Designing Neuro-Inclusive Workplaces: With Kay Sargent [Podcast]Share via
We have a moral and ethical obligation to create spaces that are empowering for individuals and inclusive for all. – Kay Sargent
One in eight people is considered neurodiverse. So today’s workspace needs to reflect the diverse makeup of organizations to set everyone up for success. Kay Sargent is leading the way. In this episode of OnCompassion with Dr. Nate, you will learn all about the rapidly expanding field of neuro-inclusive design from the award-winning global director of Workplace Team at HOK, and a member of the GSA Diversity Task Force.
What’s In This Episode
- What is neurodiversity, and why should employers be paying attention?
- What are the challenges faced by neurodiverse individuals in the workplace?
- The impact of Covid and work from home on neurodiverse individuals.
- Three most important principles of inclusive design.
- Three legs of a successful neurodiversity inclusion program.
- How businesses benefit from neurodiverse-friendly workspaces.
- Five most important elements for designing a neurodiverse-friendly workplace.
Designing Neuro-Inclusive Workplaces Highlights
Listen To The Audio
Read The Transcript
people, spaces, environment, design, workplace, individuals, impact, designer, engage, level, thrive, put, compassion, options, ADHD, feel, function, choices, work, office
Nate Regier: Are you a leader who cares deeply about a positive and trusting work culture but also wants to keep a laser focus on performance? Do you ever feel pulled between the two? Good news, you don’t have to choose. My podcast is dedicated to the belief that compassion and accountability are meant to work together. Never before in our history has the need for Compassionate Accountability® been greater. Everything from our personal wellbeing to our collective survival depends on it. So I share wisdom stories and best practices from experts who are in the trenches, making Compassionate Accountability a reality. I’m Nate Regier, our host for uncompassionate with Dr. Nate. I’m also the founder and CEO of Next Element Consulting and author of four books about compassionate work, including my new book, Compassionate Accountability: How Leaders Build Connection and Get Results. I’m a husband, Dad competitive barbecue or woodworker and avid outdoors person. Thank you for joining me, and I hope you’ll implement the tips and tools in this show. If you benefit from my podcast, please subscribe, rate and review to help us reach more listeners. Also, be sure to visit my website at next-element.com and go to the podcast page to access the notes and links for each show.
We’re living in a time of increased neurodiversity and awareness around conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and other neurological conditions. In fact, one in eight people are considered neurodiverse, but fewer than half of them know it. Neurodivergents tend to be high energy out of the box thinkers, they excel in crisis and are bold problem solvers, but navigating the modern workplace can be a challenge for them. So not only designing space to be inclusive for neurodivergence is the right thing to do, there’s a compelling business case for it as well. Space today needs to reflect the diverse makeup of organizations to set everyone up for success. Now that’s compassion and action. My guest today is making an impact for neurodiverse individuals in the workplace. She has nearly 40 years of experience and is an award winning recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues. She believes that we have a moral and ethical obligation to use our skills to make a meaningful and positive impact. And she’s doing just that case, Arjun is global co-director of the workplace team and sits on the board of directors for HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm employing 1600 people who collaborate across a network of 26 offices on three continents. Wow. In 2020, the American Society of Interior Designers named Kay their designer of distinction. And in 2021, she was selected from her field of peers to provide congressional subject matter expertise and testimony to the US House of Representatives. Kay also serves on the GSA diversity task force and is an advisor for the HOK Diversity Advisory Council. Kay is the mother of five and says that her greatest gift is curiosity. I can’t wait to learn more. Kay, welcome to On Compassion.
Kay Sargent: Hello, how are you today?
Nate Regier: Great. It’s so great to be here with you. I know you’re super busy. I hear this is like one day at home for you. So thank you so much for giving us your time.
Kay Sargent: Happy to. Happy to
Nate Regier: Well tell us a little bit about you and your professional interests around this whole concept of neurodiverse friendly design.
