The Open Office Layout (removing the barriers for the neurodiverse employee)

It is reasonable to note that neurodiverse employees experience a range of potential barriers in the work environment, with the difficulties appearing to relate to a lack of awareness amongst managers and colleagues.

What often seems unimposing and innocuous to the neurotypical employee can turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing to the neurodiverse employee. Let’s examine 6 potential barriers that we may find in a typical open plan office and look at some strategies we can use to help alleviate the problems. For this purpose we shall refer to neurodiverse as ND and neurotypical as NT.

Barrier 1: The office is brightly lit

A brightly lit office may be the preferable choice of many but can also be a barrier to ND employees who have a heightened sensitivity to light.

How can we remove this barrier?

In preference ND employees may find it easier to work in areas of subdued lighting. Look for suitable areas to position desk away from direct light or consider swapping with another colleague.

Barrier 2: desk is situated close to the office printer/photocopier or shredder

Many ND employees have difficulty filtering out background noise or external stimuli. This can have a negative impact on their ability to concentrate and focus on the task in hand.  Heavily used printers and shredders also attract people traffic. NT colleagues may be oblivious to the fact that they are distracting the ND person, thinking that they are being polite by saying hello when collecting their documents from the printer/photocopier.

How can we remove this barrier?

ND employees work better in an environment free from distractions. Consider relocating desk to a quieter area of the office or use partitions to help reduce noise levels and the degrees of distraction. Wearing noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs may also help minimise noise distraction. Is flexible working an option? Can the employee work from home when the office is busiest?

Barrier 3: distracted by staff and visitors entering the office

It’s not always obvious that the design or layout of an office will determine how many people will be distracted every time someone walks through the door. However this is something I experienced first hand when visiting an open plan office recently. As I entered the office accompanied by the manager, 6 people turned their chairs round to see who had entered the room. Given that there were 6 people working in the office means that we had distracted 100% of the workforce without uttering a word. As all workstations were set up facing the wall directly opposite the door, this meant that staff had their backs to the door at all times.

How can we remove this barrier?

As previously mentioned ND employees work better in an environment free from distractions. In relation to barrier 3, setting up workstations in a horseshoe style would allow staff to be aware of visitors as they enter the office. Furthermore, setting up a rota system where staff take it in turn to greet guests/visitors would allow the remaining 5 to continue working undisturbed.

Barrier 4: has difficulty using a mouse and/or keyboard

It is possible that ND employees will experience difficulties using a keyboard and/or a mouse. This often relates to problems with gross motor and fine motor movements.

How can we remove this barrier?

Ergonomics keyboards can be of great benefit to ND employees as can changing or slowing down the mouse. Keyboard shortcuts can also be used as an alternative to the mouse.

Access to work (AtW) gives advice and information to individuals and employers and may also fund specialist assistance and equipment. This can include:

  • Large keys keyboard
  • Ergonomic mice
  • Instructions on how to slow down the mouse or keyboard shortcuts
  • Voice activated software (Dragon NS is most popular)

Barrier 5: has difficulty operating office equipment e.g. photocopier, printer, fax machine

ND employees may find office equipment particularly challenging to operate. This again may be due to problems with gross or fine motor skills or they could have difficulty remembering sequences relating to the operational functionality.

How can we remove this barrier?

Keep clear instructions on how to operate photocopiers, fax machines, printers etc. Pinning instructions next to these machines can serve as a memory jogger for other people too. It may be helpful to use colour coding with adequate spacing as this can make it easier to follow.

Barrier 6: struggles to comprehend meaning from staff notices, bulletins etc.

This barrier is often identified with ND employees who have a hard time reading and responding to social cues.

How can we remove this barrier?

Staff notices or bulletins can often contain verbal nuances like figurative language. This can be hard for the ND employee to decode and extract meaning from. Keeping information visible, clear and to the point should help avoid confusion. Again, consider using colour coding and adequate spacing as this may also help to categorise and track information, making it instantly recognisable.