Neurodiverse talent   //   April 9, 2024

‘Inclusion as a habit’: Why meeting neurodiverse staff’s needs is good for workforce productivity

This article is part of a series that will spotlight the biggest challenges and opportunities for desk-based professionals who are neurodiverse. More from the series →

Businesses are getting better at catering to the needs of neurodiverse professionals – efforts that are starting to benefit the entire workforce. And that’s helping to drive business outcomes, company leaders and DEI experts say.

Organizations continue to experiment with finding the best working structures that benefit productivity and employee well-being – a common exercise since the days of mass remote working during the pandemic years. Now that’s stretching to employers and staff looking more closely at whether all their staff have the right aids and resources needed to do their best work, including neurodiverse professionals.

“The majority of processes within companies and cultures were always really designed from a neurotypical perspective,” said Christie Lindor, a lecturer at Bentley University and founder of Tessi Consulting, where her work is centered around diversity, equity and inclusion, and workplace culture.

Remote, an HR tech company, has developed a couple of practices specifically for neurodiverse staff, that have turned out to be beneficial for everyone, particularly those around future planning and more thoroughly ensuring people know what’s expected of them

Neurodiversity is a broad spectrum and can affect those with certain conditions in different ways. Those with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, may struggle with social interaction and reading cues and subtleties.

Workers with conditions like autism also may feel they need extra clarity around future events to properly plan and prepare themselves, so Remote requires staff to provide meeting agendas to attendees 24 hours in advance — making ultimately everyone more prepared and productive, said Amanda Day, director of people enablement. The company also encourages providing written instructions for increased clarity. For instance, if someone is given a new task they haven’t done before, a supervisor will send documented instructions. And Remote has fostered a culture where social time is optional – meaning skipping out on happy hours, team events and other group activities if your social battery is drained comes with little judgment.

Another accommodation it made is its easily, publicly accessible employee handbook with both visual and written design elements in a streamlined format. It’s especially helpful for workers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who may become easily distracted or overwhelmed when presented with too much material or information at once.

“The majority of processes within companies and cultures were always really designed from a neurotypical perspective."
Christie Lindor, lecturer at Bentley University and founder of Tessi Consulting.

“We’ve really wanted to create an inclusive environment where people bring their best selves to work, and with that comes flexibility. We want to have fluidity between people’s work life, personal life, and ensure that we’re providing an environment that has multiple options,” she said.

At SlooMoo, a toy slime company, accommodating neurodiverse staff has been paramount to its success, said co-founder Sara Schiller. Since its launch in 2019, the start-up has opened interactive museums in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta and Houston, and has a Los Angeles location opening this Summer. 

About 10% of its roughly 400-person workforce — which includes both corporate and retail and museum floor staff — is neurodivergent, Schiller said. One practice it incorporates in the workplace is providing visual instructions and guidebooks with images of processes for staff who think more visually.

“Anytime you make an investment in a neurodiverse employee, for support for them, you’re making that investment for everybody,” she said. 

Neurodiverse staff in her experience have been overwhelmingly reliable, positive and engaged in their work, leading to higher productivity, job satisfaction and lower turnover overall. “They’re beyond valuable. They’re lowering our cost because we’re not investing in having to recruit and train over and over,” she said.

“If you know someone processes information differently, you might speak more slowly, you might be more kind, you might repeat something, you might be really patient if they ask you a question, and that transfers to everybody."
Sara Schiller, co-founder of SlooMoo Slime Institute.

“If you know someone processes information differently, you might speak more slowly, you might be more kind, you might repeat something, you might be really patient if they ask you a question, and that transfers to everybody,” she said.

Retaining workers is still a key challenge for employers even amid the Big Stay as attitudes have shifted and workers are demanding more from their employers, and seeking work elsewhere if they aren’t offered the work-life balance, flexibility and other benefits they seek. And amid ongoing financial challenges for employers, attrition itself is costly.

Organizations with more inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes, according to a report from Deloitte.

As a lecturer on organizational behavior, DEI and management consulting, Lindor said in recent years she has noticed more students feeling comfortable disclosing a condition with her and asking for accommodations. For example, more students have shared they have ADHD and can get easily distracted or struggle to focus in certain environments. Therefore they work better in private spaces with few distractions to take an exam.

Other students with anxiety disorders have arrangements where they can watch a video of the lecture if they can’t come to class on certain days.

Those accommodations help make them better students and enable them to do their best work, she said. “I’ve never had a concern about the academic performance of any of the neurodiverse students I’ve had.”

But she believes more work is needed in the business world, to improve inclusivity for neurodiverse professionals. “It’s nice to see acceptance on the rise in academia, but I think on the business side there’s a lot of work and awareness that needs to be done to meet that same level of normalization and accepting these types of accommodations into the culture,” she said. “…Being able to do these things helps create and foster that sense of inclusion and it creates inclusion as a habit, that everyone doesn’t always present and show up the same,” said Lindor.

And change can still be made on a smaller scale. “You don’t have to be Google or Apple to have a neurodiverse inclusion program, you can be a startup, you can be a small company, and make meaningful impact,” Schiller added.