Kay Sargent: Yeah, you know, I think for us, it really started probably about eight years ago, when a client asked us a question. And at the end of the meeting, he kind of said, how do we design space for someone that has ADHD? Now, as a mother of five, and having designed lots of spaces for higher ed and educational sector, I had a little bit of an answer for that question, but it wasn’t a great answer. And so we started to do a little bit of research and digging into that so that we could address that. And what we found is that there wasn’t really a lot of information about how to design the built environment, really to accommodate people that had different sensory profiles. There was a lot of stuff in the HR realm about how to onboard individuals, etc., but really not a lot related to space. And as a designer, I believe very, very strongly that every decision that we make – light, color, texture, materiality – has an impact on those individuals. And so it’s important that we understand what that impact actually is and how it’s impacting the individuals in the space.
Nate Regier: Wow. Wow. So so a designer, interior designer, designer by profession experience by getting interested in neurodiversity, maybe we should define neurodiversity. Will you give us the definition that you use and why, maybe again reinforce why should employers be paying attention to this?
Kay Sargent: So, technically, technically, we’re all neurodiverse. Everybody thinks and processes stuff differently. But typically, in the traditional definition of neurodiversity, it’s people that either have ADHD or Tourette’s or dyslexic, or are on the autism spectrum, they have some challenges, or they they think differently, and they process information differently. And hence, they also process sensory stimulation differently also. So if you think about the fact that people that are neurotypical, just meaning that they fall within a predictable range of how they respond to stimulation, they still are impacted by that stimulation, whether it’s sound or visual stimulation, but not to maybe a greater extent. People that are neurodiverse tend to have a more extreme reaction and they tend to fall into the two buckets, one either being hypersensitive, meaning they get overwhelmed very easily by stimulation, or hyposensitivity, meaning they actually need more they need to move they need to connect, they need more, they need to physically engage and need more sound. And to make it even more complex, you have individuals that can be hyposensitive to something and hypersensitive to something else.
Nate Regier: Wow. So this can’t be an easy task. And what are some of the challenges that neurodiverse individuals face? Yeah, what are some of these challenges in a typical workplace that we might not even realize?
Kay Sargent: I think quite frankly they’re very similar to what we all face, it’s just to a greater extent that it’s impacting them. So they might have a greater sensitivity to sound, and not be able to handle or cope. They might be easily distracted by visual stimulation, or lighting can be kind of even become more intensified for them and can really impact them like flickering lights, etc. They can be overwhelmed very easily by different patterns or shapes. Often, they might be looking down to navigate and so if the flooring pattern or the materiality is confusing, or can be confused with something else – so for instance, a stripe might come off as a step, or a slick material might come off as being wet. So they see things in a heightened sense, that heightened sensitivity, and that can impact the way that they’re engaging. But here’s the interesting thing is that since COVID, everybody has a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings. Maybe not to that same level, but you know, I think we all have more sensitivity around how close we are to other people and what it is that we’re touching and what that sound is or what that smell is or any of those things. And so I think right now we really look at this as sensory processing. And that’s impacting every single person on the planet to a different level, which is what makes it so complicated, because what works for you may not necessarily work for me.
Nate Regier: Wow. So how do we address that when many, many people are all coming to work in the same place? What are some things you are doing with your clients?
Kay Sargent: So the very first thing, and I think one of the most important things, is to think about options, choices and control. We don’t all wear the same thing, right? And we all have different sensitivities or different preferences. Well, the same thing in the workplace. But I think for a long time, a lot of workplaces have been designed for the average person doing the average task, and I don’t think we can define who or what that is anymore. And we don’t necessarily think about those extremes. So when we create environments that provide new options and choices in different settings, and people can have a choice about where it is that they work, or how much how much they want to engage with other people or the level of stimulation that they have, then we can typically create environments that can fit a greater percentage of the population.
Nate Regier: So I was really struck by and I’d love to hear again. You mentioned three things, options, choice, and control. Wow. So it really is true that one size does not fit all. And if we try to make it that way, we take away options, choice and control.
