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Founder and director of Nook Wellness Pods, David O’Coimin, spoke about the reality of neurodiversity in coworking spaces. He also provided some tips and information on how to create a more welcoming environment in coworking spaces for the neurodivergent.
Nook Wellness Pods is the co-producers of event DEI – Beyond the Buzzwords, taking place at this year’s Workspace Design Show. The event takes place on Tuesday 28 February, from 9 to 10:30 GMT at the Business Design Center, 52 Upper St, London N1 0QH, United Kingdom.
What is neurodiversity?
The term neurodiverse captures the understanding that people experience, process and interact with the world around them in different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences should not be viewed as deficits.
Neurodivergent is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities.
A neurotypical person is an individual who thinks, perceives, and behaves in ways that are considered the norm by the general population.
The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.”
The neurodiversity movement is primarily a social justice movement.
As David explains, “The world has been built primarily by and for the neurotypical”.
“The neurodivergent sometimes can feel like the world isn’t fit for them or their particular needs—how they process information, environment, instructions (or the lack thereof), nutrition choices, and other societal signs.
“The office environment is on the whole designed by extroverts, for people like themselves. So, the majority of extroverts perform well on society’s stage,” explains David. He also says that those who are neurodivergent can, unsurprisingly, struggle to perform as well as neurotypical people in an environment designed around the neurotypical.
“A way in which we can help neurodivergent people, is by recognizing that the world is built for the neurotypical and that we could do a much kinder, much more caring, much more powerful, meaningful job of organising the world for those who have been left behind a little bit,” says David.
The current reality in coworking spaces
The coworking industry is underperforming in terms of its potential, according to David. “Coworking has incredible opportunities to set the tone and change the world in terms of how we build our environments, our organisations, how we arrange communities, and how we bring people together.
“What coworking spaces can do from a point of view (not just neuro inclusivity, but all types of inclusivity and equity) is to start out with a mindset of consciousness and willingness to engage on the subject.”
According to David, coworking has its own set of idiosyncrasies, compared to the standard regular office environment. For the most part, coworking can be considered to be a bit more active, with more comings and goings, more going on, which can be challenging to a quiet mind. There are often events happening at coworking spaces, and regular changes that people have to deal with. “unpredictability is often a challenge for a neurodivergent mind”, explains David.
“Also, usually, regular offices have unifying departments that deal with people and culture, like the HR department,” says David. He continues to explain that this helps to set tone and build understanding, predictability. Coworking does not have a single unifying HR department which reaches into all tenant organisations of course. Often we see multiple companies and individuals making use of a space, each under its own rules, goals and policies.
This is something that makes coworking so different from the standard office environment. Each individual is working towards a separate goal through their own processes and rules. It can be challenging for a coworking organisation to ensure that all goals are met, in this case – or to set its own goals for the whole community.
“However, I think it has enormous pros,” says David. It is statistically the case that coworking has a high representation of the neurodivergent population. The reason for this may be that many neurodivergent people, as well as being change-agents and status-quo resisters, can find themselves not fitting so well in typical organisations. And so they can tend towards entrepreneurship as a tool to change the world but also in order to regulate their own working conditions more, explains David.
“They can’t find a place to fit, so they create an environment that is ideal for them,” says David. He continues to explain that he has done exactly that, for the same reason.
“Why I say coworking is not quite meeting the potential that is available, is because there’s so much potential and knowledge in coworking, but it’s relatively untapped and we could be doing so much more,” says David.
“There’s so much purpose in coworking. But again, that purpose perhaps isn’t being driven towards its own environment. It is understandably towards the mission of the individual’s organisation. It’s full of early adopters of change agents of people who care, in big letters – taking the word care and kindness and putting that at the core of what they do.”
How to create more neurodiverse spaces
According to David there are three main areas that coworking spaces can focus on to quickly create more inclusive spaces: design, communication, and nourishment.
“In terms of design: colour impacts mood, emotion and cognitive function for everyone, but in a heightened way for someone who is neurodivergent,” explains David.
