Remote and hybrid working – lessons for neurodiverse teams
By Dr Nancy Doyle on 16 June 2022
As the world adjusts following the forced remote work of 2020 and 2021, many businesses are adopting hybrid models and others are keen to return their staff to the office more full time. There’s implication here for disabled / neurodivergent employees, so it’s worth bearing this group in mind when you’re planning your strategy.
Firstly, 15-20% of the world’s population are neurodivergent of some sort – ADHD, Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, tic disorders, bi-polar disorder, acquired brain injury – or some combination therein. So even if your disclosure rates are low, you probably have a pool of hidden disability that is compromised by neurotypical working strategies. To facilitate the conditions for more people to work at their best you can assume and plan for neurodivergent thinking. We are, however, not a homogeneous group and our preferences for environments are different.
There’s two core psychological concepts to bear in mind – executive dysfunction and sensory sensitivity. Executive dysfunction is common for neurodivergents of most flavours, and can also affect those managing chronic pain, long covid, menopause and other disabilities. It means that your ability to think and concentrate are compromised. This could feel like “brain fog” or be a lifelong deficit in planning, prioritising, working out how long things will take. Employees affected might struggle with basic admin and compliance, even when their work is creative and seemingly highly skilled. Sensory sensitivity also affects most neurodivergents. It means that colours seem brighter, noises louder or painful, temperature changes overwhelming and more.
So, thinking about these two cognitive differences, the most obvious choice is to keep neurodivergents at home as much as possible and away from loud, distracting open plan offices. Indeed, this has been the most often requested reasonable adjustment for many years, prior to the pandemic. Covid restrictions created a natural experiment for us where we were able to facilitate remote work across a whole range of industries and job roles, to the benefit of those who wish to work from home permanently or for the majority of their time. And it’s not just the office, those who commute in busy periods can arrive to start work already deep in distress from cramped conditions and overwhelm in rush hour. So for many, particularly Autistic people, remote working is a bonus and not one to give up lightly.
However, remote work also means an increased reliance on video conferencing and written communication, where many of us find social cues hard to read at the best of times. Left alone, we might be interpreting negativity where none is intended and beginning to feel ostracised and alone. Further, those of us with a tendency towards hyper focusing and easily overwork when there are no external cues to stop for lunch, or at the end of the day, or for coffee. Many ADHDers find remote work devastating for time management and miss the motivational boost that comes from a quick, informal chat. We get ‘time-blind’ and this can wreck our organisational skills. Being at home might also involve more distractions not less, depending on who you live with and where you live. Here’s some ways you can buffer these risks and support your colleagues.
1. Video conferencing etiquette:
a. Allow people to chose video on or off. Some people find all the faces distracting and intimidating, others can’t engage unless there’s a visual to go with the voices. If you offer choice, hopefully you will get a balance.
b. Try to use video conferencing that has closed captioning build in. This is helpful for Deaf people and those with hearing loss, but also for those who are finding it hard to concentrate.
c. Encourage communication via verbal, chat
d. Having a clear agenda and making sure there are breaks – same as you would face to face – to reduce anxiety about how to contribute.
2. Work/life balance tips
a. Do an ‘at home’ assessment for staff which includes their desk and chair set up for ergonomics and reducing muscular skeletal difficulties but also includes lighting, distractions and the ability to ‘close the door’. Those who do not have a separate work space to their lounge, kitchen or bedroom are more at risk from lack of ‘down time’. You need to be able to move all work equipment out of sight to avoid straying back to work time or work thinking in the evenings or weekends.
b. Create space for camaraderie – breakfast or lunch time drop ins, Friday Quiz, being invited in to in person meetings where appropriate. Informal knowledge sharing and trust building increases efficiency and productivity.
3. Activity monitoring software? Don’t be tempted.
a. Literally no one is motivated to work harder by being measured on keyboard activity and communication frequency. If you have a problem with task output, you need to understand why before you assume that it is a time-based input issue. For example, it’s much harder to learn from peers when you are isolated and remote work is known to create more hardship for junior employees than for senior. So don’t assume that what would be true for you is true for others.
b. Further, you are likely to incentivise resistance, both attitudinal negativity and subtle rebellion as well as direct cheats and hacks to your system. Simply not worth it.
So in summary, remote and hybrid work is essentially a very neuroinclusive approach, but there are caveats and gotchas to avoid. Strong on reducing overwhelm, weak on exacerbating isolation. Involve your staff in key decisions and be transparent about the reasons for any changes. If you have solid data to show that mental health or completion rates are worsening, for example, as a result of remote work just explain that. You might find that your creative staff have alternative solutions and they are much more likely to buy in to a path they have co-created and understand than one forced upon them. Flexibility is key wherever possible, start with the minimum in-person input required for good business functioning and work back from there!
About the author
Dr Nancy Doyle is a Chartered Psychologist, in organisational and occupational psychology and the founder and owner of Genius Within CIC, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion through consultancy, talent assessment, workshops and coaching for businesses. As a proud neurominority herself, she is passionate about improving the way neurodiversity is treated in the workplace. She is also the founding member of a British Psychological Society Working Group, providing guidance to other Psychologists in the field. Nancy wrote a definitive guide to neurodiversity at work for the BPS and has contributed to many other publications and expert reference groups with organisations such as ACAS, ERSA and the DWP. Nancy’s research work in evaluating coaching and demonstrating a tangible impact from managers’ perspectives was commended by the BPS. In 2019, Nancy was also recognised for her contribution to Policy Impact in Occupational Psychology.
Tel: 01273 890502
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