The Growing Importance of Neurodiversity in the New Era of Work

As we talk about diversity in 2022, neurodiversity and the different ways people process information must become central to every organization’s DEI strategy.

More research into learning disabilities such as ADD, ADHD, dyscalculia or dyslexia has been properly documented more in recent years. However, clear data on the prevalence of these conditions is hard to come by as some individuals may never receive treatment — some individuals may even be misdiagnosed. But for organizations of significant size, the odds that someone within the ranks is afflicted by one of these conditions are pretty high.

In the past, the work model provided a lot of on-site or in-person trainings where people could ask questions, learn in groups or find various other ways to seek out instructors for one-on-one coaching that resonated with them. The post-COVID-19 reality has shown the benefit of remote or hybrid work for both employees and employers alike. However, the remote-work “new normal” does present a challenge in how employees receive information, absorb training and learn new approaches.

The shifting work model has often focused on discussing how teams collaborate, how managers conduct one-on-ones and what hours employees work. However, it’s become increasingly necessary to examine the resources needed to effectively train all employees and measure their development.

If companies want to be more intentional around inclusiveness, the development of neurodiverse employees must become as big of a strategic priority as it is with the rest of the employee population.

The Neurodiversity Opportunity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 44 children are identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the number of adults living with ASD exceeds five million people.

Add in the number of people with other neurodivergent conditions, and what you have is not only a lot of employees who need different types of training and development but a lot of consumers who receive your messages differently.

By having a neurodiverse talent pool, your organization is better positioned to find solutions for product, marketing and sales teams to be more effective in designing for and interacting with the broader population.

The era of remote work offers a new opportunity for these populations, who have often been misunderstood and underserved in traditional work environments, to thrive in the comfort of familiar surroundings. For example, some neurodivergent workers may struggle in loud environments or in situations where meetings are prevalent throughout the workday.

The pandemic era workplace has also changed everything from our workflows to how we assess and measure success. Managers can no longer view things through the lens of butts in seats in the office, nor are they influenced as heavily by who speaks up in a meeting. Instead, productivity and quality of work speak for themselves, which includes creating a more level playing field for people from neurodiverse backgrounds. In other words, there has never been a better time to focus on how your organization creates equity and inclusion for the neurodiverse workforce.

Strategies for Helping Neurodiverse Employees Succeed

Like any other DEI initiative, a strategic approach is required to develop policies and practices that support neurodiverse employees. As is often the case with a good strategy, it starts with assessment. In this case, conducting an audit of current learning materials and the technology and tools used in learning and everyday work is a good place to start.

Blair Academy, a boarding high school in New Jersey, approached DiversityInc to consult on how they might do this with their learning programs. While an academic setting is different from a corporate training environment, lessons learned from its content audit apply to all learning environments.

Some key questions to ask about your training programs include:

  • Where and how does the audit align with the larger DEI goals of the school?
  • Does the audit have strong leadership support?
  • What resources will the team conducting the audit have?
  • How are you defining the outcomes you are looking for, and over what time frame do they occur?

If these questions cannot be answered or the answer is simply a no, it may not be the right time for the organization to conduct an audit centered on this topic. Ultimately, training and development content should focus on helping employees adapt to changing times, whether it’s about the demands of the remote workplace or understanding how their roles will evolve, and then helping them build a skill profile tuned for success.

For many organizations, there will also need to be an adjustment to trainings to remove vague instructions or terminology that is difficult for some individuals to absorb. The delivery of these activities and methods will play an important role in ensuring employees engage with and retain the material.

Creating trust between all stakeholders is also key to a successful strategy for developing neurodiverse practices. That means creating a space for all your stakeholders where authenticity and vulnerability are allowed, and everyone is comfortable sharing and hearing the truth.

“Questions and readiness matter,” says Anita Ricketts, Head of Strategic Partnerships for DiversityInc. “One of the questions has to be, ‘are you looking for change or are you looking for cover?’ You need to examine which institutional or systemic processes are causing you to fall short. If you think back to those core questions, they not only help you find your lane but put you in a position where you are ready, comfortable and willing to hear the truth about your approach to these issues.”

The Power of Focus Groups

Once your stakeholders are on board, and everyone understands there needs to be a change and an honest assessment around diverse practices across all functions in the workplace, it’s time to translate that culture of honesty into a culture of feedback.

By conducting focus groups, you give neurodiverse employees a chance to speak up. Furthermore, employees who have different perspectives and levels of experience with neurodiverse individuals can also share insights. Many of them will have someone in their social circle or family who has one of these conditions and can relay helpful ideas and feedback on where and how to improve.

Focus groups are also a valuable space to ask employees what they need. It may be something as simple as changing the lighting in an office space or providing noise-canceling headphones to employees with sensitivity to noise that impacts their ability to focus. But there will also be feedback around your training approach and opportunities to better understand how your employees learn.

Conversations such as these can help unveil the strengths and weaknesses of neurodiverse individuals and help entire teams begin to understand how to help those individuals succeed. Like any DEI journey, there will be moments of discomfort and ignorance, but in overcoming it, your organization will come one step closer to embodying the values it espouses in its diversity statements.

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