Discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion continue to evolve, and although neurodiversity has been on the radar for many organizations for quite some time, this year brings with it a renewed focus as many move their initiatives forward with a new sense of urgency.
Business and HR leaders are keenly aware that the more cognitively diverse teams are, the faster they solve problems and the more likely they are to exceed their financial targets.
Fortunately, companies like Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and EY have paved the way with their neurodiversity at work initiatives. With effective models already in place, and the right roadmap, tools and support, companies can move from idea to implementation, and make neurodiversity an integral part of their larger DEI strategies to build an inclusive workforce and achieve their business objectives.
Filling a critical void in the marketplace
Due to misconceptions and stigmas about their conditions, neurodiverse individuals face challenges and barriers in the workplace that can prevent others from seeing their unique set of strengths, talents and abilities.
In fact, one might argue that not recognizing and appreciating the qualities of neurodiverse individuals, which provide a clear competitive advantage and fill a void in the workplace, is a missed opportunity for both the individual and the employer.
Some of the most significant challenges employers face today—shortage of talent, high turnover, skills deficits and low engagement—can all be addressed by building inclusive and equitable workplaces that value and appreciate neurodiverse individuals for who they are, as well as for what they contribute.
By doing so, companies can tap into a wealth of creative thinking, problem-solving skills and innovation enabling them to stand apart from their competitors.
Companies that recognize neurodiversity as a business imperative and a way to uphold their corporate values will be those that are able to attract the best talent, compete in the marketplace and meet—or even exceed— their business objectives. Take SAP, where neurodiverse employees developed a technical fix worth an estimated $40 million in savings.
Yet the goal of neurodiversity in workplace initiatives shouldn’t be to satisfy corporate social responsibility or diversity goals alone. Rather, companies should prioritize initiatives because of the advantages that building an inclusive and equitable workplace has on supporting the needs and well-being of all employees.
Launching neurodiversity initiatives
If your company has started to have discussions about incorporating neurodiversity initiatives into your DEI strategy, now is a great time to take a closer look — here’s how to get started.
1. Raise awareness
Before you can launch any new initiative, you must first assess your employees’ awareness of neurodiversity, which, surprisingly can reveal gaps across your population. One industry survey found 91 percent of neurodiverse and neurotypical employees alike don’t know how common neurodiversity is.
Conducting a company-wide survey can give you insight into a lack of understanding, which can inform your next steps. This may include training to educate employees, address fear and stigma and dispel myths and stereotyping.
Additionally, offering employees event opportunities can allow them to learn and have meaningful interactions with neurodiverse individuals. Stanford Neurodiversity Summit 2023 and Disability:IN 2023 Global Conference and Expo are two upcoming events to consider.
2. Identify a champion
A champion, or team of champions from senior leadership, a specific business unit, or an employee resource group who can spearhead new efforts is critical to the success of any initiative. Champions ideally have a personal connection to neurodiversity and should:
• stay up to date on best practices
• provide education
• encourage employee participation at events and activities
• foster relationships with talent networks or job placement agencies that support neurodiverse individuals
3. Take a strengths-based approach
As your organization looks to neurodiversity recruiting efforts, look for individuals who have strengths that your current workforce lacks. You can also focus on strengths during the interview process. For example, de-emphasize formal interviews and instead, assess job-specific and technical skills. Or provide interview questions and an agenda in advance so candidates can prepare.
Training and onboarding should also align with the unique learning and communication styles of all employees. Therefore, it’s a good idea to offer various modes of training such as self-paced modules, on-the-job training and classroom training.
When building teams, match individuals who have complementary personalities, which prevents the echo chamber effect and promotes creative thinking and innovation.
4. Equip leadership with the right tools
All employees, regardless of their cognitive differences, should feel comfortable expressing their needs to meet their job demands and feel more accepted and valued in the workplace. With e-learning and training opportunities, leadership can help guide the efforts of a neurodiversity ERG and build team cultures that provide support when it’s needed. Training also guides leaders on the best practices for employee training on neurodiversity efforts and ensures anti-discrimination policies are established and enforced.
5. Prioritize universal design
Historically, companies that prioritized neurodiversity in the workplace initiatives placed neurodiverse individuals in hubs separate from the organization. Today, however, we’re seeing the move to universal design.
Universal design is the idea that anyone in an organization can get the maximum benefit from their work environment without having to disclose their condition. It also means individuals are no longer singled out or siloed. An example of universal design is providing everyone access to an intranet site with resources, accessibility tools, and accessibility, ERGs and external employment support networks.
6. Leverage conflicts for learning opportunities
Conflict doesn’t have to set teams back and can be an opportunity, particularly for managers, to understand the unique learning and productivity challenges neurodiverse individuals face and learn how to better support them.
For example, instead of assuming neurodiverse individuals aren’t committed to their roles if they miss a deadline, managers can learn that they have executive functioning challenges and likely need projects to be broken down into smaller, achievable milestones.
7. Set up your remote workforce for success
For neurodiverse individuals, having a work-from-home environment that’s designed for optimal productivity is vital. From the outset, managers should clearly communicate goals and performance expectations, which can be overlooked without regular, face-to-face interactions.
Other ideas to consider include:
• Schedule regular check-ins
• Use visual tools such as Basecamp or Trello
• Encourage dedicated, distraction-free workspaces and provide examples
• Provide a list of contacts who can answer questions and provide help
Additionally, establishing schedules and boundaries for work/life balance is important for all employees, but perhaps even more important for some neurodiverse individuals who may be hyper-focused and have difficulty detaching from work.
Neurodiverse individuals bring a wealth of skills and strengths to the workplace that many companies lack, but are critical to growth and scalability. Yet doing so requires a shift in mindset from simply viewing neurodiversity efforts as corporate social responsibility, to a strategy that is critical for building a stronger workforce, driving innovation and spurring exponential business growth.