Kay Sargent: We’re assuming that everybody is exactly the same and they all want the same thing. And I think we all know that that’s not necessarily the case. And so and the other thing I think it’s interesting is like you don’t have to be neurodiverse to be having a good day, or a bad day to be an introvert or an extrovert, to have a task that requires focus, and one that requires lots of interaction and engagement. So I think what’s interesting is when we have done all this research, and when we have created environments, we all look at this and kind of say, well, I’d rather work in that kind of space, I may not necessarily be neurodiverse, but I think it is beneficial for everyone. And a colleague of mine once said, when you design for the extreme, you benefit the mean, meaning we will all be better off when we have those options and choices. Because we’re not all the same every single day.
Nate Regier: When you design for the extremes, you benefit the mean. Wow. Because the opposite is . . . I’ve heard the opposite. When you design for the average, you benefit no one. No one is average. Right? Everyone is unique.
Kay Sargent: That’s true. And I defy anybody to tell me who is the average person today. I mean, honestly, maybe 40 or 50 years ago, you could say who was the typical office worker. And what was the typical thing they were doing? And you could probably get pretty close to that. But today, we are such a diverse population and a diverse culture, and we’re doing so many different types of activities and different types of tasks. You can’t do that anymore.
Nate Regier: Yeah. Okay. So there, there are two, two trails I want to take with you. One of them has to do with. So is there a business benefit to this? And the other one has to do with let’s get explicit, let’s get specific. So let’s start with this first one. I want to get specific for what can leaders do? What can organizational leaders start doing? But before that, as I’m hearing you talk about choice, options and control, I’m thinking, well, isn’t that what this generation younger generation says they want, to be engaged? They want more flexibility, they want more options, they want to feel like their preferences matter. So when it comes to what you’re doing with neurodiversity, does this really make a difference to business?
Kay Sargent: So two things. Number one, I don’t just think it’s the younger generation, I think it’s everybody. We just sucked it up and dealt with it, because we didn’t really think you had a choice. Okay, so thank you to them for asking for it. Which is probably we all wanted. And yes, it has a huge impact on business. So 80% of a company’s money goes to their people, 10% goes to the real estate, about 10% goes to IT. If we do anything in the built environment, that negatively impacts peoples’ ability to function at a higher level, we can cost that company a ton of money. So if I assigned somebody a desk, which is what happens in most spaces, and I just arbitrarily assign them a desk, which again, almost everybody does, here’s your desk. Welcome. Sit here. No question about what kind of person you are, what preferences you are, you have any sensory issues, privacy issues, none of that. If I sit somebody who is hypersensitive, and feels vulnerable, on a busy intersection with their back to people, so they feel exposed, with people walking by, and they’re visually distracted, and lots of noise, because they’re on that main corridor, I literally have short circuited that person’s ability to be effective, and made it so that the second they sit down, their ability to function at a high level is significantly diminished. And it will have a negative impact on their mental and physical health as well. If I allow that person to choose from a variety of settings, what feels and works best for them, then all of a sudden their ability to function and to be productive, significantly increases. And I don’t know a single business that doesn’t benefit from people being happier, healthier, more engaged, more empowered, and be more productive.
Nate Regier: Play to their strengths, help them thrive according to how they function. While you were giving that example, I actually can remember a specific situation with a coaching client of mine, that whose boss put her in the intersection where all the people were, because she’s supposed to be the face of the organization and she lasted about two months. She was overwhelmed. Her preference would be to go by herself, and she could come out when she had energy to interact with the public but couldn’t just deal with that constantly.
