Engineering — 2 min
Increased availability of remote work may have created more opportunities for neurodivergent workers, but opportunity and reality are not the same thing. Truly supporting neurodivergence in the workplace requires deliberate and thoughtful effort from managers and HR leaders.
Neurodivergent workers have found many aspects of remote and asynchronous work are a huge benefit to them. Suddenly, they are in charge of their work hours, their work environment, and how much they socialize — and it’s been good for their productivity as well as their mental health.
“The opportunity to work remotely offers many advantages to neurodivergent colleagues, and one of the most significant is being able to control their working environment,” says Maya Middlemiss, a journalist at BlockSparks OÜ. “As with any other unique individual needs however, the fact that someone is working remotely does not absolve the manager of their duty of care, and to make reasonable adjustments as required.”
A neurodivergent workforce is a benefit for every organization; The Harvard Business Review calls neurodiversity a “competitive advantage” for companies. So how can you support neurodiversity on your team?
The key to supporting neurodivergence in the workplace is understanding what it is.
Neurodivergence, or neurodiversity as it is also called, is “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”
The term “neurodivergence” originated in the autism community in the 1990s as a way for autistic people to describe themselves in a positive, non-judgmental way. “Neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” arose as labels to describe autistic and non-autistic people.
Although the term “neurodivergent” began its life in the autism community, it didn’t remain isolated there for long. The term now includes many different groups of people, all of whom experience and react to their environment differently than their neurotypical peers — people with typical, or expected, cognitive functioning.
What does this mean in practice? It means that not all your employees may think or react to their environment in the same way. They’re “wired differently,” which can look different for different employees. Some may require more flexibility to complete tasks or work on projects. Others may be extra sensitive to external stimuli. Others still might need to be alone to make progress on a task.
Remote work, especially when paired with asynchronous working hours, allows employees to customize their personal experiences. J.D. Alex, in talent research at Stripe, says the things that many people enjoy about working in an office can actually be challenges for neurodiverse people.
Right off the bat, remote work environments offer neurodivergent employees something that no office can....a safe space.
It’s important to note that neurodivergent employees are just as productive and enjoyable to work with as their neurotypical peers: they may simply need different, or more flexible, working conditions.
Because people (and their brains) are endlessly different, it’s hard to make a list of every possible type of neurodivergence in the workplace. Some employees with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression identify as neurodivergent, while others may not. There are, however, some common types of neurodivergence you are likely to see at work:
What is it? Autism is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others. Autistic people may experience and display a range of behaviors, such as repetitive or rigid patterns, sensory issues, or repetitive movements. Because there is such a wide range of symptoms and severity, ASD is considered to be a spectrum.
How does it present at work? Every autistic person is different, but a coworker on the spectrum may have trouble communicating or socializing with others. They may not be comfortable making eye contact and they might also have a difficult time understanding the implicit or unwritten rules of workplace social interaction. (They might not easily recognize sarcasm, for example.) Explicit rules, however, people with ASD are more likely to follow to the letter. Individuals with ASD may be highly creative, display great focus, display attention to detail, and be strong visual learners.
What is it? ADHD is a condition that impacts executive function — the mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. People with ADHD have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, or staying organized. Don’t be surprised if a team member approaches you to inform you of their new ADHD diagnosis. While ADHD is often diagnosed in childhood, adult ADHD diagnoses are on the rise. This is potentially because many girls display ADHD symptoms differently, so women have historically been underdiagnosed.
How does it present at work? People with ADHD are either disorganized or have developed elaborate coping skills to stay organized. This may look like messy desks and missed deadlines, but it also may look like lists, charts, and extreme punctuality. People with ADHD may be fidgeters or may have trouble staying still. They may also appear zoned out at work, especially if they’re not interested in a task or are having a highly stimulating day. When they’re interested and engaged, however, they are capable of intense focus, sometimes taking the form of hours-long deep work sessions.
What is it? Dyslexia is a learning disorder that impacts a person’s ability to read, write, and speak. People with dyslexia experience difficulties with language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words.They may have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters make.
