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What does a neurodiversity smart workplace look like?

This Neurodiversity Celebration Week we’re celebrating our own wonderfully neurodivergent Quadmarkers by sharing some of our experiences of the workplace, as well as some insights into how to cultivate a workplace that enables neurodiverse individuals to bring their full selves to work. 

Looking for quick tips? Check out our infographic for advice on how to nurture a neurodiversity smart workplace.

What is neurodiversity? 

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and those who experience overlapping or co-occurring differences. According to CIPD (the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent. The term was born out of disability rights activism and was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. It conveys the idea that the neurological differences that shape how people think and process information are natural variations to the human genome, which aren’t to be “fixed” but understood and accommodated. In relation to the workplace, neurological differences shouldn’t be thought of as deficits, but rather strengths that bring creativity and innovation to teams.

The history of neurodiversity in the workplace

Traditionally, neurodiversity in the workplace has been related to disability legislation. In the US and the UK respectively, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) 2009 and Equality Act 2010, created a legal obligation for employers to make reasonable adjustments to workplaces and access to education to accommodate disability. In recent years, there has been a shift from the deficit-focus of disability support to the strengths-focus within the neurodiversity movement. However, little research has been done on the adult experience of applied neurodiverse conditions, let alone the history of neurodiversity in the workplace. One study found that in an academic database search for "Dyslexia", over 11,000 studies had been conducted since 1995, however only 41 of these related to a workplace environment.  

Historically, neurodiversity inclusion has not been a major consideration for employers. However, companies cannot afford to overlook the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce. Embracing people with neurodiverse backgrounds will cultivate open communication, help teams work smoothly and improve overall productivity. Everyone has different abilities because we are all born and raised differently—celebrating those differences will benefit all your employees and give your business a competitive edge. 

Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage

As a strengths-based attitude towards neurodiversity becomes more widespread, the benefits of neurodiversity inclusion are even clearer. For companies, a neurodiverse workforce can bring novel ways of approaching and solving problems, increased productivity and innovation, greater talent retention, and an enriched work culture. Many people who are neurodivergent have higher-than-average abilities—for example in pattern recognition, visual-spatial thinking, memory, or mathematics. At Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), neurodiverse software testers saw that one client’s project always went into crisis mode before launch. They questioned the recurrent crisis situation, leading the client company to conclude that they had become too accepting of the chaos. With the help of the software testers, the company was able to redesign their project launch process.

Like the software developers at HPE, Fran, a Content Lead at Quadmark, has found her neurodiversity an asset when it comes to pattern recognition. “I find that I’m able to spot patterns (and therefore inconsistencies in those patterns!) and make connections that other people don’t. I’m also able to retain and recall information quite well, so if a colleague is looking for a specific piece of information, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to answer their query from memory or know exactly where to look for it.”

Felice, one of our Account Executives, also embraces the strengths of her neurodivergence at work, especially in situations many people would find stressful. “[The] flipside of my ADHD and Atypical Autism is a phenomenon called ‘hyperfocus’. In high-stakes situations, instead of experiencing stress, my mind becomes very calm, and laser-focused on the solution. Being very analytical and detail-oriented—partially rooted in having had to analyze and learn from scratch how to ‘fit in’ with a more neurotypical world—brought me a love for pattern spotting and helps me pick up on potential issues and help mitigate them before they become critical.” 

In my own life, I’ve noticed that my neurodivergence allows me to find real satisfaction in my work. I especially enjoy tasks that involve visual scanning and making fine visual distinctions, such as editing and quality checking. I love that I am able to use that skill nearly every day at work. 

What does a neurodiversity smart workplace look like? 

Adjusting workspaces and work processes to be inclusive to a range of thinking styles is easier than you might think. Here are some recommendations from neurodiverse Quadmarkers about creating workplaces that are neurodiversity smart.

“A neurodiversity smart workplace recruits with neurodiversity in mind.”

Write inclusive job descriptions when hiring. Potential candidates could be deterred from applying for a job they would be well placed for with generic requirements like “confident communicator” or “highly organized”. As Fran highlights, “If I see ‘Must be able to hit the ground running’ or similar wording in a job description, I will run a mile. I’m very competent but it takes me a while to adapt to changes. Once I’ve got something, I’ll run with it and give 150%. But until that point, I’ll need a bit more support than average. I might get frustrated because I feel like I should understand things at the same pace as others, even though I know that’s not realistic. I’m not a person you can throw in the deep end, and I suspect I might not be the only one!”

