Let’s ensure the workplace works better for everyone

What benefits autistic colleagues benefits all colleagues – it is the notion of designing for the extreme to benefit the mean. Making a space more …

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There is a strong appetite among businesses of all sizes to emerge from the challenge of Covid as better corporate citizens and with a greater focus on people and productivity. 

David O'Coimin
David O’Coimin

Today, decision-makers are alert to the benefits of making the working environment more inclusive – creating a more welcoming working environment for every colleague.

A key aspect of inclusive design is to avoid segregating or stigmatising individuals, enabling everyone to give their best without having to make specific requests or draw attention to themselves. Few businesses can afford an expensive total refit, so the challenge is to work with the space available and minimise cost. There are some key considerations to focus on.

Colour choices can have a powerful effect on mood and performance and can affect hypersensitive (preference for pastels) and hyposensitive (bright and bold, please) people differently. What suits one individual might be challenging for another. A good way to overcome this is to keep the base palette pastel and calming and to use splashes of accent colour in limited areas.

Light can also play a huge role, reducing eye strain and headaches and boosting productivity. Natural light from windows or skylights can be beneficial, so ensure window space is clear and clean and available.

Ensure the natural light levels can be controlled throughout the day with functioning blinds. For offices lacking natural light, look at ceiling light panels that mimic skylights and consider the use of personal lamps.

Get flexible

When it comes to physical space, get flexible. Ensure it is possible to move furniture around easily to create different zones of activity. And make it clear that change and adaptation are encouraged. Decide yourself how best to implement this.

A mix of flexible seating options is key – from sit-stand desks to quiet pods and chairs that rock or vibrate. Make sure there are options where people can work with their backs to a wall or in enclosed spaces – these promote a feeling of safety.

Think also about noise. Indeed, noise is recognised as the number-one disturbance factor, particularly for neurodivergent individuals. The acoustics of an office play a key role in staff wellbeing and productivity.

Acoustic panelling used on walls and ceilings can help absorb sound and reduce distraction. Curtains are another simple tool for dividing noisy and quiet areas. On the flipside, some spaces can be too silent for occupants, making them overly aware of every action and less willing to make phone calls or vocalise ideas. In this instance, sound generation using directional speakers can help them feel more relaxed.

The quiet and calm of acoustic pods can be a boost to productivity or an opportunity to simply unwind. Certainly, the increasing use of video conferencing will require such spaces, enabling employees to participate openly in semi-private without disrupting colleagues or feeling self-conscious.

We designed Nook with all the above considerations in mind, and recently gained recognition as an official autism resource. What benefits autistic colleagues benefits all colleagues – it is the notion of designing for the extreme to benefit the mean.

Making a space more inclusive is not a once-and-done exercise. Employees should be encouraged to contribute ideas and opinions. Time and effort should be taken to regularly review changes and gather feedback.

Ultimately, inclusivity does not necessitate sweeping change and expensive redesign. Relatively quick and simple adaptations can be made that make the working environment work better for everybody.

David O’Coimin is the founder of Nook

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