Kay Sargent: And let’s take it to the other extreme. Let’s take charismatic leaders who are extroverts and stuck in a private office in the corner someplace. I mean,I I was given an office once and I think I sat in it twice. I never sat in it because it just wasn’t who . . . you know, if you’re a leader you’re supposed to be with your people, people are going into the office to have exposure to individuals, to be seen to be together, and then we take some of those most charismatic people, the people that you’re going in to see, and we locked them away in little boxes. If we’re going to design little boxes, you wake up in one every morning, just stay there, right? So I think we need to really start breaking down the norms that we’ve had for years and years and years and realize that that really isn’t well suited for who we are as individuals and or the business that we have today. And COVID has really made everyone rethink what is the purpose of place. And I’ll tell you just one other thing, I think that’s really critical. Right now, there’s lots of discussion about how COVID and being able to work remotely, has been highly successful for some people who are either neurodiverse or disabled, or have a challenge in having to go to an office every day. And that is true. There are some people that get overwhelmed very easily, etc. But being on Zoom calls can be really debilitating for people that have a difficulty with eye contact and having all those people staring at you. And just because you’re neurodiverse or disabled doesn’t mean you’re antisocial. And it doesn’t mean that you’re going to thrive being in isolation. In fact, if you’re someone who has ADHD, and you feed off of the energy of other people, and you need direction, and you need reinforcement, and you tend to be a procrastinator, working from home could have been the kiss of death for you. That could have been really difficult. So I think one of the most important things is to understand that we’re all different. And there’s a great saying that says, if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. We have to stop assuming that everybody is just like us and just because we can do something or I can do something does not mean that that’s what’s preferred for everyone else. And so we need to understand that it’s complex, that we need those options and choices. And we need to empower individuals, to be able to find the spaces where they will thrive in the best environments,
Nate Regier: I see a lot of things coming together here. My passion, as you know, is Compassionate Accountability, where attention to people meets the focus on results. And this is really an inclusion challenge is how do we accommodate and help people be in spaces where they can do their best, and also realize that we have a job to get done. And what I’m hearing you say is they’re the same thing, because when we actually show compassion, to show empathy, appreciate what it’s like to be you what you need, how you function best, you can meet the goals, you can perform better, and we actually can get higher levels of accountability when we show the compassion at the same time. Am I getting that right?
Kay Sargent: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s I think it’s important for us to understand that the built environment has a significant impact on individuals. And we look at this as kind of a three legged stool. You have to put in place HR policies and practices, and onboarding, and training managers, all of those things to make it be successful. But if you then move people into space that isn’t well suited for them, they’re going to struggle, and they’re not going to be successful. And so you have to address the space. And then the third element of that is, even if you do the HR and the space aspects really, really well, we’re all unique and different. And you still need to account for some level of personal adjustments or changes or adaptations, so that you really can get a tailored environment that it’s supposed to be. And it doesn’t have to be really expensive and it doesn’t have to be really elaborate. It can be simple things like allowing somebody to be able to listen to headphones, or to be able to record a meeting so they can go back and listen to it. I think when we understand different people process information differently, and sensory stimulation differently, then we can start opening up the possibilities to make it so that everybody can function at a higher level.
Nate Regier: You know, your work seems to transcend what we typically think of as the distinction between like soft people skills and hard technical skills. You’re a designer that you’re working with inanimate hard, your stuff, you know, but it seems like what we’re talking about really is about both. It’s not just making these technical decisions, but also the interactions between the people every day, those interpersonal interactions that really help it come alive. Do you see it that way?
Kay Sargent: Yeah. And I think the social dynamics of all of this are really important, but here’s the thing I think. In the built environment they always say, you know, location, location, location, flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. But the flaw here is that we have tried to make the environments flexible, and the furniture flexible, but the most flexible thing in any environment is the people. Yeah, we’ve designed spaces if they’re potted plants may never move, and everything’s supposed to morph around them. And that’s the most expensive, unrealistic, difficult way to do it. We need to create a variety of environments and empower people to choose which ones are best and have the flexibility to get up and move to those spaces. Not only that, nobody is meant to sit stagnantly for eight hours a day. And I think we’ve all learned during during this COVID period, that sitting stagnantly in one place, being stuck on a computer all day, is probably one of the things that is just sucking the life out of most of us. And so creating environments that are engaging, but allow you to choose that level of engagement, is absolutely critical, not only to accommodate individuals that are neurodiverse, but just for our mental health in our physical well-being.
Nate Regier: Hearing you speak, I’m missing, I’m feeling nostalgic for our old office that we closed down during COVID. We had this incredible space. It was the second floor of an old train station, and we had about 3000 or 2500 square feet. But it was all these different kinds of spaces. Like there was kind of a meeting room with whiteboards, there was a room with couches, there was a place with a leather couch and a palm tree that had Christmas lights on it. And it was so interesting in the course of a day between the five of us. You know, it’d be quiet for a while and then somebody be on the couch working and then all sudden two of us would be like jamming around some idea on the whiteboard. And then we’d all call a meeting so we could talk about what we did. And it was it was those options. And I think it really helped these neurodiverse people succeed. So when I’ve talked to you before, we’ve had a couple conversations, and you shared some really cool examples of some stuff you’re doing. I don’t know if you can name actual clients, but could you talk a little about maybe some of the cool stuff you’re doing where you get to design these spaces?
