Neurodiversity and the workplace

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By Richard Kauntze, chief executive of The British Council for Offices (BCO)

It is essential that any modern business is as diverse and inclusive as it can be. However, diversity is a complex topic and one with many different facets.

Consider neurodiversity. First coined in 1998, neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions. Neurodiverse individuals can include those with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and Asperger’s syndrome.

In society, attitudes towards neurodiversity have come a long way. Remarkably, it was only a few decades ago that mothers were blamed for their children’s autism. Neurodiverse people are better represented culturally, too, thanks to programmes like Netflix’s Atypical. However, more can be done to improve the inclusion of neurodiverse people at work.

Being more diverse and inclusive is not only morally right, but it also makes business sense. The more a business reflects the diversity of the modern world and its customers, the more likely it is to understand their needs. And, the more a business can draw on varied ways of thinking and experience from within its workforce, the more innovative and creative it is likely to be.

This is particularly true when it comes to neurodiverse employees. Neurodiversity advocates, such as John Elder Robison, who grew up with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, argue that what can be perceived as a weakness in a neurodiverse individual can also be a significant strength. For example, a person with ADHD may struggle to focus on some tasks but give other tasks unparalleled attention. An autistic person may have an exceptional memory or even ‘savant skills’, i.e. abilities that go far beyond those seen in most people.

As proof, Robison taught himself about electric circuits and sound waves and became a guitar designer for KISS, as well as a toy designer. More broadly, JPMorgan Chase reports that after three to six months of working in its Mortgage Banking Technology group, autistic employees were doing the work of people who typically required three years to train—and were fifty percent more productive. Of course, it’s important not to be too sweeping with our generalisations, and businesses should care about neurodiversity regardless of any clear gain.

When it comes to the office, we can support neurodiverse individuals through inclusive design. In their paper Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace, HOK outline how inclusive design creates a welcoming, human environment. This can mean the use of natural materials, biophilia, varied ceiling heights and different lighting. Brighter colours, imagery and landmarks help neurodiverse individuals navigate the office.

The paper also highlights the importance of varied spaces within the office. While some neurodiverse individuals may want private workspaces to focus on their work, others may find that these spaces only heighten feelings of isolation. Ideally, a workplace features nooks and alcoves as areas of refuge, as well as clusters and neighbourhoods that allow people to socialise and feel a part of a team. In truth, all these principles are reflective of general good design.

We all work differently, whether we are neurodiverse or neurotypical, and a good workplace will allow for this. As we hopefully return to the office later this year, we have an opportunity to create better, more inclusive workplaces. Doing so will help us be more inclusive, more diverse and help all of us get more out of our work.

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