Six Kinds of Workspace in One – Designing For a Neuro-divergent Office Population

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The COVID-19 pandemic has given many of us a heightened awareness of our surroundings. As we seek to avoid infection, we’re hypersensitive about cleanliness, what we touch and who we’re around. With no vaccine on the immediate horizon, it appears we’re going to be living with these sensitivities for a while.

Anxiety, Safety and Control

For now, companies are altering their office layouts and employees’ schedules to support physical distancing, implementing more stringent cleaning policies, instituting health screening protocols and transitioning to more touchless environments. This is a good start.

What we don’t want organizations to do is have a knee-jerk reaction and regress to the outdated planning concepts of the 1980s. Instead, we want to help them approach this crisis as an opportunity to pause, study the science behind people’s behavior in the workplace and then make evidence-based decisions about rethinking their space for a COVID-era world and beyond.

When companies bring their employees back to the office—whether it’s next month or next year—these people will need to feel like they’re safe. Giving them plenty of options about how they work and more control over their experiences in that space will relieve some anxiety.

Recognising and Respecting Neurodivergence

This need to provide office occupants with choices aligns with our recent research on mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace. In the fall of 2019, HOK released a report on Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace. This report noted that approximately 15 to 20 percent of people are neurodivergent, i.e., have one of a collection of conditions that include autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. Despite having above average intelligence and unique abilities, they cannot always thrive within existing workplace norms and practices. Our report called for more inclusive workplace environments that would better accommodate the full range of employees: neurodivergent and neurotypical alike.

Though most people don’t understand exactly how their brains work or affect their sensory intelligence, both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees frequently have hyper- or hypo-tolerances for sensory stimulation—more so in this new COVID-19 world.

Hypersensitive employees process the details of sensory stimuli in an overly magnified way. They prefer predictable environments with controlled stimuli. They dislike environments with excessive stimuli such as bright lights, crowds, unfamiliar scents, textures or temperature fluctuations.

Hyposensitive people have difficulty seeing, hearing or feeling the acute sensory details in a given environment. Preferring to be overstimulated, they need more stimuli to successfully process sensory information.

In the COVID-19-era workplace, the needs of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive employees will be amplified.

Inclusive Spaces

For a workplace to be inclusive for all, designers need to use all elements of the three-dimensional space—scale and proportion, shape and form, flow, contrast, texture and color—in ways that appeal to people’s auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory and proprioceptive senses. We need to create a complete workplace ecosystem with options that are accessible to all, as part of a single solution.

An inclusive workplace ecosystem should offer workers spaces to accommodate six different kinds of work:

  • Concentrating space
  • Communing space
  • Creating space
  • Congregating space
  • Contemplating space
  • Socialising space

Designers should ensure that spaces for all six modalities of work will be available as needed for both hypersensitive and hyposensitive occupants.

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While the right sizes and combinations of space will vary for each organization, the key is to provide a seamless array of choices. Spaces should easily adapt to the needs of people with work styles and behavioral needs at both ends of the spectrum. They also must be exceptionally flexible to integrate new technologies over time and, as more people continue to work remotely after the pandemic, to blend real and virtual work environments.

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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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