How does it present at work? Dyslexia is most noticeable during primary school when children are learning to read and write. However, people with Dyslexia experience it throughout their lives. Dyslexic team members may take longer to read information and may have trouble spelling words the first time. However, these individuals tend to learn quickly through hands-on practice or visual learning.
What is it? Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition in which a person has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. They may find common sounds irritating or overwhelming; lights may seem too bright or painful; and some clothing may hurt their skin. They may also have difficulty knowing where their limbs are in space.
How does it present at work? Individuals with sensory processing disorder may have a difficult time being around specific stimuli, such as a certain noise, fluorescent lights, or a fragrance a coworker is wearing. Sensory issues sometimes coincide with other types of neurodivergence, such as autism.
What is it? Dyspraxia is a motor disorder affecting fine and gross motor skills, motor planning, and coordination. People with dyspraxia may have trouble with balance and movement. Dyspraxia can also affect how some people learn new skills.
How does it present at work? People with dyspraxia may appear uncoordinated, or they may have trouble with tasks like writing or typing. Dyspraxic people may not drive cars, which can cause issues in areas where people are expected to commute via car to work or operate machinery on the job.
What is it? Tourette’s Syndrome is a condition that causes tics, sudden involuntary movements or sounds that people do repeatedly. This might include eye twitches, winks, or grunts. Someone with Tourette’s cannot stop their body from doing these things. Tourette’s can also co-occur with ASD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
How does it present at work? People with Tourette’s may have either noticeable or subtle tics, but those tics may happen more some days than others. Tics may worsen during times of stress or during exciting times. They may seem to disappear during times of concentration on an engaging task.
As we have mentioned, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Many types of neurodivergence coincide with one another, and some forms of neurodivergence are more common than others.
The rest of this article will focus on creating more welcoming workplaces for neurodivergent employees. For more information, check out our previous article on mental health tips for remote teams.
The traditional workplace wasn’t designed with neurodivergent workers in mind. Consider the way knowledge work has looked for decades: employees commute to an office, sit at a desk surrounded by coworkers for a specified amount of time, under bright lights and around people chatting. Deadlines are set in stone, meetings happen in person, and workers are expected to be at their desks at a specific time.
That may not sound stressful to a neurotypical person, but conforming to a neurotypical workplace can cause huge problems for neurodivergent employees. Take ADHD, for example. Because ADHD is often linked to insomnia and other sleep issues, people with the condition are often night owls who struggle with early morning hours.
“For me, too many early meetings is legitimately bad for my mental and physical health,” says Rhiannon Payne, senior project marketing manager for Remote.
Payne, who has ADHD also says the condition affects the way she works on tasks.
“In my personal experience, I struggle with consistency,” says Payne. “I have periods where I’m able to hyperfocus on tasks and feel on top of the world, and other times where I feel like I’m crashing and struggle to keep up with the bare minimum.”
For some neurodivergent people, just being in the office can be a struggle. That’s the case for Remote customer experience program manager Tarrah Nhari. Just the struggle of having to be in a setting that was stressful and overwhelming for her made it extra difficult for Nhari to work. Nahri suffers from anxiety and is an introvert, and although she hasn’t been formally diagnosed, she believes it’s likely she has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism.
“One of my biggest things was honestly just not having the space to be by myself and to think,” says Nhari. “The way that I'm wired is if I'm surrounded by too many people, I feel overwhelmed.”
Watch Tarrah’s story to hear her journey as a neurodivergent person in remote work.
You may feel your organization is already tolerant and inclusive, but that might not be the case. With so many different types of neurodivergence, you might nor realize that a team member is struggling with something you may not have even considered a hurdle.
So if you’re not neurodivergent yourself — and even if you are! — how can you understand if you’re appropriately supporting your neurodivergent employees?
The first step is simply acknowledging that neurodivergence is real, says Payne.
Often, neurodivergence is perceived as a personality flaw by neurotypical people who may not know better. ADHD people might be seen as lazy or messy; people with Tourette’s might be seen as inappropriate; or people with social anxiety might be interpreted as awkward. Neurodivergent people tend to internalize those messages, so it’s important when an employee publicly acknowledges the reality of neurodivergence and commits to inclusion.
The next step is to simply talk to your neurodivergent employees.
