Neurodiverse Solutions

How to build an inclusive physical workplace with universal design

Factors to consider when designing and building a workspace that sets everyone up for success.

An accommodating and supportive workspace can fuel productivity and efficiency. Inclusive workspaces can be created based on the concept of universal design, which ensures the configuration of an environment can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent by all.

Consider the following important principles when building an inclusive physical workspace for a talent force that includes neurodivergent employees:

Consider sensory thresholds

Office image featuring hyposensitive and hypersensitive spaces. Hyposensitive is collaborative; open table with 4 chairs and computers. Hypersensitive is private; 3 separate desks in booths.
Figure 1: Image of an office environment featuring examples of hyposensitive and hypersensitive workspaces. A hyposensitive space is open, collaborative, illustrated by an open table with 4 chairs and 4 computers. The hypersensitive space is used for more quiet, private work, illustrated by 3 desks inset into their own booth.

We all react differently to sounds, light, color, patterns, etc. Neurodivergent individuals tend to experience more extreme reactions to these environmental factors, either being hypersensitive or hyposensitive. Some people are a blend of both.

Companies need to create environments where people can gravitate to the types of spaces that best meet their needs in the most seamless way possible.

Understand modalities of work

Office illustration features 6 modality of work types. Concentrate and contemplate is private. Commune is collaborative. Create and congregate are open, ready for sharing. Convivial is open, casual.
Figure 2: Image of an office environment featuring 5 spaces illustrating the 6 modality or work types. Concentrate and contemplate space is 1 desk in a booth for private, quiet work. Commune space is an open table with 4 chairs and 4 computers for collaboration. Create space is a room with an open table and a television screen for display. Congregate space is a room with open seating and a screen for projected display. Convivial space is an open area with a couch, chair, table, and shelving for books and storage.

Modalities of work are the different ways in which work can be performed. Architecture firm HOK categorizes each modality type with the 6 C's: concentrate, commune, create, congregate, contemplate, and convivial. In an era of heightened sensitivity to our environments and the knowledge of how we are impacted by them, it's necessary to address how individuals process sensory stimulation in hyper and hypo settings for all 6 modalities of work where possible. Spaces can be constructed to facilitate higher efficiency and productivity depending on the type of work being done, and depending on their role, someone could experience more of one modality and less of another. Create spaces to accommodate all modalities.

Consider spatial sequencing and sensory zoning

Office illustration featuring zones for work and the locations, acoustics, lighting, colors, and materials to make the settings inclusive. A mix of open, collaborative, and enclosed, private spaces.
Figure 3: Image of an office environment featuring zones for work and the locations, acoustics, lighting, colors, and materials to make the settings inclusive. Left, top, is a kitchen for gathering and dining. Middle, top, is a space with an open table and a television screen for collaboration. Right, top, is an open area with a couch, chair, table, and shelving for books and storage. Far right, top, is a room for printing and storage. Right, bottom, is a space with 3 desks inset into their own booth. Middle, bottom, is an open table with 4 chairs and 4 computers for collaboration. Left, bottom, is a room with open seating and a screen for projected display.

Understand the elements of a space, how they are sequenced, and how they flow in and out of the space to ensure it all works together. Conduct a spatial sequencing/zoning assessment to confirm the workspace plan enables your team to find the right setting, in the right environment, with the appropriate level of acoustics, lighting, and energy to aid in their functional success. Consider including quiet spaces on one side with more neutral colors. Spaces in the middle could include more communal gathering spots that utilize a wider range of colors.

Understand color palettes

Office illustration featuring color palettes that support hyposensitive and hypersensitive work. Neutral, muted colors for hypersensitivity, and bright, invigorating colors for hyposensitivity.
Figure 4: Image of an office environment featuring color palettes that support hyposensitive and hypersensitive work. Left, top, is a kitchen in neutral colors. Middle, top, is a collaboration space featuring neutral colors and a television for display. Right, top, is an open area with casual seating featuring deeper, vibrant colors. Right, bottom, is a private work area in neutral colors. Middle, bottom, is an open area for collaboration in neutral colors. Left, bottom, is a room with a screen for projected display featuring neutral colors.

Color palettes can support hyposensitive and hypersensitive people by either reducing or strengthening a stimulus. More neutral, muted colors work best for those with hypersensitivity, whereas those with hyposensitivity work best with bright, invigorating colors. Build a space that can accommodate both.

Get started with universal design

An accommodating and supportive workspace can fuel productivity and efficiency. By designing your workplace with universal design principles, you can best tailor your environment to support all employees and foster your team’s success.

Download the full illustration

The information included in this illustration was gathered from a CAI webinar, Neurodiversity, architecture, and universal design, featuring speakers from architecture firm HOK and paint and coating manufacturing company PPG.

Watch the webinar on-demand to learn more about universal design.

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