Neurodiversity in the workplace, and how to harness the power of diversity of thinking styles

Bryony Berry
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Three people walk into a bar with dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

Actually they don’t. Two are running late and the 3rd is bowing out because frankly it wont be fun to be stood up, squashed and not able to hear each other…

So where do we go from here?

How about a plan change?

Three people walk into the quiet pub, separately, and the first one brings a book to read?!

This is a real life scenario with myself and couple of fellow neurodivergent friends. Not an uncommon one, at that, for a lot of our 20s. And it is a beautiful example of what a difference it makes to accept diversity in a group of people, and in yourself. Us adjusting our plans to ourselves, instead of the other way around, has made the difference between three people stressed out trying to ‘overcome’ or ‘adapt’ their natural way of doing things, and three people who can relax and bring their whole selves to whatever is going on. Plus it means the perpetually late among us don’t get told off by the on time or early ones.. and lot of our ‘neurotypical’ friends quickly came round to our way of socialising to everyone's benefit.

We can strive to do the same thing in our working environments to get the most out of a diverse workforce.

It might not be very realistic to have all our meetings as ‘come when you’re ready’, but actually, a lot of our interactions can be. More than you might expect, and it doesn’t need to be face to face. In fact, for some people, remote communication channels are actually easier. Having open communication channels for people to be involved ‘as and when’ can open up ad-hoc collaboration and result in more people contributing. This might be Slack channels and communities, it might be ‘open workshops’ with collaboration boards available for contributions before, after or instead of meetings. It could be a raft of things, but basically anything that helps people who contribute in different ways to still contribute, and that puts less pressure to ‘assimilate’ on people who naturally do things a bit differently. And it doesn’t have to work for all things, to still make a difference to all things.

Some things need to be formalised, scheduled and attended - a workshop with clients or parties from around the business, for instance where value will come from having all the relevant parties present at the same time and contributing. But in these situations flexibility elsewhere can also add value. If some of the contributors for that workshop find being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff particularly hard things to do, then doing it less often makes it more achievable, and it means they have more emotional energy and intellectual focus to bring to the room when they need to (they’ve not been spending it all day adhering to unnecessary processes). Other things can help too, orienting everyone to the purpose at the beginning of the meeting, will help neurodivergent contributors, but also anyone rushing from one topic to the next, as well as help get everyone focused on achieving the desired outcomes.

But why does it matter?

We know having diverse workforces and teams have benefits, but surely, neurodiverse professional people in the workplace have ‘adapted’ already and can clearly cope with the work place they’re in or they wouldn’t be there? So what’s the point of focusing on differences?

Good question, and the answer is because although neurodivergent people can and do adapt to a world that is designed for neurotypical people, there is a cost to it. And this cost is a cost to the business, and any organisation that those people are contributing to. All the effort spent ‘adapting’ is not spent applying the unique skills and ‘super powers’ that a lot of neurodiverse people can bring to the table. The best footballer in the world isn’t going to bring as much to their team if they have to climb over the stadium wall to get to the pitch. What’s more, neurodiversity is the spikey parts of more general diversity in thinking and learning styles, and adaptations to support it will benefit all.

So what could we do?

Embrace open communication and collaboration channels such as Slack, etc. – dev teams across the world will happily testify that these enable fast, targeted collaboration when it’s needed without adding too much ‘overhead’, but they also allow people to stay ‘in the flow’ if they are engrossed in a specific task. ‘Flow’ and the amazing impact on performance that being really ‘into’ the task at hand brings has had a lot of coverage recently and is a common super power of those with ADHD and people with autism, though absolutely not limited to them... and it is Gold, and well worth mining (or at least protecting!). What’s more, open communication channels allows contribution from a wide number of people without anyone needing to fight for space, or respond very fast to have their input considered. But they are generally text base, which can also be a barrier for some..

Embrace visual communication in documentation, training, presentations, reports and all things!