“Talk to neurodivergent folks across your teams and ask them about what their day-to-day work lives and challenges are,” says Payne. “Ask and listen to suggestions on how to make the workplace safe and more inclusive for those who work, learn, and communicate differently than the norm.”
Questions like, “How can I help support you so you can do your best work here?” and “What do you need from me that would make your day-to-day work life better?” are critical to improving the employee experience, as is truly listening to the answers and responding with actions and policies that help solve those problems.
“Rather than starting with tools or systems, the often overlooked foundation to support neurodivergent employees is a culture of curiosity and acceptance, with the openness and trust to have authentic conversation around needs embedded within a remote work environment,” says Jenny Palmer, remote work consultant and virtual change manager at Distribute.
How an organization should adapt to be more inclusive starts with a willingness to ask the right questions and genuinely listen.
Distribute's whitepaper Accommodating Disabilities in Remote & Hybrid Workforces offers a roadmap for remote-first and hybrid organizations to better understand the virtual employee experience of team members with disabilities, sharing strategies to address common challenges with ableism in remote work to create a more inclusive, location-independent workplace.
While some managers may believe no one on their team is neurodiverse, that’s not often the case. Neurodivergent employees are not required to share their condition with their employers. Many neurodivergent people in the world and in the workplace do not share their status with others.
Between 30% to 40% of the population may be neurodiverse, although many may not know it or may not have been diagnosed. It’s estimated that 1% of people have ASD, 8% have ADHD, 10% have dyslexia, 1% have dyspraxia, and 1% have Tourette’s Syndrome. Even on small teams, it’s likely someone has some degree of neurodivergence.
Regardless of whether you know, you’re likely to have someone on your team who is neurodivergent. If not yet, you almost certainly will in the future.
Want more remote team management advice? Remote’s CEO Job van der Voort offers a collection of actionable tips to help!
Providing a neurodiverse-friendly workplace for all kinds of brains may seem like a monumental task at first, particularly to a neurotypical manager who has never considered the problem, but it’s well worth the effort — and not as difficult as it sounds. Greg Galant, co-founder and CEO of Muck Rack, agrees.
At Muck Rack, we are focused on creating a culture of inclusion. We recognize and appreciate the fact that neurodivergent colleagues can bring unique skills, perspectives, and opinions that enable us to build a stronger business.
A neurodiverse workforce is a strength for an organization because neurodivergent people experience the world differently, which means noticing things others may not. Take the example of user experience in a software development company. Having a neurodivergent team will improve accessibility for users who want to be able to adjust colors or sounds or who want the option to send a spoken message instead of typing, for example. These things might not be caught by an all-neurotypical development team.
“If you just put people that all have the same ideas and same thought processes in the same room, things are going to become stagnant extremely quickly,” says Nhari. “If you're an organization that only has neurotypical people in it, whatever it is that you're trying to produce within your business is only going to apply to neurotypical people.”
Part of the issue with an organization made up of neurotypical people is that it misses the point of a neurodiverse workforce. Neurodivergent people may be thought of as lacking certain qualities rather than having specific strengths that contribute to the organization.
Payne points out that while neurotypical people may associate negative traits with ADHD, they might miss the positive traits that come with it.
“Folks with ADHD are commonly super creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and empathetic leaders,” she says. “We also have a few what I like to call ‘superpowers,’ like being able to hyperfocus on tasks that interest us! When someone with ADHD is working on a project they’re genuinely interested in and excited about, they can produce incredible work. This can be a huge asset to any organization.”
For Nhari, it’s important that companies realize that diversity is the key to moving forward as an organization.
“To me, it's just a no-brainer that an organization has every type of brain, from every type of background, from every walk of life,” she says. “You want to have representation from every type of background so you can make sure that you are catering to a wider audience. How are you going to be profitable if you're limiting yourself to a demographic that is very specific and you’ve discounted half the population?”
Research supports the notion that accommodating neurodivergent employees has a positive bottom-line effect. For example, employees living and working with a disability have lower rates of staff absenteeism and tend to have significantly higher motivation.
This excellent Wrkfrce guide can help readers understand why workers with a disability help remote teams flourish. Author Agata Antonow points to a study by JP Morgan that uncovered employees with autism were able to ramp up their performance to maximum output three years earlier than other colleagues, with an average of 50% higher productivity than their colleagues.
