INSIGHTS

How to Create a Neuro-inclusive Workplace

Panel of Experts - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Inspired Sessions #2 Writeup – Creating a Neuro-inclusive Workplace

This event was the second in a series of ‘Inspired Sessions’ an event series in partnership with Inspire Wellbeing, about enhancing the wellbeing of people at work.

We were joined by Chrissy McDougall, Senior Learning Specialist and Volunteer at Neurodiversity in Business, Paul Fox, VP of Inclusive Technologies at Texthelp, Alex Bunting, Director of Therapeutic Services at Inspire Wellbeing and Jayne Crampton, experienced Design Director and Workplace Consultant on behalf of Calibro, to discuss the important topic of Creating a Neuro-inclusive Workplace.

The session covered what neurodiversity is and why inclusion matters, the challenges in creating an inclusive workplace and how they can be overcome, the benefits of doing so, how workplaces can be adapted to meet the needs of neurodivergent individuals, how we all experience a workplace; and how an organisation can create a truly neuro-inclusive culture.

Here, we delve into some detail on each of these points.

Chrissy gave an overview of neurodiversity, prefacing with the fact that it’s important not to get too caught up in labelling. Outlining that in simple terms, neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits. Neurodivergent individuals think, learn and process information differently. 

Current reports indicate that over 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent, however, this statistic only reflects those who have a formal diagnosis. There is a huge percentage of the population that are currently undiagnosed or self-diagnosed which are not accounted for. There is also a trend of late diagnosis of ADHD for women, with most going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with mental health and/or other conditions until their 40s. Chrissy advised that although you may think you do not have neurodivergent individuals in your workplace, it is likely that you do but they are either undiagnosed, have chosen not to disclose or do not yet know it themselves.

A show of hands around the room indicated that approximately 40% of those present, from various industries including tech, property, legal, financial research and industrial, knew or were aware of neurodivergent individuals in their workplace.

Further to this point, Paul cited recent research by ZenBusiness that indicated 53% of Gen Z now self-identify as neurodivergent, posing the question; ‘have you considered what exclusion means?’ A lot of businesses think inclusion means making accommodations and adjustments but the use of this type of language can be quite disablist and it’s important to move towards acceptance. It’s about actively listening to and observing what’s going on in your workplace and levelling the playing field. “If you create an inclusive environment, you will have a more productive, engaged and loyal workforce, and that’s why inclusion matters.”

Calibro Workspace - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Challenges in creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Budget and process were noted as significant challenges on the journey to creating a neuro-inclusive workplace.

Paul provided insight into the hurdles the team at Texthelp encounter when dealing with clients, advocating an enterprise approach when implementing assistive technologies whereby they are rolled out for all employees to use, not just those who specifically request them or disclose a neurodivergent condition. He noted that one objection from a particular client was that they give their employees everything they need, all they have to do is ask, but that approach can be problematic, as people tend not to ask in the first instance. Whereas, if you introduce the tool to all employees, you will find that many benefit, not just those who are neurodivergent.

Current recruitment practices were also discussed. Alex noted that the traditional processes mean that all applicants must tick a certain box, answer a set format of questions or even do a presentation as part of the process, and this standardisation – largely to ensure fair and equal recruitment practices, can in most cases be unfair and unequal to those who are not comfortable with the normal ‘processes’. Presenting the challenge to organisations to think about skills-based recruitment, what shortage they have and how they get the people they need; and to ensure these processes are reviewed through the lens of inclusion.

Then there’s the challenge presented by the shrinking talent pool and the question – how do we appeal to younger people who think that accommodations aren’t negotiable, they’re a necessity?

Everyone is different. We all have differences. Some have mental health issues, some have trauma, some are neurodivergent. It’s about accepting those differences, broadening our thinking, and trying to understand from all perspectives. In accepting our differences, organisations then need to push the reset button on how they approach many of the systems and processes currently in place and focus on inclusivity. There is a drive there to make sure inclusivity is understood in its widest sense and to develop this understanding, training is required. Referencing the pressures on the healthcare system, Alex noted that people can wait up to seven years for a diagnosis, so moving away from labels or a reliance on people disclosing neurodivergent conditions, to creating an inclusive workplace will mean that businesses will attract the people with the skillsets and strengths they require.

Further to this point, Chrissy pointed out that those with a diagnosis, may have multiple diagnoses, so it’s best to take a holistic approach and get to know your team on an individual level.

Delving into training, developing managers’ understanding and awareness will encourage them to act, listen and engage with members of their team differently. Alex acknowledged that in people management, you alter how you deal with everyone on your team, being aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses for example and advised arming managers with this knowledge will lead to more effective teams as they are able to identify traits or behaviours, or an area where someone is struggling, and provide relevant supports.

Calibro Workspace - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

The benefits of creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

“If you create a truly neuro-inclusive workplace, you’re creating a space where everyone feels valued, everyone feels welcome, you’re tapping into their individual strengths and you’re getting people to work together much more effectively” says Chrissy. “When you start including everyone in your workplace, they’re much happier, their mental health is much better, and people will start to bring their authentic selves to work.”

Neurodivergent individuals will often spend a lot of time trying to mask their conditions.

Oftentimes, someone with a neurodivergent condition may not know what could help them, so having some supports and adjustments readily available will mean you can offer some options for them to try. When you introduce adjustments for everyone, not just neurodivergent individuals, everyone will benefit.

Paul added that adjustments are not just related to the physical work environment. Individual working styles and patterns vary for everyone and having policies in place that support individuals such as flexible working hours and hybrid working arrangements will empower them to make choices for how they work best.

