Concept by Matt Boyd (Exceptional Individuals) written and developed by Ross Othen-Reeves
Coworking spaces are well known for nurturing creativity, making them ideal places for neurodivergent people to work, given that research shows there are strong correlations between neurodiversity and creative thinking.
Little wonder then that neurodiverse people account for somewhere between 20% – 35% of all freelancers and solopreneurs. This is a sizeable jump up from the national average, which is estimated to be around 15 – 20% of the general population. As a case in point, I am writing from my own coworking space, in my role as a freelance writer. I also happen to have dyscalculia, which some liken to dyslexia with numbers. This is a useful (if somewhat imperfect) shorthand explanation of the condition. The point being – I’m bad with numbers, but very comfortable with words, which are for me the perfect creative outlet. Like all neurodivergence, the way my dyscalculia presents itself is unique to me. Meaning the support I need is also specific to me. A personalised approach is therefore key. Fortunately, with just a little attention and resourcing, coworking spaces can address the individual needs of their neurodiverse members, ensuring that they are able to thrive professionally. What is Neurodiversity? Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for the endless diverse ways that individuals learn, think and/or behave, and which are different to how most people process and respond to the same information or experience (known as ‘neurotypical’). Examples of neurodiversity include dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Neurodiversity is neither good nor bad. It simply refers to the wonderful variety of human experience. But because the world is largely designed for the majority of the population, which is neurotypical, neurodiverse people can find aspects of the world a challenge to navigate. Small changes to the usual way of doing things can therefore make a big difference to how neurodivergent people feel in the workplace, and how productive they are as a result. Workplace Adjustments for Neurodiversity The layout and design of coworking office spaces can be adapted to ensure that the particular needs of neurodiverse members are accommodated for. But it can be difficult for either coworking staff, or even neurodivergent people themselves, to know exactly what adjustments would be best for their particular circumstances.
To help with this, Workplace Needs Assessments can be carried out in the coworking space for its neurodivergent members. A qualified assessor will then recommend work-based alterations aimed at improving the experience for neurodivergent people and meeting their individual needs.
Reasonable adjustments therefore vary from person to person, but to give an idea, we’ve listed some possible options which might be considered below..
Silent working rooms can help people with ADHD to minimise distractions, and reduce anxiety for people with autism.
Corner desks can help people with Tourette’s Syndrome to feel more comfortable in shared spaces as this lessens the worry of distracting others
Screen dividers added to large communal tables can enable neurodivergent people to more easily concentrate while continuing to work in social settings
Private rooms prioritised for neurodiverse people help autistic people to manage sensory-overstimulation
Specially-allocated desks can allow people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to work in what could otherwise be high-stress environments, as they guarantee workplace routines are maintained.
Softening lighting can support neurodiverse people to manage anxiety, alleviate sensory stresses, and reduce the likelihood of migraines
Office equipment can also be considered for adjustments;
Table clocks with alarms can ensure people with dyscalculia are better able to keep track of time
Highlighting key sentences in posters such as fire-escape plans are more quickly digestible for people with dyslexia
Items such as printers can be purchased with accessibility functions in mind, such as voice commands, which makes them easier to use for people with dyspraxia, for instance.
