Since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, and perhaps for the first time in the 21st century, the global community has been asking the same question: How do we get back to work? In May 2020, 83% of United States office workers were either partially or exclusively working from home, (Saad, Wigert, 2021). With increased numbers of Americans receiving vaccinations, that number is falling. But with the new work-from-home model came a new age of enlightenment. Workers realized they could do their jobs in the comfort and personalization of their own homes. So how do we, as an industry, help to accommodate all abilities in the workplace and ensure that our corporate clients are attracting and retaining the workforce they need? The answer is to design for neurodiversity.

What is Neurodiversity?

According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” A few conditions that fall within this category are autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and Asperger’s Syndrome. Based on a collection of studies, between 15-30% of the human population is neurodivergent – that is well over two billion people globally.

“Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”

Laying Out an Office

Pre-pandemic, the typical office trend was moving toward an open-office layout. This was a vast improvement to the previous style of maze-like rows of grey cubicles so often seen in the late-1900s, but it is far from a perfect system. While physical and metaphorical walls were being demolished to allow better communication between ranks, the new trend created a rise in workplace distractions and a lack of privacy. And for those with sound sensitivity or trouble focusing on a task, the constant distraction can be unbearable.

So how do we create a universal design for both the socially inclined and those who need privacy? The answer is to incorporate several different options that are open to everyone. For example, the current rise in awareness of biophilic design has led to workstations being located along the exterior walls of office space to allow employees exposure to daylight. Those with light sensitivity may find the direct sunlight painful, so keeping a few individual working pods centralized in the office away from the sunlight with easily operated lighting controls can be a way of ensuring that everyone’s comfort levels are met.

In an effort to save cost and create an industrial aesthetic, many companies are opting for polished or sealed concrete floors over carpet and LVT options. While concrete most certainly cuts costs and allows for employees to skateboard, scooter, and bike their way across large office spaces, the increased volume of hard surfaces creates much higher levels of sound transference. Individuals with sensitivity to sound or an inability to focus with constant noise would have an almost impossible time working under these conditions.

If having concrete floors is on your client’s must-have list, consider adding ceiling and wall acoustic solutions to absorb some of the noise. Another solution is to section off a piece of the open office space that remains carpeted with partial walls as an area for those people who need a quieter space to work. Even smaller solutions like including soft-seating lounge areas throughout the space can contribute to noise control tactics.

Smaller Solutions

If your space isn’t quite as large, but you still need universal design solutions, take a look at your office’s quiet rooms. Ideally, they should be located near an exterior wall with access to daylighting, but if the only space you have is in the dark back corner, there are plenty of improvements that can be made there, too.

Diffused, color-changing LED strip lights or fixtures can help regulate mood through color therapy.

  • Weighted blankets and pillows help soothe those prone to panic attacks or high-stress levels.
  • Rocking or gliding chairs in place of stationary lounge furniture are helpful for those who require movement either to calm down or ease the need to fidget.
  • Sound-isolating these rooms through acoustic wall and ceiling solutions can also make them a refuge for those who need more control over their sensory environment.
  • Let the VCBO Interiors Team partner with you to create the best possible solutions for your office environment. With decades of combined experience in Interior Design and a range of certifications including WELL, LEED, NCIDQ, and SCCID, our professionals are uniquely equipped to help you attract and retain the next-generation workforce.

Words By:

Madeleine Helgren, NCIDQ, SCCID, IIDA
Interior Designer, VCBO SLC