Kay Sargent: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting that this really started in our workplace practice. And we started working with clients and helping them really think about how they’re designing their immediate offices and to get out of this kind of rows and rows of everything being the same, to giving people those options and choices. And then different levels and different settings and introducing, you know, color and the impact that that might have and biophilia and the variety of ways that we can do that. But it’s really now branching out more to other sectors as well. We’re working with sports arenas, and we’re working with airports to create not only a path of, you know, from when you arrive at that airport, all the way through, but then sensory, multi- sensory rooms where individuals can kind of either decompress, or maybe engage a little bit more to meet that specific need. And we’re really starting to explore things in the virtual realm as well, about how do we address a variety of needs in the virtual realm. So lots of different things that we’re doing right now that I think are really exciting. We’re talking about in education, and we’re talking about in healthcare, and all different environments, and how we accommodate people. And I think maybe one of the best examples is if you think of an elementary school, all those kids that are just kind of bouncing off the wall, right? And just, you know, you think about the experience of being in those rooms. And it’s just this explosion of overstimulation and then we wonder why those kids are bouncing off the wall, right? Or we’re designing environments, even in the office, that are met and say we take a phone room. And so a lot of designers want to make those fun, colorful, great spaces. And so they’re putting, you know, spaces for people that can’t handle the simulation to go, but then they’re painting in bright colors, or they’re putting great patterns in there. And so you’re locking someone in a room with the very thing that is probably over-stimulating them and short circuiting that. Or, you know, on the opposite end of that you’ve got people who need to focus and concentrate but don’t like to be confined in a box. They find that overwhelming and so they need to physically engage. You think about kinetic learners who have to process things and engage. And so we need to be able to create spaces that allow them to do that as well. So it’s really amazing, I think, for us as designers who really truly believe every decision we make, color, shape, mass and materiality has an impact. And to understand that and I guess I’ll say the one thing that really drove this home for us as we were talking to an autistic student who said, “We’re freshwater fish. If you put us in fresh water, we’ll function just fine. But if you put us in salt water, we’ll struggle to survive.” And I think for a lot of environments, we are putting freshwater fish in salt water. We’re creating spaces that just don’t meet the needs of the individuals. And so they are out of their element, and literally struggling constantly just to survive in those spaces.
Nate Regier: Wow, what a powerful message. And your impact is across so many different industries. Wow, you talked about airports, schools, and, you know, it’s not like we have to do all we have to spend all kinds of fancy money. It’s some of the simplest decisions we make it sounds like can be made mindfully and made intentionally. You mentioned somewhere that there’s like over 450 things people can do. Okay, I’m overwhelmed by that. So let’s, yeah, let’s bring this to a close. And if you if you were talking to a leader who has some level of influence over the built environment in some way, what would be some basic things you would invite them to think about will be some advice.
Kay Sargent: The very first one, if I, you know, and you’re right, the list is extensive. And so we typically pare it down to like, you know, here are the top 10 things that you could do. And I’ll just give you some of those examples. Number one is give people options and choices. Allow them to choose where it is that they sit so that they have a higher percentage of finding the space that actually is well climatized to their specific needs. Making sure that we’re creating spaces that encourage a variety of acoustic levels, everything from quieter spaces for people who can’t handle noise, to maybe more engaging spaces for people who feed off that energy and actually need that energy and maybe need that sound. If you think about when you go into a restaurant, and there’s only one other couple in there. That’s a really creepy acoustical experience, because you can clearly hear everything they’re saying and vice versa. That’s not comfortable. So it’s not just about quiet. It’s about creating different lighting levels. Some people can’t handle flickering lights, other people can handle like, you know, if it’s a strobing light, or a bright light, so it’s having softer, diffused areas, or areas, even for dark rooms, because a lot of people are getting migraines, from being in those spaces. And then different areas where people can physically engage in the space, right? So whether it’s a game room where I can physically get that energy out, or walking meetings or outdoor space, and then anything that we can do to introduce elements of biophilia, natural elements, diffuse lighting, all of those things just have a more calming effect and make us feel like we’re in a more natural, comfortable environment. I mean, nowhere in nature is a rectangular white box with tube lights. But yet, that’s what we put people in, right, and that’s where they spend 90% of their time. And so we need to think about how do we introduce and create environments that are more human centric?