Studies have shown it can energise, calm, or cause anxiety.
David says that it is important to pay attention to the colours used in a space. In a coworking space it is important to ensure that the coworkers feel calm and safe. David says that the use of blue, green, pink, and brown are the most successful colours for such aims.
“Avoid large areas of red at all costs,” cautions David, “it can trigger sensory overwhelm and it can lead to an increase in hyperactivity.”
But, it is not just about the colour of the wall, but also the colour of the environment. Avoid harsh white light and stark, bare, white walls, says David. “It can increase anxiety because of their cold appearance.”
If you aren’t keen on the idea of using colours like blue, green, pink, or brown, look at pastels and creams. “But also incorporate interesting design and tactile elements like plants and natural materials,” says David, “it helps us feel more connected to nature, which also helps the rhythms in our brain.”
An important typical way of communicating is through signs, especially as a large percentage of neurodivergent people have language processing issues of various kinds and can even be non-verbal.
David says that signs are important for two reasons:
- Signs create psychological safety. Coworkers are able to know what is happening in and around a space and it allows them to express their intentions.
- Signs create permission signalling for others. This ensures that others are aware of what coworkers are signalling without them having to say a word.
“A simple sign that says ‘quiet zone’ or ‘library’ on it can be a valuable asset in a quiet area.” David explains that it allows people to implicitly understand the intention of the space. It gives a soft tool to allow someone to feel empowered to ask for quiet or simply point to the sign when other coworkers are ignoring the purposefulness of the area. This gives neurodivergent people the opportunity to control their area without having to be in an uncomfortable situation.
When events are being arranged, issuing clear instructions helps neurodivergent people. This can be in the form of digital communications, but also signage on the days. It allows them to know beforehand what to expect, but also guides without having to speak to others. David explains that it is ideal for the signs to be clear, in an easy to read font, black text on pastel unpatterned background, left justified when there’s a body of text (makes it easier for someone with dyslexia to find the start of the next line), and with no decoration to distract from the important information.
“This might not be something that comes to mind immediately,” says David, “but communication around food is very important for the neurodivergent.”
“If you’re going to provide food for people, be aware that there are aversions and allergies in particular neurodivergent populations. The best way to approach this is to provide advance notice of the food—not just the types of meals that will be served, but that people are allowed to bring their own should they not want to consume the available food,” says David.
It is necessarily not about the food that will be served, but rather that clear communication is provided around it. This helps neurodivergent people to plan ahead and prepare anything they should need – it also allows someone to feel comfortable that their needs are understood and also that by bringing their own if necessary, they will not be ‘othered’ (aka shamed) due to their veering from the program.
“Be mindful,” says David. “Certain Neurodivergent conditions align closely with intolerance for things like dairy and gluten, so approach food provision more mindfully”.
How to know if you have you been successful
“The best way to know if you have been successful in your efforts to provide a more welcoming space for the neurodivergent is simple,” says David.
Think about different ways to ask, and remember that some people will love to chat, while others will want to provide feedback anonymously, explains David. Some people even prefer to do so digitally. Make use of all your different channels.
“That’s why community managers are so important. They get to know people, and there’ll be people you’ll be able to have intimate one to one conversations with, and then there’ll be the more general canvassing the population,” says David.
Ask things like:
- What accommodations can we make for you?
- How can we support you better?
- How can we do more?
David explains that these types of questions tend to show a coworking space where their weaknesses lie, but can also indicate the strengths of a place. “Often you find that people say they like a certain element and would like to see more thereof.”
A telltale way to see if your space is moving in the right direction, is by seeing fewer recommendations.
“But,” says David, “you have to ask with a willingness and an open heart, without sensitivity, because if you don’t get that feedback, you can’t improve.”
Running a space comes with many challenges, but that means that we need to work harder to ensure that our coworkers aren’t affected by these challenges. Having a space that caters to the neurodiverse population can be beneficial to the whole coworking community. “Being mindful of your neurodivergent coworkers can bring many new elements to a coworking space that will benefit everyone else too,” concludes David.