What workplace model best suits neurodiverse employees?

As companies begin to move forward from the pandemic, the question at the top of everyone's mind is what its lasting legacy will be for office workers

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While many companies have chosen to either extend remote working policies or introduce a more flexible approach, others have demanded that their employees return to the office on a full-time basis. As businesses try to ensure high levels of worker retention and productivity, they are additionally facing mass resignations, talent shortages, and now quiet quitting, so they are finding that they must carefully consider and adapt their working models in order to survive. 

Now more than ever it’s important that companies think critically about who their policies benefit, and who they might disadvantage. Many corporations market themselves as champions of inclusivity, but if they fail to implement the necessary internal processes to support their diverse workforce, their commitments will appear self-serving and misguided. By claiming inclusivity without the substance to back it up, corporations are isolating an entire subsection of society, thereby missing out on a huge segment of talent. 

It is estimated that 15-20 per cent of the population fit within the umbrella term neurodiverse – which includes dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, and ADHD, to name only a few. Neurodiversity is varied, and no two people experience it the same way, so there is no cookie-cutter approach that will benefit all neurodivergent employees. While some may find the routine of going into the office stabilising, others may find the bright lights and office chatter unsettling and distracting. 

A study by O2 discovered that 45 per cent of neurodiverse employees found it difficult to maintain focus during virtual meetings and experienced feelings of Zoom fatigue, while 34 per cent expressed that the lack of distractions at home improved their productivity. 

Employers must remain flexible and accommodating to the needs of their neurodiverse team members in order to benefit from this untapped and underappreciated talent pool. Through social stereotyping, neurodiversity sometimes has become conflated with misguided negative assumptions about limitations, productivity, and cultural fit. Yet, within a comfortable and accepting environment, neurodiversity has been shown to be an asset. 

In general, there has not been enough focus on the often remarkable creativity and problem solving skills that are strongly associated with neurodivergent cognition, including lateral thinking and reverse engineering to solve problems in novel ways. Neurodivergent employees will often perceive and analyse problems from unique angles and represent a crucial hedge against organisational risk due to groupthink. 

The pandemic was a devastating time for many, and has permanently altered the way we learn, work, and socialise, but for some people, including those who identify as neurodivergent, the pandemic also brought about an improvement in professional working conditions: The work-from-home option answered the calls of many neurodiverse employees who had been asking for these measures since the introduction of flexible working regulations by the UK Government in 2014. Even with this legislation, such requests were readily denied. However, as soon as the pandemic entered the picture and it suddenly suited the needs of neurotypical employees, work-from-home policies were swiftly brought in. 

This is not to say that working from home will ease all the difficulties that arise from being neurodiverse in the corporate world. But it can introduce greater flexibility and optionality, potentially alleviating some of the struggles faced by neurodivergent workers while, at the same time, helping to highlight some of their unique strengths. 

Currently there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the dilemma faced by companies trying to determine their best working environment plan. That said, if a specific role requires in-person attendance, it is crucial to ensure that HR managers and staff are expertly trained and understand the nuances of neurodiversity. In addition, employers must educate themselves on how to build neuro-inclusive workplaces. 

Unemployment across the neurodiversity community is disproportionately high at approximately 30-40 per cent. This disproportionality is not due to lack of capability, but rather due to an institutional lack of awareness, training, and support that leaves many neurodiverse individuals ostracised from the workforce. 

Only 22 per cent of autistic adults are employed, and some research suggests that unemployment and underemployment for autistic adults may be as high as 85 per cent. Meanwhile, 52 per cent of those with dyslexia have experienced discrimination in the interview process, and 60 per cent of those with ADHD felt they had lost a job due to their neurodiversity.

Inclusivity is about far more than reaching quotas and espousing vapid commitments to diversity. An authentic and meaningful commitment to diversity and inclusion necessitates the cultivation of workplace environments and policies that enable all employees to excel. For some, this may mean being in the office five days a week; for others, it could be only two days; and for some, it could involve working entirely remotely.

Remaining flexible and adaptable is vital to building a workplace that champions and celebrates diversity. As companies face the decision of how to move forward from the pandemic, it’s crucial to not forget the benefits remote working brought for neurodivergent workers.

Employers need to trust and empower their employees to work in the manner that best suits them with the expectation that increased flexibility will often translate into better performance and higher job satisfaction. Only then will employers be in the enviable position to attract and retain uniquely talented employees and reap the rewards and organisational advantages of neurodivergent talent.

Dr Maureen Dunne is a neurodiversity expert and CEO of Autism Community Ventures