ADVICE & OPINION
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Business decision-makers can be forgiven
for wanting to fast-forward to a time when
we are free from the grip of the pandemic. With
o ices closed, those employees able to do so
are getting work done from home and learning
to adjust to a new lifestyle and rhythm. While
this way of working is a no-choice necessity
for now, it is also causing many to question the
working practices of old and to think seriously
about challenging established norms. Talk of
emerging from the pandemic into a ‘new normal’
is everywhere. But what should this new normal
The prevalent ‘one-size-fits-all’ nature of much of
today’s open-plan workspace is unsuited to many
employees – or potential employees. Everybody is
to some extent di erently abled - ways of thinking
and operating di er from one person to the next.
This neurodiversity cannot be shoehorned into
one type of workspace. Indeed, to do so is a recipe
for problems which can result in higher-levels of
absenteeism and burn-out.
If businesses are determined to make a change and
to do things di erently then it is absolutely essential
that practical consideration is given to supporting
and nurturing neurodiverse employees. Whilst great
strides have been taken in recent years to understand
neurodiverse behaviours, many facets of everyday
life still fall behind. The workplace is one such
example. Some progress has been made in terms of
adapting space for physical disabilities, but it is less
apparent where neurodiversity is concerned. And we
14 MAY 2020
understand why – it’s not always as easy and obvious
to know what to do.
Di erent types of brains (e.g. introvert vs extrovert,
neuro-diverse, autistic), di erent types of tasks (e.g.
programming vs brainstorming), and di erent times
of day (mid-morning vs immediately a er lunch vs
just before home time) form a three-dimensional
matrix of conditions, and therefore needs, from a
workspace. In practical terms, this does not mean a
There are three top considerations when creating
a workspace suited to neurodiverse individuals, and
relatively simple solutions exist for each:
» NOISE LEVELS
Noise is the number one issue because it permeates
and impacts concentration, anxiety-levels and general
wellbeing. Creating an environment that enables
individuals to escape from noise is key. This might
be done with acoustic wall panels, ceiling panels and
room dividers which can not only be used to make
sound reverb less in a space, but also to sub-divide
areas with di ering functions and noise levels (e.g.
finance team vs sales team / programmers vs dining
Interestingly, an environment that is too quiet can
also be an issue for many, preventing them from
speaking up, making calls or expressing themselves
fully. White noise can be used to create a base
comfortable noise level into which people feel more
open to be themselves.
Light is proven to have a powerful influence on mood,
energy levels and the ability to process information.
Light can be used zonally, creating pockets of space
that are comfortable to individuals. Di erent colours
create di erent moods and can help provide sensory
support for autism, dyslexia and visual impairment.
» PERSONAL SPACE
It is important to enable employees to regulate
their own personal space without making them feel
like they are in the spotlight for doing so. Creating
withdrawal spaces is key - discrete areas that provide
separation without totally isolating users from the
workspace. Placing these close to work desks enables
people to hop casually into the space for respite or for
a more intimate conversation.
These are changes that can benefit all workers.
In fact, any business failing to adapt in a postpandemic
world may quickly find themselves
struggling to retain or attract top talent. Many
people are experiencing new ways of working for
the first time. As the lockdown period extends, so
these new working practices become second nature.
Going back to the open-plan o ice routines of old
will rapidly lose its appeal.
Life right now feels so di erent to before. No
commuting, more time for yourself, more time for
family, an appreciation of the freedoms that fresh
air and space provide. There is a need for greater
self-discipline and a requirement to get creative
in order to overcome hurdles. New technology is
being embraced so that teams can stay connected.
Sounds great, right? And it is. There is much to take
forward. But there are flip-sides too; the sense of
cabin-fever, the feeling of isolation, the distractions
of the household, the reliance on your own lessthan
perfect technology, to say nothing of the backbreaking
PLANNING FOR THE ‘NEW NORMAL WORKSPACE’
So, what’s the summary? In short, people are
proving that they can be productive outside the
o ice and are enjoying some of the work/life
balance advantages that this can bring. But – and
it’s a big but - there is still a strong and basic need
for human interaction and socialisation. To satisfy
employees and to attract the best prospects
businesses will need to think hard about how they
In considering the needs of the neurodiverse,
businesses demonstrate responsibility towards
individuals. And by thinking about individuals,
companies start to perform better as a whole.
Many of the workspace changes suggested for
neurodiverse individuals focus on wellbeing, on
delivering havens of calm and the opportunity to
take a break from the hubbub without isolating
completely from colleagues. These priorities are
now also high on the wish-list of every employee –
priorities formulated as they experience new ways
If there is to be a ‘new normal’ in a post-COVID-19
world, now is the time to ensure that neurodiversity
is a central part of that planning.
The ‘new normal’ workspace must nurture and champion the
neurodiverse says David O’Coimin of www.Nookpod.com