express it in different forms. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Dr. Stephen Shore, an advocate for people with that condition, has said, and his statement applies to other conditions.


That is why one of the most effective ways to design for diversity is to provide choices. This enables people—neurodivergent and neurotypical alike—to more effectively manage their own needs with dignity and autonomy.


Versatile environments that provide for a range of preferences make differences less apparent, fostering equality and integration. These environments also allow for individual and operational changes, helping to make an organization more adaptable.


Below we highlight some of the design strategies behind what our research, conversations and professional experience suggest are six of the most impactful types of choice.


1. Spatial Organization: Good spatial design excites curiosity and rewards exploration with the delight of discovery. It should also be intuitive. Visitors and regular occupants can understand where they are and can easily find their way. However, for some people with neurodiverse conditions—especially those who thrive on repetition, predictability and clear boundaries to feel secure—the need for legible spatial order may be intensified. Spatial order and ease of wayfinding become essential.


2. Spatial Character: Workplaces that offer a variety of settings enable workers to choose the most appropriate environment for their task. Shared, open spaces facilitate socialization. Smaller, enclosed spaces support more focused work. Dedicated phone and meeting areas enhance technology-based communications while buffering other work areas from distraction. Cafe- or kitchen-type spaces allow workers to meet for informal discussions or to recharge between tasks. Equipping some spaces with technology and designating others as tech-free zones provides additional choice for maximizing productivity.


3. Acoustic Quality: Employees who are especially sensitive or prone to distraction, such as those with autism or ADHD, can find ambient noise—or the lack of it—downright disabling. Companies that depend on all their employees’ ability to concentrate are increasingly prioritizing a comprehensive approach to acoustic design. Effective acoustic design provides a variety of auditory settings in support of diverse activities, locates them appropriately relative to one another and specifies assemblies for acoustic comfort within spaces and acoustic separation between them. Acoustic design may also consider whether a sound masking or white noise system would increase comfort.


4. Thermal Comfort: Thermal comfort can vary with personal factors such as clothing, activity level and metabolism, as well as neurology. One solution is to provide individual temperature controls, such as an operable window or air diffuser, to enable workers to adjust their thermal environment. Other strategies relate to controlling solar gains in perimeter spaces, designing a high-performance building envelope, decoupling heating and cooling zones from ventilation, and designing thermally varied spaces like a naturally ventilated atrium or outdoor patio.


5. Lighting: Bright lighting levels can intensify feelings, both positive and negative, and dimming the lights can result in more rational decisions. Changing lighting color and intensity over the course of the day to mimic nature’s diurnal changes can also help to reduce stress. More comprehensively, workplace-wide access to daylight can result in better physical well-being, improved mental and emotional health, and increased productivity and happiness for all. Ultimately, the opportunity for staff to tailor lighting to their preferences may be one of the most effective ways to enhance autonomy and comfort for all.


6. Degree of Stimulation: For people with certain types of neurological conditions, visual, auditory or scent-based sensory cues can be overwhelming. For others, a lack of stimulation is the problem, resulting in an inability to focus. Creating options for employees to control or choose the degree of sensory stimulation in their surroundings is a key aspect of inclusive design. Strategic use of microenvironments, color, pattern and texture, and natural elements all can create both calming and stimulating environments.


DO A Workplace Assessment


A workplace assessment can provide HR and corporate real estate teams with valuable information for creating more effective work environments for the neurodivergent. Whether you are planning a new space or looking to renovate an existing one, ask your workplace design consultant to suggest features will help create an inclusive culture and physical environment that works better for everyone. We need to ensure that an organization’s most valuable assets and currency—your people—have every opportunity to be happy, healthy, engaged and empowered.


This article is excerpted from a new HOK report on “Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace.” Download it on

About the Author

Kay Sargent is a director of HOK’s global WorkPlace practice. With a passion for using design to transform how and where people work, she spends her days (and many nights) working with clients on workplace strategy and design. Based in Washington, D.C., Kay leads project teams that solve clients’ business and organizational challenges related to real estate business process, strategic planning, workplace strategy and change management. She collaborates with organizations ranging from tech startups to Fortune 500 companies to optimize their real estate portfolios and create the most innovative work experiences. Kay is on CoreNet Global’s board of directors and on the board of the International Federation of Interior Designers/Architects. She is co-chair for the ASID Foundation research taskforce and on the leadership team of IFMA’s WE Workplace Evolutionaries and the advisory boards of Work Design Magazine, PaletteApp and Virginia Tech. She has served on the international boards of IIDA, ASID, NCQLP, IFI and NCIDQ, and is an active member of ASID, IIDA, CoreNet Global and IFMA. Kay has authored numerous reports and articles on the workplace and has spoken at CoreNet, IFMA and other industry events. CoreNet and Tradeline, Inc. both have honored her as a top-rated speaker. A mentor to many, she is a founding member of the D.C. chapter of UPWARD, which accelerates career advancement for executive women.


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