Employment rates of people with disabilities are lower than average, and remote work provides an incredible opportunity for inclusive employers looking to find more qualified talent. Seemingly one of the biggest blockers to reducing this imbalance is a general lack of education and specific knowledge within HR and managerial teams.
“Leaders can go above and beyond to support neurodivergent employees by clearly communicating the fact that all styles of neurocognitive functioning are celebrated, appreciated and welcomed by the organization,” says Jayne Morris, author of Burnout to Brilliance.
The rise of remote work marks an incredible opportunity for organizations to build more inclusive and adaptable cultures. More intentionality during the hiring process can uncover a wealth of potential talent that is under-supported and undervalued by the majority of employers today.
All your employees need and deserve support from your company. But it may seem overwhelming to support many different kinds of brains in one organization. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to make your workplace neurodivergence-friendly.
For Payne, the most important things an organization can offer to neurodivergent workers are respect, validation, and flexibility.
“In the workplace, it’s important to create a culture where employees can feel comfortable sharing that they have ADHD or are neurodivergent — if they choose to,” she says.
This is important because people with ADHD, as well as other neurodivergent employees, may have shame and guilt built up around the symptoms of their condition. Autistic workers may feel shame about their communication style. Workers with Tourette’s may be self-conscious about tics. Workers with ADHD may have shame around not being able to focus. A lot of this may go back to their experiences in school, which is a lot like being an office, says Nhari.
It's an extension of those same anxieties and situations that you had to face in school, but now your money, your wellbeing, and a bunch of other things are on the line.
Creating an environment where all your employees feel free to talk about their struggles in the workplace, and share the way they work best is the first step to building a neurodivergence-friendly workplace.
“The best examples that I have seen of organizations leading the way with meeting diverse needs has been through the open and honest conversations that are had,” says Morris. “It isn’t always about what has been accommodated in terms of support, but also about the transparency and clear explanations given around the things that haven’t been possible to provide.”
Jenny Palmer says if your organization is serious about developing a more inclusive environment, you need to update the culture of your business rather than simply plugging in new tools or training modules:
“The often overlooked foundation to support neurodivergent employees is a culture of curiosity and acceptance, with the openness and trust to have authentic conversation around needs embedded within a remote work environment.”
It’s not enough to talk about neurodivergence at work. Workplaces also should be aware of how neurodivergence affects the team and their work.
According to Jayne Morris, neurodivergent individuals tend to avoid and become frustrated by tasks they find difficult. Proofreading and editing, for example, is particularly difficult for those with dyslexia. They shine, however, when they’re given a task that matches their strengths.
“The integration of strength-based support systems is important in leveraging the talent of neurodivergent employees and enabling them to unleash their full potential and thrive,” she says.
Morris recommends remaining agile when it comes to assigning tasks so that team members who enjoy and do well at certain tasks can handle them. Don’t assume, though — ask! Rather than assume a person with dyslexia does not want to proofread, for example, let employees speak for themselves. You may discover that a person with a specific neurodiversity may thrive in unexpected ways.
The rise in remote work in the last few years has been a benefit to neurodivergent workers, many of whom have felt empowered, and in many cases, freed, by asynchronous work.
J.D. Alex, a talent researcher for Stripe, believes flexibility at work is the best support a workplace can offer neurodivergent employees.
“Giving a person the space and time to decide when they are most productive and feel their best is the best thing companies can do for their neurodivergent team members,” says Alex. “We cannot expect our team members to come to work and perform at 100% if we are telling them that their 100% has to be between 9-5.”
Flexibility at work is so important to Nhari that she wouldn’t even consider a job that doesn’t offer it. After working remotely and asynchronously, Nhari has no desire to return to a traditional office setting.
“It's about having a space that recognizes that people operate in different ways, that people require different things to be productive,” says Nhari. “ It is just about a company remaining open and remaining flexible and knowing that people are different and that just having one way of working literally doesn't make sense.”
To learn more, read Remote’s guide on creating psychological safety in remote work.
