Unlock creativity by making space for neurodiversity in the workplace

Unlock creativity by making space for neurodiversity in the workplace

By Allaya Cooks-Campbell

When employees aren’t comfortable bringing their full selves to work, we miss out on much more than their sparkling personality. We lose the creativity, critical thinking skills, and resourcefulness that go hand in hand with safety. No psychological safety, no risk-taking. No risk-taking, no innovation.

When we ignore neurodiversity as a key part of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, we subtly tell our teams that we don’t value those differences. We — even unconsciously — reflect that people with cognitive differences are defective or deficient in some way.

WORKSHOP: Psychological Safety Toolkit for Managers & Leaders

No two brains are alike. Everyone thinks, processes information, learns, and works in different ways. These neurological differences are natural variations in how the brain is wired. Reframing these differences as an important and valuable component of diversity helps us recapture them as strengths.

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity in the workplace means creating an environment that is inclusive and supportive of neurodivergent conditions. Embracing diversity empowers both employees and employers to be more creative, agile, and innovative.

In short — yes, neurodiversity is the new normal, but not because people have changed. Our understanding of people has changed. There isn’t a single definition of what a “normal” brain looks like. Expanding how we design our workplaces, environments, and processes opens a creative sandbox.

Both organizations and employees benefit from thoughtfully designing accessible workspaces. When people aren’t struggling against the confines of neurotypical design, they’re free to think, work, and create in the way that works best for them.

However, despite the fact that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent, half of people managers and leaders say that they wouldn’t hire a neurodiverse employee. Unfortunately, there are still many lingering misconceptions about neurodivergent people in the workplace. Their employers worry that they’ll require too much support, won’t be a good culture fit, or won’t have the necessary skill sets to do the job.

In recent years, research and public initiatives have focused on debunking these myths. For example, a national report from Drexel University says 51% of workers on the spectrum have higher skills than what they need to do their job. JP Morgan & Chase’s Autism at Work program found autistic employees “48% faster and up to 92% more productive than their non-autistic counterparts – with common factors including strong visual acuity, attention to detail, and a superior ability to focus.”

Is neurodiversity the new normal?

With shortages in talent reported across every industry, organizations need to learn to support, empower, and draw on the immense talent present in a diverse workforce Employers would benefit from turning their attention to the advantages of neurodiversity in the workplace.

Advantages of neurodiversity in the workplace

People with neurodiverse conditions are often apprehensive about self-identifying. They worry that sharing their diagnosis or condition might negatively affect the way people see them. This fear is largely rooted in many of the myths about neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a fairly new term, but the conditions that it encompasses (ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Asperger’s syndrome, and other related conditions) carry some baggage. We can begin to unpack some of these misconceptions with more education about neurodiversity at work.

1. Better pattern recognition

In “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” Harvard Business Review notes that certain neurodivergent conditions “can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” When provided with a more inclusive hiring and onboarding process, neurodiverse candidates often outperform their neurotypical colleagues.

2. Creativity and innovation

Being neurodivergent isn’t always easy, especially when it feels like you live in a world that’s only wired one way. However, even though neurodiverse people face a number of challenges at work, they also bring a lot of unique strengths to the table. In addition to the technical skills mentioned above, neurodivergent employees often bring a unique perspective, creative insights, and excellent problem-solving abilities.

3. Broader talent pool

In a competitive market, employers can’t afford to overlook the large pool of qualified, capable, neurodivergent individuals who sometimes get lost in the hiring process. Being more intentional about creating an inclusive recruiting and retention plan helps to build an environment where all people can thrive.

4. Stronger inclusion programs

There is no such thing as a “normal” brain. A large portion of the population is disabled, neurodivergent, or has other conditions that qualify for reasonable accommodation. Developing policies that support the well-being of any employee supports all employees. When you support neurodiversity at work, you make it easier for everyone to ask for the support they need.

How do you manage a neurodivergent employee?

It’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all solution to working with neurodivergent employees. Each person is unique and — regardless of whether they’re neurotypical or not — will work and think in different ways.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) emphasizes that not every employee will need the same accommodations — or any accommodations at all. Some may see their condition as an asset, some as a limitation, and others as a core part of their identity.

If you were to keep one idea in mind, remember that your primary role as a people manager is to create a supportive environment for your employees. While people with disabilities or neurodivergent conditions qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many employees won’t ask for support unless they feel safe enough to do so.

As an employer, you can make it feel safer for your employees to ask for support with a people-first mentality. Normalize self-care practices, prioritize accessibility, and provide options for your employees. Encourage them to tell you what they need to do their best work.