A major barrier for potential neurodivergent hires is the interview process. Consider giving candidates the interview questions 30 minutes beforehand, to alleviate the problem some new hires may experience of being very knowledgeable and able, but struggling to articulate answers to questions on the spot and being marked down as a result. 

You could also consider creating a neurodiversity hiring program. Microsoft was the first company to do this in 2015. Neurodivergent candidates sent in their resumes and were invited to a 4 day skills assessment on the Microsoft campus. Non-conventional interview settings allow individuals to demonstrate their talent. And if your company does not have the resources for a full-blown hiring program, neurodiversity workforce intermediaries are available to partner with to bring in neurodiversity workforce protocols. 

“A neurodiversity smart workplace prioritizes open communication.“

Creating bridges between different communication styles builds trust and deepens collaboration. For Fran these bridges started when she saw where the communication gaps were. “I came to recognize my neurodivergence comparatively late (at 29!) but once I understood where the barriers were, it made it so much easier to ask the people around me to rephrase or restructure things so that I could process them. But, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without there being a culture of open communication.” 

Open communication, where employees can share their thoughts and ideas without fear of repercussions builds a mutualistic workplace culture where everyone, no matter their communication style, can thrive. As Felice said, “a practical example of this could be creating a user manual for each member of your team, explaining their communication style and how they work best. Training your teams on neurodiversity increases understanding between employees and leads to better communication.”

“A neurodiversity smart workplace is flexible, and creates space for people to get support if they want it.” 

Your neurodiverse employees want to feel like they can be themselves at work. This could look like simply learning and embracing their communication style, or providing accommodations like flexible seating or quieter spaces in an office to help with sound sensitivity. For Fran, calls are not always helpful, as she explains “there are too many things vying for my attention and I’d rather have things written down. I appreciate calls do have their uses, but I’m not the best with facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. I use emojis to help people understand written tone, and I encourage others to do the same.”

Creating a more inclusive workplace might not mean making visible changes. Inclusion starts with understanding more about neurodiversity in the workplace and making it clear that you can provide support if it’s needed. As Tim, a member of our video team, said, “It’s about taking people as they are, and making sure there’s nothing in your company culture that would cause neurodiverse folk to isolate.” Every person is unique, so ask about their preferences, and work together on mutually agreed practices.

At Quadmark, our remote working policy means that every employee has the choice to decide where they work best. I really appreciate the flexibility of being able to work from home, as being around people all day can be quite overstimulating. At home, I can make sure that my working environment is at the optimum level of sensory input. However, I still appreciate having the option to go into the office and connect with my co-workers too.

“A neurodiversity smart workplace builds teams based on difference, not uniformity.” 

In sports like rugby, consideration is taken to include the fastest runner and the highest kicker, to blend unique and specific strengths. In the same way, a neurodiversity smart workplace builds on the unique strengths of all its employees, to create diverse teams that benefit the whole company. 

Felice points out that “anyone can improve the workplace for neurodiverse people. First of all, create allowances—understand that people have different struggles, and assume good intentions. Check in if something feels off, and genuinely listen to feedback from your neurodiverse pals. Not only are they doing their job, but they are likely also putting in a significant effort to put you at ease, communicate clearly, and not come across as too ‘odd’ (a process called masking) which is exhausting. Understanding this, and approaching interaction openly and with kindness is the first step to fostering understanding and allows everyone to enjoy the team spirit!”

The more neurodiverse your staff are, the bigger the pool of alternative views on problems and creative solutions your team will be able to work from. Research into Dyslexia in the workplace shows that Dyslexic employees’ heightened cognitive abilities in certain areas, such as visualization, logical reasoning and natural entrepreneurialism can bring a fresh, often intuitive perspective. It makes sense to have as many different kinds of brains working for your company as you can. When space is made to understand and embrace the different ways we think and process information, who knows what might be possible for your company.  

Download our infographic for tips on how to nurture a neurodiversity smart workplace. Check out CIPD’s neurodiversity at work guide for a deeper dive.

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