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and for many neurodiverse people it is the preferred way to communicate their big picture system thinking, to show the links they see between things that others might not see, or to share their unique framing that can help others see a challenge or issue from a different angle. Research from education suggests that huge numbers of people, neurodivergent and neurotypical, benefit from visual cues for learning and memory, and that breaking up text or aural (listened to) input actually makes processing of that information easier as well. Providing tools and training for people to use visual modelling tools, embracing the use of icons, and even memes and gifs, can make ‘mixed media’ communication easier for everyone and more widespread, and empower people who feel more comfortable using it to do so.

Open workshops

Collaboration tools such as Lucidspark, Miro, etc. are brilliant for remote workshops and promoting collaboration, but they can be used in more than one way. Try using these tools ‘offline’ with boards set up, and people asked to contribute over time. This can bring more people to the table, allow space for thinkers to really add their insights at their own pace, and give everyone space to ‘listen’ and absorb others ideas and have them pollinate unique thoughts of their own. There are different ways to do this, but experiment with combinations of live and open ended workshops, or offline sessions where different parts of the boards are opened on successive dates, and people asked to revisit for collaboration over time. These kinds of things can be brilliant for longer term planning, big picture or strategic thinking, and market or competitor analysis.

Less forms!

Or better written forms, at least. Employing visual cues and icons for easier orientation, indicators as to how far through you are or at least X of Y pages. For many people with dyslexia, forms are kryptonite. For many with ADHD, a (frankly boring) form that requires sustained focus over time, for often a removed or remote purpose, may take a lot of emotional energy to complete. Keep forms short, and as to the point as possible. Short online user journeys can be easier for many, and ‘saving’ will make a big difference for a lot of people. For onboarding, for instance, keep things separate – tech kit ordering, software requests, personal info, banking info, etc.. if these are all lumped together in a multi page, many fielded document it will likely bring more errors and need a lot more energy to complete than a number of short to the point items.

Training outputs, promotion cases, and ‘skills tests’ that are form like – multiple choice, multi field, etc. will also likely be harder for neurodiverse people. Not all, but many, will find them a barrier, and some effort on layout, visual cues to context (e.g. icons), progress indicators, etc. can make a real difference. And a lot of such ‘UX’ improvements will likely make them easier for many neurotypical people as well.

Embrace variety

Allow individuals and teams to establish their own practices and process, update methods, collaboration tools, etc. that best suit the people contributing. Include discussion and review of these as part of the standard set up and ongoing evaluation of ways of working. If people know the end points / outputs they need to get to, the routes they pick to get there can vary with no loss to the business, and enable teams to really bring the best of each member to the work at hand. Again, this doesn’t need to be applied ‘wall to wall’ – not having shared systems and processes for various HR-related tasks could make things unmanageable, but try to think about defining standardised processes only where they add value directly, not where ‘many routes to a goal’ would be just as beneficial.

Create a community

Create a community that acknowledges, discusses and celebrates diverse skills and ways of thinking. Provide a safe space for neurodiverse people, or people who feel they might be neurodiverse to share and discuss challenges, super powers, things that help them – a lot of the challenge of being neurodiverse is adapting to a world that often isn’t designed for us, and the anxiety ‘invisibly adapting’ to it can cause – not needing to be invisible, and not always needing to adapt, can take a massive weight off, and enable people to unleash their fuller potential.

What’s more, empowering neurodiverse people to share our ways of doing things and seeing things can be contagious and embolden the whole community to try different approaches, explore their creativity in different ways and take risks with their thinking. The more data-centric, less emotional analysis of many people with autism can be a great way to avoid confirmation bias. Taking more time over decisions and information processing, which is often preferred by people with dyslexia, can help us all to use ‘type two’ or ‘slow thinking’. And sharing the confidence to handle uncertainly and move between possibilities, a super power of many of our colleagues with ADHD, can actually help reduce anxiety for others who may find a lack of a clear direction stressful, and help them move forward without a pre-defined direction.

Plus, lets be honest, happier people are more pleasant to work with! And a wider variety of people doing things in a wider variety of ways, makes a place infinitely more interesting to be a part of!

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