Education Increasing coworking staff and members’ awareness of neurodiversity is key for building empathy and ensuring neurodiverse people feel respected and understood. This in turn creates an inclusive place to work. Fortunately, there are plenty of simple actions that coworking spaces can take to broaden people’s knowledge. Staff Training Training is key to normalising neurodiversity in the workplace, reducing assumptions and addressing stereotypes. Staff training should be provided by neurodiversity experts, and arguably the best experts are those who identify as neurodivergent themselves. Many organisations actively hire neurodiverse individuals for this reason. For example, over 80% of Exceptional Individuals staff cohort is neurodiverse, and 100% of their facilitators identify as such. Neurodiverse Community Hubs Community hubs are semi-formal associations created within the workplace, centred around the particular interest or characteristic of a given group, such as women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, or neurodiversity. They are great places for members of that community to come together, share experiences, and offer support to one another. They also provide a space to discuss fresh ideas for the workspace, and to organise programmes of activities for, in our case, neurotypical staff and members to learn more about neurodiversity. Events Coworking community events are highly effective ways to inform and educate members on neurodiversity. These can include panel discussions where people share their stories and highlight the benefits and challenges of their specific neurodivergence. Q&A sessions also offer neurotypical people an opportunity to ask questions and dispel any misconceptions they may have. Like all coworking activities, these events should be designed with the neurodiverse community in mind. For instance:
Providing clear communications on how guests will be expected to engage with event sessions (audience participation, breakout rooms, etc)
Reserving seating for those preferring to sit in specific seats
Requesting presenters and attendees avoid wearing strong perfumes scents
Events such as Great Minds Think Different, supported by Exceptional Individuals, find creative ways to showcase the achievements of neurodivergent people through various means. These include film, performance, and seminar discussions, changing the perception of neurodiversity in the process. Communication Communication is arguably the most important thing for coworking spaces to consider when making adjustments for its neurodiverse members, as it underpins pretty much everything else we’ve discussed so far. Below we look at some of the key stages in the coworking life cycle where communication should be considered. Website Design Most prospective members are likely to look at the coworking website before signing up. This should therefore be accessible to neurodiverse people. Using clear language and a simple font, adding subtitles to film clips, and ensuring that videos and music do not autoplay, can all help neurodiverse people to stay focused and process information more readily. Welcome Tour The Welcome Tour is an excellent opportunity for staff to ask new members if they have any special requirements, and to talk through any adjustments they may need. Using literal language, and avoiding sarcasm or colloquialisms can also help autistic people to more easily digest the information being shared by staff. Community Activities As we’ve previously mentioned, coworking spaces often host activities for their members. To help neurodivergent people keep up-to-date with upcoming events, it can be useful to share information verbally as well as in written communications. Invoicing Invoices can easily be designed with accessibility in mind. Using straightforward language in a clear font, and presenting costs in a simple format can help people with dyslexia and dyscalculia to digest the information without difficulty. Advocacy The world can be an exhausting place to navigate for neurodiverse people at times, and this can include finding the confidence to regularly ask for support or adaptations in the workplace. Coworking spaces can alleviate this issue by offering staff or other members the chance to step up as neurodiversity advocates. Advocacy can take many forms, from raising awareness of neurodiversity through talks, training, and blogs (like this one!), to mentorships, through to one-to-one support – working together to find solutions to workplace challenges. What To Do If You Think You’re Neurodiverse For most of us who identify as neurodiverse, the journey of discovery began with an inkling. Perhaps you recognise the traits of a certain neurodiverse in yourself, or friends and family have suggested you display particular neurodiverse characteristics. If you feel you might want to explore these questions further, there are several ways you can do so:
Neurodivergent Characteristic Tests are one of the fastest and simplest ways to find out if you have neurodivergent traits. Exceptional Individuals offer free online tests for all forms of neurodiversity, including autism tests, while also offering follow-up support and guidance afterwards.
Online Research offers an easy starting point to research neurodivergence, and learn more about what organisations might be able to provide further information
Neurodiverse Community Hubs, which we discussed earlier, are also ideal places to seek advice and support if your coworking space already has one up and running
Conclusion There is no legal or professional obligation on people to disclose neurodiversity in the workplace, and there are a whole host of reasons why a person may not wish to share this information with coworking staff or peers, from disclosure-fatigue through to a fear of discrimination.
Happily, there are many ways that coworking spaces can take the onus off of neurodivergent people themselves, and instead create workplaces which are set up to make reasonable office adjustments, and which welcome these suggestions from its members. Implementing simple initiatives such as staff training, speaker events, and website audits, can also all go a long way to creating inclusive environments in which neurodiverse people feel respected and able to thrive while at work.