Every workforce is neurodiverse; in fact, about 1 in 5 people in your workplace live with Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. This means they might have different communication forms, strengths and characteristics to everyone else. However, it is increasingly accepted that having a neurodiverse workforce provides increased capacity for innovation, productivity and overall employee wellbeing.
How can your organisation capitalise on the benefits of remote neurodiverse employees? To find out, DY/DX has partnered with Dr Amanda Kirby, CEO of Do-IT Solutions; a tech-for-good company, who have developed tools and apps to support neurodiverse children and adults. Recently retired as a professor at the University of South Wales, Dr Amanda Kirby has lectured to more than 100,000 individuals worldwide, written over 100 research papers and 9 books which have been translated into more than 5 languages.
What does working remotely mean for a neurodiverse individual?
Working remotely for neurodiverse individuals can be advantageous because it often provides the opportunity for the neurodiverse employee to choose the best environment for them to work in. For some neurodiverse people, this might mean working with music in the background, while for others it might mean having sound off and headphones on. It may be that in a virtual meeting one can walk around, or use text-to-speech tools and technology if needed. It allows the neurodiverse employee to have the environment that is best conducive for them to work optimally.
What are the characteristics of a supportive neurodiverse work environment?
A supportive neurodiverse environment is one that is inclusive – the hiring, onboarding and line management is done in an inclusive manner and one which optimises the performance of the whole team. It means that the workplace is also accessible; that neurodiversity is not an add-on but rather built into the fabric of the organisation.
You know you are moving toward a supportive environment once you are able to ask the questions: “how can I support you?”, “are there any barriers to you being successful?”, “what are your needs and skills gaps?” to all your team members – but you’d do it in a way that uses effective communication methods learned through awareness training. Then you’re actually being truly inclusive and it isn’t a mere tick-box or once-off exercise.
Is there anything remote teams or remote team managers should avoid doing?
One key thing for remote team managers to avoid is making assumptions based on an individual’s label. For instance, assuming that people who are autistic are good at IT, or people who are ADHD are very creative. This means you limit your understanding of that individual and it can lead to incorrect biases. The second key point is for managers to measure and check on their own conscious and unconscious biases.
Assumptions can be avoided by being person-centred. Understanding your team as a whole and embracing diversity within your team, means you will naturally have better productivity and employee wellbeing.
It’s also important for organisations to be wary of one-off exercises such as “this year we’re doing inclusion, next year we’re doing LGBTQ+ and the year after that we’re doing diversity.” Neurodiversity is everyone and should be ingrained in your whole processes because that’s when improved productivity and wellbeing take place.
What should be included in a working agreement to support neurodiverse employees?
Nothing that shouldn’t be included in a comprehensive working agreement for all employees. However, the way the agreement is formed, the way information is gathered and the way the questions are asked will make all the difference.
We often communicate in the way that we prefer because that’s our style. If you have become a successful manager, you might continue to use your set style of communication, unaware that some people find that method difficult to understand, comprehend or engage with. So, we need to question our own communication style in order to lead better.
By crafting a working agreement in an inclusive manner and understanding the different forms of communication, you can create a supportive environment for everyone, including those neurodiverse employees. Reviewing this regularly is also important.
What is the biggest barrier to support for neurodiverse employees?
The biggest barrier is understanding and awareness. I think there is still the idea in some camps that neurodiversity means autism – which it doesn’t. There is sometimes an oversimplsitc approach to awareness; and organisations believe if they understand what autism is and what ADHD is that they understand the strategy or approach to neurodiversity. However, this isn’t the case and often means organisations move away from the fundamental goal of understanding the person in the context of their work and home life.
Another barrier is the term ‘disclosure’. Sometimes employers say “why didn’t they tell me?”. First of all, many adults don’t have a diagnosis. They may have grown up recognising that they have differences in the way they communicate, be it written or oral forms, or they find certain tasks more challenging; but they may not have the words or the confidence to say “I am dyslexic” or “I am autistic”.
Secondly, the term disclosure has the connotation of ‘revealing’, like revealing secrets. Some people may feel shame; and when they have revealed this information before they have not had positive experiences. If someone has to tick a box to reveal themselves, they might be reticent or apprehensive to give this information.
At the heart of neurodiversity is everyone; so if you’re asking everyone “how can we best support you” then you are more likely to get the appropriate answer without those biases.
Specifically regarding remote communication, what are some of the considerations employers and teams should have for neurodiverse colleagues?
We have to have the same recommendations for someone who is neurodivergent that we do for the team as a whole. Because actually, the most important thing is that the whole team communicates effectively together. It requires an understanding of how each member communicates and this may differ from task to task or project to project to project.
High performing teams take into consideration the neurodiversity of the whole team. Offering a range of ways of communicating, without saying “this way is right or wrong” means the whole team works and communicates in an effective manner. And it’s when teams don’t do this that problems and misunderstandings arise.
How does neurodiversity give organisations an edge?
There are a number of ways neurodiversity can benefit an organisation. First of all, you have neurodiverse people in your organisation already; and you may be losing talent because their wellbeing and productivity are not supported appropriately. They may feel misunderstood or not heard or listened to.
By embracing neurodiversity, you’ll be seen as a ‘good’ organisation and enviable place to work, and you are going to attract new talent that you wouldn’t otherwise attract without inclusive processes and procedures. You will also likely see an uptick in productivity. We know that people who are neurodivergent take less sick days, that they are often very reliable employees.
You also don’t know who isn’t applying for your jobs. By having your hiring, recruitment and management approaches be inclusive, you might attract new and innovative talent.
Where does one start to become inclusive?
Some basic awareness which needs to be driven from the top down. There also needs to be buy-in from all levels of the business that this is worth it, something which is good for business, employees and customers.
Once you have that, you can put in a D and I policy that becomes ingrained in everything you do. And then you need to look at your recruitment, retention policies and provide line managers with training – not to become experts in Dyslexia, ADHD and Autism because otherwise they need to be experts in epilepsy, Diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis, too. Sometimes this is a barrier because a manager can feel like they’re not expert enough to handle a sensitive situation.
It’s important your employees know where to go for this supporting information. In large businesses it means having someone in your business that is a little more informed and that person might be in HR or in Diversity and Inclusion.