Some people think and process information in ways that differ from the norm. Such neurodivergent individuals can bring unique strengths to the workplace and there is an onus on employers to make adjustments to ensure they can work effectively – whether in the office or from home. While adjustments should be tailored to the needs of each particular individual, we consider some steps to help integrate neurodiversity in the workforce.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to the variety in how people think and experience things. Most people are "neurotypical" i.e. their thoughts and behaviours fall within a typical range of individual variations and their brains function and process information in the way society expects. Some people's brains function, learn and process information in ways that fall outside that range. Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, autism spectrum disorder or dyspraxia are examples of "neurodivergent" individuals. It is estimated that more than 15% of the people in the UK are neurodivergent.
What does this mean for employers?
Neurodivergent individuals have unique strengths and characteristics which can be uniquely equipped to excel at various types of work. It is clear to see that traits associated with certain neurodivergent conditions (such as exceptional creativity, inventiveness, strong attention to detail, sustained focus or capacity to visualise) could be invaluable for a wide range of roles and for the business at large. Making changes to working arrangements that enable neurodivergent employees to capitalise on these skills is often a win/win outcome.
The law also supports the making of such changes. Certain traits associated with a person's neurodivergence can make it challenging for them to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Such an individual may be considered to have a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. This carries legal obligations for employers, including ensuring they are not treated unfavourably for a reason linked to that disability. Furthermore, employers need to make reasonable adjustments to help neurodivergent employees work effectively. What will be effective will depend on the individual and the context, but adjustments can include providing a quiet area to work or holding training for the managers/workforce at large.
However, this is not just about legal duties. As already indicated, neurodiversity brings advantages too. In fact, given the evidence of the benefits of a diverse workforce and the recent societal emphasis on diversity and inclusion, many employers already seek to go beyond merely complying with the law – they are seeking to promote the integration of neurodiversity in the workplace.
Neurodiversity in the age of remote working and beyond
The past year has changed where and how we work. Remote working has become the norm and many believe remote working will remain commonplace beyond the pandemic. As employers envision the working arrangements for the post-pandemic era, promoting the better integration of neurodiversity is a crucial factor to consider.
Working from home and hybrid working arrangements can bring both advantages and challenges. At the outset, it is important to note that we should be slow to generalise any pros and cons of remote working for neurodivergent workers, because neurodivergence is so individual. Those with autism spectrum disorder could be very different from those with dyslexia, and even two people with the same condition will often have different preferences and needs. A measure that benefits some may pose challenges for others. The crucial point is to be open-minded about what will help any particular individual, so benefiting the business, and to talk with that person as an individual. The following discussion flags some considerations that could be relevant, but it is crucial to maintain ongoing, open communication with each individual and flexibility to make fine-tuned adjustments.
Challenges of remote working
- For some, remote or hybrid working may mean lack of structure and consistency, rather than flexibility. Setting structures and patterns could be a crucial tactic for certain individuals to maintain productivity – and even adhering to medication schedules. Initiating an open discussion to devise a clear work schedule and getting the individuals' teams on board to support that schedule (e.g. no emails outside the working schedule) are some of the possible ways to encourage neurodivergent employees. (It may also help the neurotypicals too!)
- Similarly, having a designated workspace could be fundamental to maintaining focus, especially as some neurodivergent conditions are associated with attention difficulties. It is important to recognise that depending on one's living arrangements or stage in career, it may not be feasible for some people to create a designated workstation at home. Now that government restrictions on office working are easing, there is more space for employers to accommodate individual requests.
- Remote or hybrid working may lead to difficulties in maintaining effective communication with colleagues. Before the workforce is moulded into certain modes of communication, it is important to openly discuss whether each neurodivergent employee has preferred forms of communication and, sensitively, to flag any such preferences to the relevant teams. Impromptu calls and video calls could be more efficient for some individuals but could be stressful for others, and written communication might be preferable.
- While hot desking could boost creativity and collaboration for some individuals, some may find the lack of certainty stressful and changes to the working environment could impact some people more intensely than others. Countering this could be as simple as providing reserved desks for certain individuals at their request.
Benefits of remote working
- Many people have more control over their home environment than their office settings and they can customise their home office in a way that suits the way their brain processes information. For those who are highly sensitive to sensory information, this could take the form of a pristine, segregated environment that eliminates home or traditional office distractions. Yet others may work better with a seemingly messy desk and background noises, surrounded by the comforts of home.
- It could be beneficial to spend more time around family members and friends, who may understand the individual's neurodivergence more thoroughly and could be more experienced in encouraging the individual to thrive. Of course, this does not remove the onus on employers to initiate and maintain dialogues with the individual and to proactively support their needs and encourage their performance. The insight from the interactions with friends and family could feed into building a supportive and effective working arrangement for the individual.
- Commuting to work could have been a stressful process for some. There is a huge range of unpredictable elements (e.g. train delays), which could distress those who rely on structure and pattern, and the variety of noises, sounds and sights could overwhelm those who can be overloaded by sensory information. The lack of commute would eliminate such stress for many neurodivergent individuals.
- Working from home frees up people to dress down and this could be hugely beneficial for those with tactile sensitivity.
- Remote working could be beneficial to some people with autism spectrum disorder because it limits the stress of ad hoc casual conversations and brings more predictability to social interactions. However, consistent communication and connection remain important. Scheduled calls could be the preferred way for some individuals to remain connected and feel supported.
When it comes to promoting neurodiversity, the insights and considerations from promoting diversity at large are transferable. Employers already championing diversity and inclusion would notice some common themes: just as with working parents and those with medical appointments or caring responsibilities, open dialogues and flexibility are key to building an environment for neurodivergent employees to thrive in. Everyone is an individual – whether neurodivergent or not – and that should be the starting point.