Accommodations for neurodiverse employees

Neurodiverse employees often face difficulties in the workplace due to their condition. However, there are initiatives that are being taken by companies to help neurodivergent employees work more comfortably. These include modified hiring practices, comprehensive skills assessments, and internal buddy/mentorship systems. 

The Job Accommodation Network provides a list of potential accommodations that you can sort by function, limitation, and condition. These include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Distraction-free workspaces for employees with ADHD or on the autism spectrum
  • Option to telecommute or work from home
  • Noise-canceling headphones to reduce sensory overload
  • Neurodiversity coaching
  • Providing reference materials, worksheets, and interview questions in advance
  • Mental health days and PTO

The presence of these accommodations, even if they’re not comprehensive or you don’t know what to offer, helps. Every effort made towards inclusion communicates the company’s willingness to work for a supportive environment for all.

Employers can access additional resources for supporting neurodivergent employees here.

How to build a neurodiverse workforce

Building an inclusive, neurodivergent workforce takes some Inner Work®, both on the part of the company and the hiring team. You may have to redefine your entire recruiting and diversity hiring strategy.

It’s critical to look at the existing company culture — from the interview process to the retention rate. A critical look can help you spot where your organization might unintentionally be creating a difficult work environment for neurodiverse talent.

1. Ask for feedback

If you’re not sure, start by asking your employees what they need to perform at work. Chances are good that a percentage of your existing workforce is neurodivergent. But it’s almost certain that people in your organization think and work differently from one another. 

Your employees don’t have to reveal any medical information — or even their names — to provide feedback. Simply ask them to share which parts of their work experience could be made more inclusive or accessible. 

2. Provide flexibility

Flexible work schedules support your entire workforce — not just neurodivergent team members. Working parents, caregivers, employees with disabilities, and pretty much everyone else benefits from the opportunity to set their own schedules and work from where they like.

That doesn’t mean that you’ll never see your teams again — after all, not everyone wants to work from home. What it does mean is that people will have the ability to choose what works for them to do their best work. And that might change over time or even from day to day. Flexible and remote working schedules have a positive overall impact on both physical and mental health.

3. Educate your team

Understanding neurodiversity is critically important to accommodating neurodiversity. Offer opportunities for people managers and individual contributors alike to learn more about the different types of neurodivergent conditions and how to accommodate them.

The benefit of this is two-fold. For one, when your hiring managers understand these conditions better, they’re better able to accommodate in job interviews and when writing job descriptions. 

But by educating everyone, you open the door for existing employees who might not have had words for how they’ve been feeling. Many people have differences in processing information, social skills, or learning conditions. They may have been taught to hide or compensate for these differences without seeking support. Once you open the conversation at work, your employees might feel safer reaching out to human resources for help.

4. Lean on (or create) company resources and groups  

For any company or organization, it’s important to ensure resources are available for your employees. Scaffold your company’s DEIB strategy with formalized programs and resources to help empower an inclusive workforce. Where does neurodiversity fold into your organizational strategy? 

For example, do your employee resource groups address the neurodivergent community? Are there accommodations or learning programs to help make sure neurodiverse employees feel supported? At BetterUp, we’ve created an employee resource group (ERG) specifically for neurodiverse people and their allies. 

5. Create a neurodivergent talent pipeline  

Some companies like Microsoft, have dedicated workforce development and hiring programs to create a talent pipeline for neurodivergent people. Let’s look at Microsoft as an example. The company’s Autism Hiring Program offers a multi-day, hands-on academy that focuses on skills assessments, networking, job capabilities, and career development. 

Google, a BetterUp customer, recently launched a new program dedicated to strengthening its workforce with neurodivergent talent. Google Cloud’s Autism Career Program works in tandem with Stanford University to ensure Google’s onboarding processes are accessible and equitable. 

Do an audit of your recruiting strategy. Is there opportunity to formalize a hiring program to help create a talent pipeline of neurodivergent folks? How are you tapping into the potential of neurodivergent people in your workforce? What career development opportunities can you offer? 

Creating a neurodiversity-inclusive workplace

Neurodivergent-inclusive workplaces are organizations that value neurodiversity by prioritizing inclusion in their culture and hiring practices. This means not just ensuring it’s a safe and pleasant environment, for everyone but also recognizing and valuing the strengths that come from diversity.

Neurodiverse employees have unique strengths and skills which make them valuable to the workforce. Creating a workplace that celebrates, accommodates, supports, and values neurological differences is a win for all.

*Allaya Cooks-Campbell is an Associate Learning Experience Designer at BetterUp

*This article first appeared on the BetterUp website

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