Neurodiversity is one of the most overused and misunderstood concepts in the workplace right now.
Despite an increased focus on designing spaces to accommodate a broader spectrum of neurological and cognitive experiences, there remains a significant lack of understanding as to what neurodivergence really is.
Much of the discussion assumes that neurodiversity is limited to a small number of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD);
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); or
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
However, this narrow scope of neurodivergence often fails to mention other invisible disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety, Dyslexia and many more disorders, traits and sensitivities that cause our brains to work in slightly different ways from the mean average of a working population; the very definition of neurodivergence.
In addition, there is an assumption that these disorders require certain “standard” types of workplace design to support employees with these conditions; usually “sensory muted” or “quiet” meeting rooms to enhance concentration. But as the old saying goes, "if you've met one person with Autism, you've met one person with Autism". A categorical diagnosis says nothing about the way in which this diagnosis manifests at work and, therefore, what type of design interventions might support.
It is no surprise that conversations amongst workplace designers, architects and real estate professionals, is beginning to focus on behaviour rather than diagnosis to cultivate and design more inclusive environments.
Whilst someone with ADD may experience life-long, chronic issues with sustaining attention, so might a new parent facing sleepless nights, an employee working past pension age, or someone who recently sustained concussion. Rather than designing space for the employee with a diagnosis, we are much more likely to provide successful, inclusive workplace to meet the wider needs of our organisations when we design for similar behavioral or experiential needs.
Finally, words matter. Should we approach designing spaces for people who fall outside of the arbitrary average experience of employees, we are likely to create spaces that carry a connotation of “othering”, for people with “different needs”. Whilst the intention is well-meant, truly inclusive and effective environments need to ensure that our differences become our strengths and our workplaces cater for the full breath of what it means to be a human at work, not just for the average.
Sophie Schuller is partner, occupier strategy and workplace at Cushman & Wakefield, Netherlands