Kay Sargent, a director of HOK’s global WorkPlace practice, thinks we need to be “brutally honest” about what was and wasn’t working in workspace design before Covid.

Even before Covid, stress and burnout rates were skyrocketing, office spaces were underutilised, workplaces were lagging behind on skills, climate change and other environmental issues were going unaddressed, workers were lacking social connection and workplace equity was a serious issue. 

Something Sargent’s team has discovered is that workspace design does not usually accommodate neurodiversity, which includes people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHA), autism or anxiety/depression, leaving as many as one in eight people feeling stressed, uncomfortable and unproductive in the workplace. 

All people serve to benefit from neuro-inclusive design, especially post-pandemic when communities have suffered extreme collective trauma. She says neurodiverse people can be either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to external stimuli, with their reactivity ranging from subtle to extreme. 

Post Covid, she expects more people to have a heightened sensitivity to potential danger, such as having their backs to openings or walking down narrow winding corridors that don’t have visible refuges or enough room to physically distance.

“All of us have been through a bit of trauma.”

Troublingly, many tweaks to workspaces to improve Covid safety can exacerbate feelings of stress or discomfort, such as removing soft furnishings. Although it’s easier to clean offices without fabric coverings and other soft elements, removing them can make spaces noisier as well as clinical and uninviting.

“Everyone is so concerned with minimalism, but we run the risk of some really sterile environments if we create really minimalist workspaces.”

Littering workspaces with warning signs about social distancing and hygiene can also provoke a “danger danger” response in people. 

The environment also suffers from these temporary fixes, with the extra packaging used to keep food safe and individually wrapped leading to excessive waste. 

The good news is there are plenty of tools in the design toolbox to ensure occupant safety while promoting a positive mental state, such as altering the size and shape of corridors to encourage people to move through them at a safe distance form one another.

Colour is also a powerful tool for subtly imparting messages about how to use or navigate a space, as are textures, with rugs useful for creating a “faux space”. Plants and green walls can also be used strategically to provide subtle but pleasant screens and boundaries. 

Photo by Pascal Swier

Foosball tables have a place in an inclusive office

Designing for neurodiversity is about more than just minimising safety threats. For example, having a foosball table in the workplace might have started in the 80s with tech companies trying to mimic frat house culture to keep people working long hours, but Sargent says these games also help the hyper-sensitive among us.

Neurodivergent individuals often have trouble sitting at their desks or in meetings for long periods and can benefit from a fun outlet to burn off some energy. There’s also the advantage of fostering bonds and social connectivity in the workplace.

It’s also important to consider the different ways people interact with one another. If companies want activity-based working, she says it’s good to give people a “home base” in a designated “neighbourhood” because many people are more comfortable in smaller groups. 

Using screens between neighbourhoods can also help with wayfinding, reduce the spread of germs and, more so in the US, offer protection in the event of an active shooter scenario. 

Workforce flexibility is great but not for everybody or every company

Sargent warns against the one-size-fits-all approach to drafting a working-from-home policy and is concerned that many of her clients are overestimating the remote work movement and think it will save them money on real estate.

For some, the flexibility to work from home is a welcome relief from long commutes and personal lives that suffered as a result. However, Sargent says it doesn’t suit everybody, nor every organisation. 

She says many people are still working long hours in a hard chair at their kitchen table and are feeling isolated from clients and colleagues. For these people, a safe, comfortable workspace is not only attractive but a must if they are to remain happy and productive.

“It’s about asking ‘what is it that people can’t get at home and are missing?’.”

Some professions are better suited to remote work than others. Lawyers, for example, do a lot of independent, deep concentration work so might benefit from a more flexible working policy. Tech companies, by contrast, thrive when people spend a lot of time together and can bounce ideas off one another.

Curiously, Sargent says many of the big tech companies have gone all in on their remote work policies.

She suspects this is simply a tactic to lure talent, with tech talent in short supply globally, because these companies are simultaneously “gobbling up land” for new headquarters and offices.

“I’m calling BS on them.”

She says all companies, the US tech giants included, should be thinking about their company culture and desired workplace outcomes when crafting their workplace policies.

“Companies really need to think about just because you can work from, home doesn’t mean you should.

“We need to focus on the purpose of being in a specific workspace.”

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