Nate Regier: Yeah. So Kay, you, I understand that you kind of got into this because of your passion. You started doing research, your company started really paying attention. But you’ve said that this thing is gaining momentum, things are like really taking off?
Kay Sargent: Yeah, I mean, I think several things have come together at once. I think there’s a heightened awareness. I think we have a generation that is very well aware of their conditions and what their needs are. And they have been strong advocates for that. You know, I think the majority of adults that are that are ADHD don’t even know that they are because it just never really went diagnosed. And women tend to be grossly under diagnosed as well. And this is not something that you age out of. It follows you yet. There’s very little research about how this is really impacting people in the work world. And so in London and in Europe there’s an explosion right now of interest in this topic. Next week happens to be neurodiversity week, so we’re very excited about that in the middle of March and lots of activities around that. And we’re working with like the International Well Building Institute to weave in some of these recommendations. Not all 450 of them, but several of them into the health standard and guidelines. And really just start thinking about how do we intentionally create spaces that are human centered where everyone, neurotypical and neurodiverse, because we are all dealing with an answer assault of sensory stimulation coming at us. How do we create environments where we can all thrive?
Nate Regier: Wonderful. One of the three switches of The Compassion Mindset® that we teach is the switch of value. And it says that because every human is valuable, everyone deserves the opportunity to be invited, included, affirmed, and involved. Thank you for what you’re doing. And you have so many amazing resources on your website. So many credible articles you’ve published. Where should somebody go if they want to learn more?
Kay Sargent: HOK.com, you can just look up neurodiversity. And there’s tons of information there. In April of this year, we’re going to be launching a whole new HOK Forward, which is kind of our research leg and how we published information that also is going to talk about all those different sectors. So we’re going to talk about how you create justice environments, and arenas and, and healthcare and aviation and technology and transportation facilities. So we’re going to be putting out a ton of information. And we’re going to keep doing it because we think this is a really, really important topic. And you said it in the beginning. You know, if we as designers believe that the spaces that we have or we design can have a positive impact on the occupants, then we also have to acknowledge that if we don’t do them well, they can have a negative impact. And that’s not really an option for us. And so we believe we have a moral and ethical obligation to really create spaces that are empowering for individuals and inclusive for all.
Nate Regier: Wow, we’ll put those links in the show notes so you can go learn more about what HOK is doing, what Kay is doing. Kay, thank you so much for what you’re doing in the world for your advocacy and belief that everyone deserves to be included. Thank you so much for being here.
Kay Sargent: Thank you for having me.
Nate Regier: Here are my top three takeaways from an enlightening conversation with Kay Sargent about compassionate design for neurodiversity.
First, options, choices and control. These are the three principles of a neurodiverse- friendly workplace. People need options for where and how they work. They need choices to select the environment that works best for them. And they need control over certain aspects of their environment that help them thrive. I made the observation that this seems a lot like what the younger generations are wanting. And Kay’s response was that, hey, we all need it. The older generations just sucked it up and dealt with it. So thank you younger generation for asking for it.
Second, when you design for the extremes, you benefit the mean. We all benefit from the options and choices made available by designing for people at either end of the spectrum. Everyone has preferences, everyone has good days and bad days and needs different things. So the more choices, options and control we have, the better for all.
And finally, stop putting freshwater fish in salt water. An autistic student shared this with Kay. She said I’m a freshwater fish. If you let me swim in fresh water I can do great. But if you put me in salt water, I will struggle. The built environment has such a huge impact on how people function that we have to pay attention to this and build in the opportunities for people to swim in the water that helps them function at their best.
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