How Can Employers Create Neurodiversity-Friendly Workplaces?

By Alison Eveleigh | Blog, NeuroWork, SYDND, #1 | 5 Dec 2019 |

Sydney Neurodiversity Symposium 2019 Employer Panel Discussion Summary

As part of the Thriving Now Sydney Neurodiversity Symposium 2019, held at Fishburners Sydney, a group of employers discussed how to improve employment prospects among neurodivergent people. The panel (pictured) featured Andrew Williams (IBM), Cheryl Gledhill (BlueChilli), Mike Tozer (Xceptional Testing), Roger Lawrence (AchieVR) and Amanda Turnill (auticon Australia). Director of Thriving Now, Jay Hobbs, moderated the panel's questions and subsequent Q&A with the audience. 

Takeaway: As companies with less than 200 employees account for 76% of Australia’s GDP, it is clear they need to play a central role in the recruitment of neurodivergent candidates. The flexibility of small companies makes them well placed to adopt the technologies and processes needed to create a neurodiversity-friendly workplace.

1. What is the role of start-ups and small business for employing neurodivergent people? 
  • Roger noted that companies with less than 200 employees make up 60% of Australian employers and 76% of Australian GDP and therefore “small businesses need to take responsibility” for ensuring they employ across all categories of people.
  • Mike noted that start-ups are more flexible than big companies, meaning they can often set up new initiative, such as recruitment programs, without needing sign-off or buy-in from other departments or senior management. 
  • Andrew confirmed this perception, and said that IBM struggles with an overly corporate bureaucracy. 
  • Cheryl believes that the flexibility of start-ups extends beyond recruitment processes to working styles. Start-ups have the ability to change job roles and responsibilities to accommodate employee needs. This means that, for example, an ADHD employee with hyper focus can be left to conduct deep dives, without the need for report writing (which does not suit their skillset).
2. How can technology support neurodivergent people in the workplace?
  • There was consensus amongst the panel that organisation and communication tools such as Slack, Trello and Jira are useful. Cheryl also mentioned Jobmatcher.ai, a start up that she co-founded which aims to reduce bias in job ads.
  • However, the panel also agreed that process was as important as technology and tools when supporting neurodivergent employees. Both Mike and Roger hold daily stand-ups with staff, including via video link where staff are located internationally. Mike allows employees to comment prior to the stand-up via Slack, which givens neurodivergent staff the ability to think first, and does not require them to verbalise their input.
  • Amanda and Mike also noted that technology is central to their recruiting processes, with the use of computer games and puzzles designed to assist neurodivergent talent.
3. How do you prevent staff from burning out when they want to work all night?
  • For Cheryl, this involves working with an employee’s creative metabolism. She can see when people are working long hours, as staff log their hours, and she will tell people not to come in after a late night, or take time off when they have worked a 40-hour week.
  • For Roger, this involves more formal office policies. His company offers unlimited paid leave and managers do not message their staff after a certain time in the evening. However, he believes all-nighters are acceptable where there is a client deadline and expects staff to work these hours.
4. Will there be an explosion of jobs for neurodivergent people in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR)?
  • It is difficult to know what the future will bring. Mike believes that VR has the potential to create more jobs for the Neurodiverse, but we don’t know when this will be. He believes that cyber-security is growing much faster, and will therefore bring more immediate jobs for neurodivergent employees. 
  • Andrew agrees, noting that while Neurodiverse staff at IBM’s Lansing offices worked on AI projects, there is a still a larger need for programmers and testers for day to day projects.
  • Roger and Amanda agree that emerging technologies will create jobs, as there is a need staff members who can perform deep analysis quickly.
  • Cheryl reminded the panel that neurodivergent skills go beyond IT, and that those with autism are often very good at music, art and other creative pursuits.
5. What accommodations do employers make for undiagnosed people on the autism spectrum?
  • Amanda stated that auticon, while preferring a medical diagnosis, extends jobs to those who think they are on the spectrum.
  • Roger believes that the issue is not about formal diagnosis, but about accommodating all employees and their weaknesses.
6. Do you have plans to employ people other than those who are autistic? 
  • Xceptional was previously focused on those with autism. However, it has now expanded to include other neurodivergent people.
  • Both Cheryl and Roger focus on the capabilities of the employee rather than their diagnosis or CV. For Cheryl, she is looking for creative and curious employees, and her non-traditional hiring practices help her find these individuals.

What do you think? Join the discussion on the NeuroWork Social Journalism Forum. The full symposium coverage will be rolled out over the next few editions into January 2020. 

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