A technology company Jayne worked with previously, recognised that their team worked better if they were given permission to start later in the day which led to increased productivity overall.

Paul and Alex both agreed that diversity is the ultimate benefit… and it’s where you want to get to. We want to have a range of people with different strengths and skillsets so as managers, you can look at these skills, how they complement and offset each other to optimise performance.

We want to create inclusive places for all. We all think, act and work differently, and when you bring those groups of people together, creativity soars, productivity increases, and the bottom line improves.

Workplace design for neuro-inclusion

“Most people experience spaces through all five senses. Neurodivergent individuals, however, have sensory processing challenges which affects how they experience the environment around them. Additionally, as humans, we feel before we think it’s our instinct.” Jayne

Let’s look at each of the five senses.

Calibro Workspace - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Sight

Visual cues such as well contrasted signage, colour coded or clear walkways and the use of focal points can enhance navigation and create a reassuring sense of order for neurodivergent individuals.

If we think about colour psychology and pattern psychology, using busy, bright tones to create high impact, energetic spaces can be quite overstimulating for some. Conversely, natural or muted tones can have a relaxing effect.

Auditory

Consider how to mitigate the impact of noise. We need to design spaces that reduce cognitive stress that occurs when there is a lot of it. This can be achieved using acoustic products such as wall coverings, ceiling baffles or desk and space dividers. Flooring finishes and upholstered furniture also helps to absorb noise. If we consider deaf people, one of their primary senses are gone so lighting is very important.

Touch

Touch is closely associated with comfort or the lack thereof. Some neurodivergent individuals rely on touch as a comforter or way of self-soothing, so embracing natural, soft textures is a great way to create a tactile and comfortable environment.

Calibro Workspace - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Taste and Smell

Smell is interesting because it’s largely something you don’t have control over, you can’t not smell something. It’s also closest to our memory bank so when you smell something, it might conjure up a memory. If you have an open plan breakout space, it’s important to allow for ample ventilation in your budget to eliminate unnecessary odours.

Workplaces are also now taking notes from hospitality, introducing things like scent machines to fill spaces with natural lavender and rosemary scents for example to create a calming effect.

As a designer addressing this sense is also about using products and materials that have low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are gases emitted from solids or liquids that can have adverse health effects.

Space planning

Providing people with a choice of where they work is a great way to foster inclusivity and meet people’s needs. Incorporating different zones such as quiet pods, focus rooms, wellbeing spaces and collaboration areas in addition to meeting rooms, and providing space if you can for people to spread out and not have to touch other people, has been important in the last few years.

It’s about understanding people, how they work and interact, and what they need in a space.

How to create a truly neuro-inclusive culture

“Culture comes from the top down and for diversity and inclusion to be ingrained in an organisation’s culture, you need executive buy in.” Paul notes. When senior leadership are committed to and take action to create an inclusive workplace, it fosters trust and creates a sense of belonging among staff.

Lead with empathy and curiosity

“One of the most important things we can do is to start having conversations. Make it a normal part of everyday life within your organisation, not just one day a week or year. Embed it into your culture. Create curiosity and an environment where people are not afraid to ask questions. You can get so caught up in getting the terminology right and understanding but sometimes that stops people from asking questions. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Chrissy

You can always put a disclaimer out that you don’t know much about the area of neurodiversity, but you want to learn more about it and make sure that knowledge is shared across the organisation.

If someone says they’re self-diagnosed, believe them. It takes a lot of courage for someone to put that out there. On the flipside, if someone does disclose, don’t put them on a pedestal and make them a spokesperson for the neurodivergent community in the organisation. It’s still a choice whether someone wants to disclose or not and they shouldn’t then feel that they have to represent an entire community.

Encourage two-way communication

  • Implement and support staff networks and employee resource groups (ERGs) to foster two-way communication.
  • Conduct regular pulse checks – even if you think you’re getting it right, ask is it the best you can do. Seek feedback from your staff. Conduct surveys to see how people feel about the culture, measure and report on it.

Disclosure

Employees need to feel that the workplace is a psychologically safe space to share. If someone on your senior leadership team has a neurodivergent condition and are comfortable disclosing it, this can help create a safe space for people to disclose and feel comfortable asking for support.

Treat it as a learning opportunity

  • You need to have awareness in the workplace. Roll out regular training for all employees on neurodiversity, what it is, the benefits etc.
  • Train management to recognise neurodivergent conditions, and how to get the best out of people. How to support and manage them.
  • Promote awareness through internal communications, workshops, and seminars.

Mentorship and allies

A great way to create inclusion in the workplace is through mentorship and allies. Reverse mentoring can also be really effective – where you have senior leaders being mentored by someone lower down in the organisational structure, to help them understand neurodiversity. Genuine allies in the workplace help the neurodivergent community feel like they belong and have someone in their corner.

Calibro Workspace - Creating a neuro-inclusive workplace

Key Takeaways

Diversity is the dividend of inclusion. Put inclusion first and you will reap the rewards of a diverse workforce – Paul Fox, VP of Inclusive Technologies at Texthelp

Empathetic leadership that allows employees to be their authentic selves and removes the need to mask – increases psychological safety in the workplace – Chrissy McDougall, Senior Learning Specialist and Volunteer at Neurodiversity in Business

There’s no end to workplace design. It’s research, development and a better understanding of how design can support humans, wholesale – Jayne Crampton, Senior Designer and Consultant at Calibro Workspace

Training your workforce with intent to increase awareness and support all staff to thrive together – Alex Bunting, Director of Therapeutic Services at Inspire Wellbeing

For more tips and tools on creating a neuro-inclusive workplace:

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