Collaboration culture: Encouraging a culture of neurodiversity

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Neurodiversity (ND) is fast becoming a board-level interest, and it’s easy to see why.

There are many advantages to be gained from having a diverse and inclusive workforce, so IT and business leaders must shift their approach from a standard or status quo approach, to proactively seeking, recruiting and retaining the best ND talent.

So what is neurodiversity, and where do you start?

‘Neurodivergent people are being filtered out’

ND covers a broad spectrum of conditions and disabilities including autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. Between 15% and 20% of people are estimated to be ND, and yet only 7% of companies worldwide have an ND plan in place, according to a 2020 report from Universum, which assists businesses with D&I programs. Taking autism as one example of an ND condition, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK found that just 22% of people with autism were in paid work in the UK in 2020, with the European Parliament calculating an even lower figure of less than 10% for the EU.

In one study of neurodivergent people by analyst firm Gartner, 75% were qualified and enthusiastic about gaining employment, but only a small percentage of neurodiverse people were actively employed. At a time when the IT industry is struggling with a well-publicized skills shortage, and particularly in advancing areas such as data science, some could say this is a missed opportunity.

“Many neurodivergent people are being filtered out,” said Gartner senior director analyst Rob O’Donohue in a recent interview with Silicon Republic. “CIOs are struggling to find the talent, yet it exists. It’s just that they’re not looking in the right places.”

The benefits of ND teams

Having teams that include ND members does more than tick diversity boxes; it makes good business sense. A truly diverse and inclusive workforce enables organizations to benefit from ND employees’ unique and varied talents. For IT leaders and their teams, these can include technical skills like enhanced numeracy, programming, and logic, as well as creative skills and enhanced productivity.

In one case study, JPMorgan Chase reported that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative made fewer errors and were between 90% and 140% more productive than neurotypical employees. The benefits of having a neurodiverse team and culture in the workplace make the journey towards greater diversity worthwhile.

In understanding ND conditions, and altering employee hiring processes accordingly, the organization can also make itself more attractive to prospective and current employees. Additionally, neurodiverse staff can offer powerful softer skills too, like honesty, focus and commitment, says the University of Edinburgh.

The business will also benefit from having multiple perspectives when it comes to problem-solving, product design, and service accessibility. Some ND employees have strong lateral thinking capabilities, with other individuals offering sharper attention to detail, or displaying a greater ability to absorb facts and retain information. Furthermore, they can help the business to see products, services and the overall customer experience from a more inclusive point of view.

It’s a small wonder then that analyst firm Gartner, in its annual predictions for CIOs, said that IT leaders should champion neurodiverse teams in the year ahead; not only because it can greatly accelerate digital transformation but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

“CIOs should champion neurodiverse teams and dedicate time to learning about neurodiversity, creating a policy to encourage neurodiversity and focusing on making changes in the IT team,” said the analysts at the time.

Neurodiversity in action

For many organizations, neurodiversity forms part of their D&I strategy for the year ahead, but some organizations have already shown how to forge ahead.

Take Microsoft, for example. In 2015, the company began its Autism Hiring Program, headed by Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft. The business recognized there were many highly talented individuals with autism on the market. Microsoft felt ND individuals could thrive in their environment, but needed to rethink how it attracted ND talent, and how it could make its recruitment and onboarding more suitable.

The company, therefore, altered its hiring process and developed a candidate screening process which focused on demonstrated ability, completing tasks, and solving problems, instead of just being based on soft skills. Now celebrating its 6th anniversary, the program has hired dozens of ND staff, from software engineers and data scientists to content writers. Even having to adapt to a completely virtual process during the pandemic, candidates expressed how “the experience allowed them to feel more comfortable and allowed them to showcase their talents through a digital platform in the comfort of their homes and by using their preferred communication styles.”

Adobe is another technology company that is taking action in diversity and ND inclusion, particularly through its values-centric Adobe For All in Action initiative, which uses employee storytelling as a powerful way to build empathy and inclusion. The company actively attracts a diverse range of candidates and has enhanced the employee experience by fostering D&I. For example, it is creating opportunities for people with disabilities in India by hiring interns and it is now working to drive diversity across the industry through its Supplier Diversity Program. The organization’s Access employee networks also connects employees with similar backgrounds and identities to better support underrepresented communities.

How to get started with neurodiversity

The best way to build a program that attracts and retains qualified ND candidates is to recognize the advantages in having ND employees, and make recruitment, onboarding and training more accessible and relevant for ND individuals. For the CIO or equivalent, this may mean working closely with HR and other line-of-business managers, , and understanding the meaning and value of neurodiversity in their organization prior to implementing an effective neurodiversity program.

It’s also advisable to follow in the footsteps of those who have done it well, such as Microsoft and Adobe, who demonstrate how much can be achieved.

To find out more about Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring initiatives click here, or here to find information on Diversity and Inclusion at Adobe. Alternatively, listen to episode 7 of The Living Enterprise podcast series, where world-leading CIOs, CTOs and CDOs talk about why and how they’re prioritizing diversity for the year ahead.