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Workplace Inclusivity: Creating Spaces for Neurodiverse Employees to Thrive


Symbol of neurodiversity
Image: Yulia Buchatskaya -
As organizations move forward with their hybrid work plans, many workplace leaders are recommitting their efforts to creating an inclusive workplace for neurodiverse and neurotypical employees alike. Although enabling the hybrid work office and creating inclusive workspaces could seem like separate tasks, workplace leaders can incorporate inclusive design at the very beginning phase of their workplace planning and benefit all their workforce.
To start, one just needs to look at the ways creating inclusive workplaces is similar to enabling hybrid work in the office. In a recent Fast Company article, Claire Shepherd, COO of design and construction firm Unispace, shared five ways workplace leaders can boost inclusivity, mirroring larger workplace trends. Three are particularly noteworthy:
  1. Offering a variety of workplace options: To better address the needs of neurodiverse employees, Shepherd suggested that workplace leaders provide a range of workspaces, including quiet areas, areas for team collaboration, and “recharging stations,” which can be dimly lit private rooms with comfortable furniture and calming music.
  2. Understanding light and color needs: Light and color sensitivities can also create barriers for many neurodiverse employees. Shepherd recommended that workplace leaders look at the color and light used in a space and when possible, maximize natural lighting, use adjustable LED lighting, and opt for lighter color palettes.
  3. Providing air quality: Some neurodiverse individuals have smell and taste sensitivities. To counter intrusive odors, Shepherd recommended investing in HVAC equipment and maintenance and air purifying plants like palm plants.
Many of these workplace recommendations go a long way in providing all employees with more performance-boosting amenities in the office, thus boosting hybrid work strategies in the process. As hybrid work has shown, workplaces need to provide a range of working environments to support employees and different modes of work — including areas for focus work (e.g., work pods and booths) to space for ad-hoc collaboration (huddle rooms). As I stated in my previous article, workplace flexibility isn’t limited to policies on where and how people work; it can also include changes to workplaces themselves. By boosting office flexibility, all employees (neurodiverse or neurotypical) can benefit.
Air quality and filtration is a physical workplace improvement that addresses multiple constituencies. As we inch closer to another fall and winter season, workplace leaders need to prepare for a likely surge in coronavirus cases. Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen a lot of discussions on the importance of air quality in combatting the spread of coronavirus, but as Shepherd wrote, it also has the benefit of improving the working conditions of neurodiverse employees.
IT, HR, and Facilities Team Up for Workplace Inclusivity
At the heart of making workplaces more inclusive is first listening to what employees have to say and incorporating that feedback into workplace design and management. To gain insight into how well the current workplace is working for everyone, HR professionals can survey employees and create a feedback loop between management and employees. Additionally, HR professionals will most likely be involved in any diversity-and-inclusion initiatives that a workplace has, so they will be instrumental in understanding the needs of neurodiverse employees.
But creating inclusive workplaces isn’t just up to HR professionals to make a reality. IT and facility management departments will need to do their part. Over the last several years, IT professionals have spun up cloud communications and collaboration services to enable a flexible workplace, deploying services like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex by Cisco, and others. Accessibility features like meeting recordings, transcripts, and translation capabilities are common features which can boost inclusivity by making it easier for neurodiverse people to do their jobs. For instance, Webex has partnered with Thrive Global to provide 60-second guided breathing exercises to its users, and Microsoft has brought meditation and mindfulness exercises to its Viva platform, as shared in this WorkSpace Connect article.
Any changes to the physical office space will require the expertise of facility management professionals. In creating these new (or revised) inclusive workplaces, they might need to repaint areas and install lighting solutions with adjustable setting to support employees with color and light sensitivity. Facility management professionals will also be responsible for ensuring an HVAC unit is working properly and filtering the air, which has the added benefit of better equipping workplaces to deal with coronavirus and other infectious diseases.
You can see how cross-departmental collaboration between these different departments is essential for bringing about any significant changes to the office and how people work. But by factoring in neurodiverse inclusivity at the beginning stages of any planning, workplace leaders can save themselves a lot of headaches — and most importantly — frustration and stress from their neurodiverse employees. When it comes to building inclusive workplaces, leaders in HR, IT, and facility management each will do their part to address the needs of all employees (neurodiverse or neurotypical).