The world of work is experiencing a metamorphosis as organizations adapt to address the needs of today’s generations and simultaneously prepare for the next generation of employees. An inclusive and diverse workplace is essential in today's corporate landscape, and a growing area of interest for many global corporations, especially in the tech industry, is how to include and accommodate neurodivergent talent.
Neurodivergence is a natural variation in human brain function that results in different ways of learning, thinking, and experiencing the world. Neurodiversity is the growing understanding of these differences and how we can better accommodate and include neurodivergent individuals as equal contributors in the workplace. This article will explore the benefits of having a neurodiverse team in the tech industry, examine ways to accommodate and foster a neurodiverse work environment, and discuss the importance of updating recruitment processes to attract neurodivergent talent.
Benefits of Neurodivergent Inclusion
One of the most apparent benefits of including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), other neurological or developmental conditions like ADHD, and other learning differences in your team is gaining new perspectives that may not otherwise be available. These diverse perspectives can be constructive in the tech industry when tackling product redesigns, launching new software updates, or even marketing a company and its activities.
Neurodiversity gives space for different problem-solving abilities, for example helping to identify mistakes or flaws in codebases before they impact users. Additionally, fostering neurodiversity within your team can lead to increased creativity, morale, and psychological safety within teams, as well as resourcefulness, productivity, and innovation for the company as a whole. Hiring neurodiverse talent can also bridge skillset gaps and bring unique problem-solving skills to the team.
Creating a Neurodiverse-Friendly Environment
Communication and Accommodations
Let's start with the basics: a supportive and safe environment is crucial to ensure the success of neurodivergent team members. The form that communication takes, however, differs from person to person. For example, some may struggle to retain focus and information in meeting-centric workplaces. To help with this, make a policy of creating detailed briefs containing specific instructions necessary for the task or project to be completed. Where meetings are absolutely unavoidable, or the team is short on time, allow remote participation so they may record and review the meeting.
Elsewhere, accommodations should be provided to improve company culture, such as offering distraction-free workspaces, flexible hours, scheduling periods with no meetings, providing noise-canceling headphones, allowing mental health (PTO) days, enabling remote work, and permitting doodling or fidget toys during meetings.
It is important to note that neurodivergent folks may not be initially forthcoming with their needs, whether that’s due to a lifetime of ridicule and/or ostracization, or even shame over a recent diagnosis. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon managers and other team leaders to hold space for the voicing of vital needs and build trust and belief in the value of talents’ contribution to the team.
Workplace Stress and Emotional Dysregulation
Even with these accommodations, professional communication can sometimes be uneven. A common trait in neurodivergent people is emotional dysregulation, which means that neurodivergent individuals can appear irritable, stressed, or even upset at times when it seems there is no reason for it. A combination of factors like workload overwhelm, sensory overwhelm, or interoception difficulties could be at play.
Should someone seem emotionally dysregulated, such as in a team meeting, give them an opportunity to leave, and follow up at a later time – without shame or reprimand to the affected employee. Flexibility is a key element in supporting a safety culture and encouraging inclusivity, and normalizing self-care and establishing open lines of communication are fundamental steps to building a culture of safety, inclusiveness, and productivity for both neurodivergent and neurotypical talent alike on your team.
Language of Neurodiversity
Being mindful of tone and language is vital. As Drs. Nicole Baumer and Julia Frueh of the Harvard Medical School explain, inclusive, nonjudgmental language is encouraged by neurodiversity advocates. “While many disability advocacy organizations prefer person-first language (‘a person with autism,’ ‘a person with Down syndrome’), some research has found that the majority of the autistic community prefers identity-first language (‘an autistic person’),” they say.
Therefore, it’s good practice to ask directly about a person’s preferred language rather than make assumptions, just as one would with one’s pronouns. Moreover, training centered around understanding, recognizing and embracing neurodivergence can help foster a more neurodiverse environment. When starting a new project with a client, said training should be prioritized to help set expectations on outcomes and delivery.
Recognizing and celebrating each team member's ideas and contributions is essential. Specific examples should be provided in praise or acknowledgment to encourage continuous career and skill development. Being supportive means accommodating different communication styles, as well as allowing neurodivergent employees to express themselves in ways that are most comfortable for them. Encouraging interactions that promote knowledge-sharing and develop professional relationships could involve establishing a mentorship program that pairs neurodivergent employees with neurotypical advocates in meetings and providing guidance for working within the team and with clients.
Updating Recruitment Processes
Creating an inclusive environment starts with adapting recruitment processes to prioritize neurodivergent inclusion. Merely stating that a company accepts everyone is insufficient, but the good news is that a number of strategies on hiring with neurodiversity in mind are becoming commonplace, such as job descriptions that include inclusive verbiage to attract a more diverse talent pool.
But successfully modifying recruitment processes takes more than simple text updates and using the right tools. It requires changing organizational mindsets and enabling hiring managers to think about word choice, as well as the way they engage and interact with candidates during the interview process. Recruiters, interviewers, and managers can benefit from heeding guidelines from organizations like the UK's National Autistic Society, helping ensure neurodivergent candidates have the best opportunity to sell their skills appropriately.
Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is not only an ethical obligation but also a strategic advantage for businesses. By creating a neurodivergent-inclusive environment from the hiring phase through to project completion, companies can tap into new perspectives, boost creativity and productivity, foster innovation, and create value for clients. Updating recruitment processes with inclusive language and interview techniques ensures that neurodivergent people have equal opportunities to contribute their valuable skills and talents to the team. In a neurodiverse workplace, every individual can thrive and achieve their full potential.
We acknowledge that we have a long way to go at Xebia to ensure that we are totally inclusive in our hiring processes, working processes, and language so that we may fully embrace workplace diversity in all its forms, whether cultural or neurological. Our core value of putting people first ensures that we acknowledge the challenges ahead so that we can create a neurodiverse workplace for attracting and employing the right people, retaining talent, and being mindful of what inclusivity in its entirety means to us as a business and our organization’s future.
If you’d like to learn more about neurodivergence and neuro diversity in the workplace, Xebia Software Development Consultant David Welman is leading an in-person meetup titled “Neurodiversity and Mental Health in IT” on October 30th at Xebia’s Netherlands office on Wibautstraat in Amsterdam. It is free and open to the public, so please join us and contribute to the conversation on neurodiversity in the workplace!