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Neurodiversity, Talent, and the Promise of Hybrid Work

Hybrid work can help us use our strengths — if we do it right.

Key points

  • Neurodiversity enriches the workplace, but inclusion has been lacking.
  • Flexibility of hybrid work can support neurodiversity inclusion.
  • Hybrid work has the potential of allowing employees of all backgrounds to maximize their strengths.
  • To take advantage of hybrid models we must let go of outdated ways of working.
Anonymous, Canva, Author's editing.
A woman working on a computer. A cat is sitting on her desk. Neurodiversity symbols (infinity & butterfly) on her monitor.
Source: Anonymous, Canva, Author's editing.

Neurodiversity, just like other types of diversity, brings value to the workplace. It refers to variation in human neurocognitive functioning that was originally discussed in application to a segment of autistic people, but was soon expanded to other differences such as ADHD, learning differences, and Tourette's syndrome. While these differences can be disabling, especially under certain conditions, the disablement often results from the mismatch between individuals' needs and their environments.

For example, having an acute perception of sound or smell characteristic of many autistic individuals is not in itself a disability. In fact, the autistic characteristic of perceiving the world more intensely may result in unique and exceptional talents.

At the same time, the "disabling" associated with sensory sensitivity often results from living in a world designed for the less sensitive majority, with the constant "sensory assault" of overpoweringly strong sounds, smells, and other stimuli. Imagine if the sound of colleagues chewing gum and the sound of the office copier had the intensity of a leaf blower. Anyone would become overwhelmed.

Dealing with the environment designed to fit the majority impacts both the overall life experience of neurodivergent people and their workplace experience, including access to employment. For example, in traditional workplaces, managerial preferences for in-person work and refusal of work-from-home as reasonable accommodation often resulted in burnout and, likely, a job loss for neurodivergent employees.

To include and support neurodivergent talent, organizations need to expand the range of options for time, place, and methods in which the work can be done. As demonstrated by the lessons from the unfortunate and forced experiment of the pandemic, the resulting flexibility is likely to help all employees.

Hybrid work: temporary relief or a long-term solution?

In many ways, work from home and hybrid work has been a welcome change. For a long time, work from home was an accommodation that neurodivergent employees and people with a range of disabilities have asked for — but were denied. During the COVID-19 pandemic, working away from overstimulating crowds, uncomfortable offices, and workplace bullies has been a major improvement for many neurodivergent professionals. Whether new forms of hybrid work will allow this temporary improvement to become a long-term solution may largely depend on the will of leaders in organizations to adopt new models of work.

Implemented well, hybrid work can provide opportunities for many different types of individuals — both those who can't wait to get back to social gatherings and those who are most fulfilled and productive working from home. It also promises expanded access and support for neurodivergent individuals. At the same time, there are many models of hybrid work, and selecting the win-win approach for organizational needs as well as various employee needs is a tremendous leadership challenge.

Which hybrid model?

One of the ways to classify types of remote work is this:

  1. People-split. Some individuals work on-site, others work remotely.
  2. Time-split. All individuals work some days on-site, other days remotely.
  3. Remote-first. Remote work is a default, with face-to-face work as needed.
  4. Office-first. In-person work is a default, with remote work as needed/allowed.

There are other intermediate types that make selecting the "best" model complicated. However, asking just a couple of questions can help with decision-making.

Leaders should first ask whether the nature of work will dictate the specific approach. However, most office operations can be successfully conducted under any of these approaches — an all have pluses and minuses.

What should be the tie-breaker question when selecting the best approach?

I suggest the tie-breaker consideration is which model or models will help get the work done with minimal stress.

The Great Resignation is largely explained by burnout, as well as disillusionment. Most employees feel the impact of heavy workloads and uncertainty. This is even more pronounced for neurodivergent employees. Making work sustainable for all requires minimizing the level of stress. This does not mean, however, that work will not be done.

Working with our strengths

One of the best ways to get the work done with a minimal level of stress is by supporting employees in working with their strengths. That could mean selecting the place that maximizes productivity (work, home, the third place, or the specific mix), time that works best with one's natural rhythm, and focusing on tasks that are best aligned with employee abilities. Again, this is not just true for neurominority employees — but because of "spiky" ability profiles neurodivergent employees with areas of particularly strong and below-average abilities, working with strengths is particularly important.

Hybrid work may expand opportunities to work with our strengths via job crafting. Unfortunately, job crafting is often seen as an individual pursuit that may benefit some employees at the expense of others and result in essential tasks not getting done. This, however, is incorrect. Job crafting should always be aligned with both individual and organizational goals. Moreover, employees can job-craft not only as individuals but as teams — and in well-selected teams, individuals are likely to have complementary rather than competing strengths. When teams and leaders together craft work to advance organizational purpose and inspire individuals, undesirable tasks get done, according to Ron Carucci and Jarrod Shappell. "The team can collectively find ways to take responsibility for that work. They are usually far more willing to take it on having crafted jobs they are now more excited about." In a hybrid environment, this can also make time and space of doing the work negotiable. Those looking for more social stimulation and those preferring heads-down solitude, early birds and night owls, all can get more of what they need.

Eliminating bad work habits (looking at you, synchronous overload)

The concern may remain that when employees choose when and where to work, different workstyles will clash and workdays will expand. This concern does not need to limit flexibility — but we may need to work on changing some bad work habits.

Unfortunately, many teams and organizations use technology meant for asynchronous communication, such as e-mail or project management software as if these were synchronous tools, resulting in e-mail or Slack interruption to our thinking time — which is likely to be particularly stressful for autistic employees. Unthinking use of these tools may also result in 24/7 work. These maladaptive work habits can and should be unlearned. Reasonable expectations for asynchronous (mostly) vs. synchronous (occasionally) work will likely reduce stress for everyone.

Additional hybrid work practices that can support neurodivergent talent, as well as the majority of employees, involve:

  • no-meeting days or half-days for deep work,
  • limiting "on" or collaboration hours to a cluster of about 3 hours of the day, with the rest left for flexible use, and
  • ensuring that there are multiple ways and channels of communication, such as Zoom with video, no video, chat, e-mail, and in-person meetings, all moderated in ways that allow individuals with different communication styles to be heard, equally.

In the next few years, humanity will design the future of work. We have an opportunity to ensure that this future is both productive and inclusive by creating systems that are flexible and work with a wide range of individual talents and strengths — and not against them.

This article also appears in Monitor Daily, Vol. 48 No. 7 2021/January 28, 2022.

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