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The agile workforce

Freedom to adapt: On building remote workplace equity for neurodivergent staff


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    Riley Leight
  • Mar 05, 2021
TLDR

Leaving traditional offices behind doesn’t mean workplace inequity disappears. To help neurodivergent employees thrive in a remote environment, leaders need to communicate clearly and empower staff to make choices. In doing so, you make it easier for your entire organization to succeed.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has helped expose depths of inequality many communities face. But most of the issues rearing their head today aren’t new, they’re just harder to ignore—including those in the workplace.

For many neurodivergent employees, the shift to a remote, at-home work experience has created stressors that are sometimes invisible and often misunderstood by co-workers. Routines have been turned upside-down and support systems have become harder to access—not to mention the ongoing impact of isolation, economic stress, and political turmoil.

When leaders recognize those struggles and address them with practical solutions, it can foster a more welcoming, productive, and equitable work environment—remote or not.

Below, you’ll find a guide on how to see where your team may be facing equity gaps, how to listen to needs with empathy, and how to adapt the environment to help everyone succeed.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer. It is a social movement and a framework for analyzing inequality based on the idea that many people experience natural variations in thinking and behavior that only appear abnormal because our society does not understand or accommodate them. 

Neurodivergent is a term used to describe people who experience those natural variations in neurological development and function that may appear atypical. It is most often associated with things like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, but extends to many other experiences that may consistently impact someone’s ability to focus, learn, manage their mood and emotions, or navigate social interactions.

The core concept seems clear—no one’s brain works exactly the same way—and yet our classrooms, workplaces, and social norms are largely one-size-fits-all.

For neurodivergent people, that often makes it feel as if every system is setting you up to fail, meaning sudden, dramatic overhauls like the shift to remote work can leave you frustrated, isolated, and overwhelmed.

It’s important for professional leaders to understand that neurodivergent employees are just as capable of being effective members of a team as anyone else, and in fact bring unique skills, strategies, and solutions to the table—but have the best chance of succeeding if their environment enables them to thrive.

Important terms 

  • Neurodiversity: an understanding of neurological differences as natural, valuable, and in need of proper accommodation rather than stigma.

  • Neurodivergent: a person who experiences variations in neurological function that impact their daily life and may appear atypical in contrast to social norms.

  • Neurotypical: a person who experiences largely typical neurological function and therefore does not face significant additional difficulty navigating the norms of educational, professional, or social settings as a result of their neurotype.

Identify equity gaps in the remote workplace

Sadly, many neurodivergent people grow up without proper accommodations, resources, or even a complete understanding of why they experience the world the way they do. 

This can make it hard to speak up for yourself when new stressors begin to appear, as you may feel like any difficulties are simply a result of your own inherent flaws. 

Leaders should make the effort to be actively cognizant of when some employees may be struggling with environmental factors more than others. This is particularly true in times of dramatic transition, surrounding major world events, or any other high-stress periods in the workplace.

Signs to look for

  • A team member seems to be too hard on themselves, diminishes their accomplishments, or regularly engages in negative self-talk. 

  • A team member consistently seems disconnected from conversations, struggles to engage, or is uncomfortable with certain modes of communication.

  • A team member repeatedly fails to hit deadlines, arrive at meetings on time, or otherwise fit into the established workflow.

The goal in considering neurodiversity in the workplace is not to make a person more effective for the sake of a system, but to make a system more effective for the sake of a person.

Riley Leight

Seek to understand differences

Not every sign of difficulty means an employee is neurodivergent. What’s more important is to understand that it may be the case, and recognizing that the instinct to respond critically or punitively would only lead to further harm. 

Instead, the goal should be to seek understanding to generate actionable solutions. 

The easiest way to approach conversations around creating a more equitable workplace is with a human-first perspective: once you’ve identified a potential obstacle, express your desire to work toward a solution together while emphasizing the goal is not to make a person more effective for the sake of a system, but to make a system more effective for the sake of a person.

Questions to ask

  • “How could we improve the structure, style, or content of our meetings to make it easier for you to engage and participate?”

  • “What is the most clear and useful way for me to communicate with you, especially when it comes to feedback on your work and performance?”

  • “Is there anything about our day-to-day workflow and schedule that is preventing you from feeling successful or productive?”
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Adapt effectively through clarity and choice

Knowing the right thing to say to your boss, juggling a few tasks at once, or interpreting feedback from multiple sources aren’t always easy tasks for anyone—but for some neurodivergent workers, they can pose a more complex challenge.

Once you see and understand workers’ needs, there are two main principles to keep in mind when developing strategies to address them: clarity and choice. Clear communication ensures expectations are understood, and flexible choices mean workers can naturally find a successful path.

Adapting your workplace to be more equitable isn’t about finding the one perfect strategy or system that checks every box—it’s the opposite. Neurodiversity helps us understand that difference is natural and beneficial, and there isn’t one “right way” to make your remote workplace equitable for neurodivergent staff.

That sounds complicated, but it can actually be quite simple. Even something as small as noting that attendees aren’t expected to turn their cameras on for every virtual meeting can bring clarity and choice with minimal effort.

Techniques to try

  • Be explicit, even if it feels excessive. Email a brief reminder of what you want to accomplish in a meeting the day before it takes place, create and share notes you might not expect to be helpful, or write down all those “unwritten rules.” Just a little extra effort will save time and ease anxieties.

  • Flexibility is key in finding solutions, but routine and consistency are also needed to create peace of mind. When you have to make an unexpected shift in workload, focus, or scheduling, provide as much warning as possible and explain the options for how to approach those changes.

  • Especially at large companies, it can be helpful to create formal infrastructure to identify and support the needs of neurodivergent workers through relational solutions like mentoring, job coaching, employee resource groups, and more.

Maintaining equity post-pandemic

Just as the shift to remote work put a strain on many employees, it’s important to know that a sudden return to offices might be just as difficult

From the anxiety of increased social interaction to establishing new routines, growing pains will be unavoidable—and leaders should maintain a high level of awareness to make sure employees’ needs are met.

Factors like gender, race, sexuality, and physical/mental health can also create unique workplace stressors, even for neurotypical team members. At Twilio, that means we have a responsibility to create flexible, built-to-evolve policies like Open Work that make the workplace more equitable and productive for everyone.

Though new challenges are inevitable, the post-pandemic future could provide workers with unprecedented opportunities to thrive; leveraging the knowledge gained from remote environments will allow leaders to lay the groundwork for new, hybridized approaches to work that achieve a more empathetic, human-first experience. 

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Riley Leight

Riley is a full-time writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.