Neurodiversity at work: How can companies accommodate? – PART I: the work environment

Last Tuesday I took part in a remote panel about Neurodiversity at Work, I was stunned by the number of people who joined this remote meetup. So many people! Such a caring and curious atmosphere! I felt comfortable being myself and that means a lot 😉 .
Wesley a fellow panellist mentioned some of the accommodations that helped him to be happier at work. Once the meetup finished, I put my machine to sleep and I did something I have refused to do in 15+ years of career: I closed my eyes and thought “What if? What if my current workplace could accommodate to my uniqueness?”. There are two reasons I never do that. First, I learned the hard way that, being a minority, if I wasn’t satisfied with my work environment, I should leave. Secondly, I would be too scared that people accommodating would then be unhappy just because of me. But what if we (the work and myself) could accommodate the workplace to a be more inclusive for neurodiverse people without bargaining down for the rest of the lovely human beings working there?

This started as a few ideas and then it became much bigger, so I decided to split this article into smaller ones.

  • Part I: the work environment
  • Part II: the culture (coming soon)
  • Part III: the choice of software (coming soon)
  • Part IV: the organisation of work (coming soon)

Note: along with this article I will refer to somebody called Maya. Maya is my main neurodiverse persona. A persona is a fictional character made to characterise a set of users’ pains, behaviours, goals, and demographics while generating empathy and helping to focus. If you want to know more about Maya, have a read of this article (link to the article).

illustration introducing the content: Maya, the persona, is smiling.

The golden rule of accommodating

Always assume there is a neurodiverse person in your team, don’t wait until a neurodiverse person is joining to consider the following items. Neurodiversity is not obvious, making accommodations can take time, having these accommodations already there will send a positive message to any applying neurodiverse person, and everybody regardless if neurodiverse or not can benefit from such accommodations.

Here are some ideas that could make a huge change (and again, not just to the neurodiverse folks)

Illustration describing the golden rule of accommodation on the workplace. It says: always assume there is already a neurodiverse person in the room.

Understanding neurodiversity and some conditions connected to it can be helpful to reconsider elements of the work environment. For example, Maya has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) which is a very common condition amongst people with autism, causing her to not appropriately process nor react to a stimulus. Roughly (very roughly) imagine hearing things louder than they are, seeing light brighter than it is, or feeling hot, cold, soft, or hard surfaces more than they are. SPD is more subtle than that and it not only varies from one person to another but also through the life of a person.

Assess the essential components: light, AC, temperature, seating, noise, flow of people, material, vibrations

It can be easy to overlook some of the most basic elements of the day-to-day work environment. However, for Maya, this turn into serious pain, 8h/day and 5days/week.

About the light

Offering Maya ways to control the light on her workstation will reduce the feeling of being attacked by light or being overstimulated.

About the noise

Noise can have bad effects on everyone in the office and neurodiverse people are likely to be even more sensitive to it. Open spaces are too often hell mouths as noise breaking systems are pretty much overlooked and it is quite hard to keep teams constantly under a certain level of decibels. Maya doesn’t feel well if she is surrounded by too much noise, especially from different origins. Usually, she has to excuse herself to take a break in the bathroom for a few minutes to cool down a bit. Sometimes she can come back home being extremely mentally tired and vulnerable. Her office knows about this noise issue as it is something people complain a lot about. They offered the employees the possibility to get noise-cancelling headphones but it makes Maya feel sick

About temperature and air-conditioned:

Maya is very sensitive to temperature. It can easily be too hot or too cold. Sometimes commuting is hell: super cold outside, then super wet and hot in the train, then cold again to the way to work, and then a bit too hot in the open space, and then too too hot in the meeting room. Oh, it will be hard to manage to focus during the next hour meeting.

Illustration showing Maya being overwhelmed by her environment.

Offer a cool-down room

Most of the days Maya can go through a workday like anybody else. However, there are some days she feels under the weather (it can be because somebody screamed in the train, or because of too much noise, or because of a stressful situation, etc.) and she feels the need to isolate for refocusing and releasing some steam. Usually, she hides in the bathroom or a secret corner she found close by the cupboard they store the old computers. Having a dedicated space where seeking psychological safety is welcome and understood would make a big difference. Just knowing that this place is here can remove a lot of stress from Maya’s day. Moreover, this room can be used by other people too, for napping for example.

Leave blankets available in the cool-down room

When anxiety raises, Maya likes wrapping herself in a blanket for a few minutes. This doesn’t work just for her but any human being and we all need to feel a bit safer from time to time, even on the workplace.

Illustration with Maya being enveloped in a blanket, looking like a human burrito.

Tolerate animals on the workplace

Elliot is a big support to Maya. A lot is said between them without using words. When Maya feels stressed, Elliot’s presence calms her down quasi instantly. Maya used to work for a company where dogs were not allowed and it was adding a lot of stress to have to say goodbye to her best friend every morning and also during the day. In her new company, Maya can bring Elliot with her and her colleagues are very happy too 😉

Optimize flows of circulation and keep them away from work station

It can be very hard for Maya to stay focused when there is a constant flow of people circulating close by her workstation. Even though she likes her colleagues a lot, being exposed to a constant flow of them while she is working is making focusing hard.

Have a guests system

New faces and strangers in familiar places that are supposedly safe can be a challenge for Maya and it is good to have a system that helps her to spot new faces for the day in the office. Think about announcing them in the morning standup or providing them with a name tag.

Provide alternative paths to reach the office

Maya is scared of taking the elevator alone (even with Elliot). When her destination is not reachable by the stairs, she needs somebody to take the elevator with her. If it is her workplace, it means that every morning, every lunch break, every walk for Elliot, and every evening she will be dependent on finding somebody to take an elevator ride with her. On top of sabotaging her autonomy, that makes her feel like a burden and this adds up to the stress of a regular day.

As you can see all those accommodations can also be a great improvement for any of Maya’s colleagues. Why not pick some and discuss it in your office?

Let me know how it goes, I would be very curious to hear about it!

Published by Virginie Caplet