While being able to work remotely is a breath of relief for many neurotypical workers, for neurodivergent employees, it can be a heavy sigh of relief.
For Remote Talent Sourcer Yasmine Gray, who has sensory issues, remote work has allowed her to control her environment rather than be controlled by it.
“Async and remote in themselves are pretty life altering,” she says. “Not having to mask constantly, being able to drop out of meetings without losing the ability to contribute, being able to control the environment (heat, light, sitting positions) to help with sensory needs.”
Building a strong and supportive remote work culture is essential to making neurodivergent employees feel welcome. Part of that culture means offering the right benefits so employees can receive the care they need to flourish.
“One of the ways we can help neurodivergent individuals and every employee is by offering more extensive health care coverage,” says Mike Swigunski, author and remote work leader. “I urge remote leaders to provide monthly stipends for therapy coverage and attempt to normalize these types of benefits.”
At Remote, for example, we offer all employees access to mental health care to ensure everyone has the resources they need. We also offer perks like unlimited PTO (with a mandatory minimum number of days off!). You can read all about Remote’s approach to total rewards to learn more about how Remote creates a welcoming environment.
Asynchronous work is the practice of not requiring everyone on your team to work at the same time. For remote teams, this means not everyone is online at once. This is a must for global teams spanning many time zones. Some team members might be asleep while others are at work, and you cannot expect everyone to work the same hours.
Asynchronous work is also, however, hugely important for neurodivergent employees, whose inner clocks may not match up with those of their neurotypical peers.
Take the example of ADHD employees, who are commonly night owls because of sleep issues. Asynchronous work allows them to work at night or whenever they feel most comfortable and able to concentrate. For Payne, asynchronous work has allowed her to work when she’s most productive.
“Not everyone is wired to do their best work on a rigid 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule,” she says. ”Folks with ADHD also commonly struggle with sleep-related issues that make them more productive at night and can make early morning meetings a huge struggle.”
Stigma regarding neurodivergent individuals remains, and there are many harmful stereotypes — most of them born of misunderstanding. With this in mind, it’s important to educate both management and your broader organization about neurodiversity in the workplace.
Not only will this help your organization better understand the neurodiverse individuals on your team, but training (along with proper follow-through and reinforcement of the ideas introduced through training) also demonstrates your organization’s commitment to your neurodivergent employees, many of whom may have felt neglected or overlooked at other jobs.
Off-the-shelf courses and training initiatives are available to train both managers and the workforce about neurodiversity, but for organizations creating their own initiatives (or those simply seeking a better understanding) there are several resources about neurodiversity available:
Remote also has resources to help companies create more inclusive workplaces.
Inclusive workplaces start with inclusive hiring. How can you create a recruitment process that encourages neurodiverse people to apply to your company? And how can you support neurodivergent job candidates through the hiring process?
Greg Galant explains the intentional practices that Muck Rack has implemented to become more inclusive of neurodivergent candidates:
“We've developed a standardized interview process that focuses on skills and abilities, removing bias, and ensuring we are not falling into the trap of only hiring candidates that are a ‘culture fit.’ For our technical interviews, we focus on short, skill-based, take-home assignments rather than live coding, as we understand people work differently, and this common setup is not one where everyone can thrive or do their best work.”
Here are a few more tips on building a more inclusive recruitment process:
There are plenty of qualified neurodiverse job candidates looking for work. Data shows that around 80% of autistic adults are unemployed, while more than half of adults with ADHD have lost or left jobs due to their symptoms. Those are just the available statistics; there are likely far more neurodivergent job candidates seeking work than have been surveyed by researchers.
The truth is that neurodiverse workers are highly capable and intelligent team members. Many of them have been passed over in interviews because they appear “different.” Some may not follow the same social cues as neurotypical peers. However, work isn’t just about socializing, and your organization needs many different types of brains to succeed.
By positioning yourself as a neurodiversity-friendly workplace and offering a flexible, supportive environment, you can reap the advantages those workers have to offer: creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and an approach to problems that neurotypical employees may not have considered.
Employees contribute most to your team when they are happy and comfortable. To learn more about creating a positive environment for your team, check out Remote’s panel and Q&A session on helping your team enjoy better life-work balance.
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