Five ways to embrace neurodiverse workers

Many employers are seeking to hire and retain the estimated 15 per cent of the UK working population classed as neurodivergent and whose “different wiring” may offer valuable new insights


Neurodiversity

1. Recruitment

Building neurodiversity in the workplace requires closer attention to job adverts that can unintentionally deter some candidates from even applying. Autistic job seekers, for example, whose notable analytical or reasoning skills are in high demand, tend to shy away from a need for “teamworking” abilities, while dyslexics may fear they lack “communication skills”.

By focusing on must-have qualities, rather than those that are nice to have, hirers will help widen the candidate pool to include neurodiverse talent, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Organisations such as Microsoft and Auticon are already using sample work trials and cognitive testing to tease out aptitude, while others are ditching intimidating assessment days in favour of practical portfolios of previous work.

For those recruiters who still demand lengthy interviews, telephone or video chats may be more effective than adversarial panels where unwillingness to make eye contact may be highlighted.

By making plain a commitment to diversity and inclusion in all recruitment branding, employers will begin to encourage more non-traditional job seekers to disclose a diagnosis before interview. In return, it is incumbent on organisations to deformalise the interview process, hold down the hirer numbers, allow for extra thinking time and focus more on ability than social skills.

2. Awareness

Buddying schemes, in-house autism training for all agency staff, together with quiet and creative work zones, have proved invaluable in integrating and developing a neurodivergent member of staff at marketing agency Red Brick Road, says executive creative director Matt Davis.

“Making sure people have an understanding of how autistic people may communicate differently has been vital,” he says, along with a buddying scheme, personalised coaching and tailored training.

Despite the superior cognitive and problem-solving skills of many neurodivergent people, their inability to do small talk or politics, or to push themselves forward in meetings, can leave them languishing in the junior ranks of an organisation, says the DMA, which recommends new career development strategies for employers looking to boost neurodiversity.

If a staff member appears unwilling or unsuited to line management, for example, it’s important to offer an alternative, perhaps advanced technical skills, and to ensure salaries are equal.

While confusing a neurodevelopmental condition such as autism with a mental ill-health disorder is endemic, neurodivergent people are statistically more likely to suffer mental ill-health episodes than their neurotypical colleagues. According to the CIPD, employers should consider establishing routine career breaks as well as regular home-working procedures.

3. Understanding

An important step in integrating neurodiversity into an inclusive culture is to listen and learn, says Steve Ingram, senior consultant at Arup. “As a neurodivergent individual myself, what has impressed me most is the business’s quest to not just acknowledge the condition, but to really understand it, enabling individuals to maximise their full potential and really add value to their work,” he says.

Whether it’s reducing the number and length of mandatory meetings or broadening a firm’s social calendar beyond loud office parties, the overwhelmingly neurotypical business world needs to adapt to stem the waste of neurodiverse talent.

“Organisations are in a soul-searching, compliance mood at this stage, but what we need is to work towards systemising inclusion on every level,” says Doyle at Genius Within.

While it may be all too easy to cluster all neurodiverse talent under one umbrella, “the assumption that every autistic person is brilliant at coding, for example, is simply another stereotype”, says Red Brick Road’s Davis. “In our case, having a neurodivergent employee has brought people together, lessened the office politics and increased our understanding and acceptance of each other, as well as our overall kindness. These have proved very big wins for all of us.”

4. Structure

A structured work environment with shared timetables, calendars and to-do lists are becoming routine for organisations looking to promote neurodiversity in the workplace, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) Autism Employer Guide. It advises managers to use visual reminders to help combat lack of personal organisation and recommends big projects are broken down into smaller chunks, with clear deadlines attached.

Multiple tasks with open-ended deadlines may be perplexing for people on the autistic spectrum, for example, and unless a clear priority list is agreed, may dilute their often heightened-concentration skills.

Clear, unambiguous wording in all staff communications is a must and given that many neurodivergent people are visual communicators, emails may be better than verbal instructions. As well as boasting above-average focus and attention to detail, people on the spectrum can be perfectionists who will resist taking breaks unless it is clearly suggested by a line manager.

Direct and constructive feedback on a one-to-one basis will be important in developing their talents further, as will recognising the need that most autistic people have for routine. By warning them in advance of any significant changes to their routine, a build-up of anxiety can
be averted.

5. Environment

Noise-cancelling headphones, fluid workspaces with dedicated quiet rooms and subdued office lighting can mitigate the impact of sensory overload on the neurodivergent people you doubtless already employ and, in the view of design and architecture consultancy HOK, may reduce anxiety among neurotypicals too.

Giving colleagues a choice of where they sit, together with providing work points in low-traffic areas are proven wins, as is opting for a design comprised of soothing light blues and greens in favour of overwhelming neon. While some autistic employees will prefer a quieter workspace with light-up telephones, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may welcome a games room where they can release excess energy in safety.

“As someone with ADHD, I get my best work done on train journeys while others prefer a still and quiet environment,” says Nancy Doyle, founder of the neurodiversity careers consultancy Genius Within. “Hot-desking is a nightmare for people who have sensory overwhelm and rely on routine.”

The same applies to those who find learning new layouts a stretch and need familiarity, not fear over where they are going to sit the next day. Doyle also believes the freedom to personalise lighting, acoustics and level of interaction with colleagues boosts happiness and productivity for all staff.