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Why it is critical that organisations develop a neurodiverse workforce

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The seriousness of labour shortages has come to a head this year as Brexit and COVID-19 conspired to create conditions that have had a particularly severe effect on the hospitality sector and wider supply chains.

It didn’t hit without warning, however. Talent, skills and labour have been hot button issues for CEOs around the world for more than a decade. They have so far found no easy solutions to recruiting and retaining the people they need to keep their businesses outperforming the competition and able to cope with intensifying economic problems.

All this means it’s more important than ever that employers don’t continue to preclude certain groups of the labour market by having too tight a definition of what the ideal employee looks like, squandering untapped skills and potential.

Grasping the opportunity

A powerful ace card is the neurodiverse community, as explored in a new book, Neurodiversity at Work by Theo Smith and Amanda Kirby. People with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodivergent conditions – who make up nearly one in seven of the UK population – can be key in enhancing creativity and managing the change businesses are constantly subject to. The potential benefits to the project profession are clear.

Did you know that diversity is a condition for project success? Read more here.

Yet, businesses are still not grasping the opportunity. Smith and Kirby highlight that while increasing numbers of organisations are pledging to be more inclusive, the common model is a siloed one and often doesn’t go beyond campaigning for the usual categories of sex, age, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

By extending efforts to include a range of differences so “diversity crosses all diversities” and acknowledging that individuals don’t fit neatly into a single box, businesses can unleash a massive transformation of the world of work. An added bonus is that welcoming neurodiverse talent isn’t going to harm reputation either. A growing expectation from consumers and employees alike is that brands act sustainably and ethically, not only looking after the communities they are a part of but being more representative of them too.

Rethink your assumptions

Overall, Neurodiversity at Work is a comprehensive look at how to adapt HR policies, processes and workplaces to ensure that all employees can reach their full potential. It is packed full of practical advice, help and tips, as well as case study material.

But arguably more valuable than that, it addresses a trickier aspect of making workforces more neurodiverse by asking us as individuals to scrutinise and rethink some of our assumptions. After all, everybody is neurologically different. In simple terms, neurodiversity refers to the fact that our 100 billion brain cells are all wired in distinct ways. Yet we have put up barriers for others where the cognitive differences are more acute – and fallen for the stereotype that these differences equate to a lack of ability or capability.

The reality for many people with neurological differences is that the challenges they face in some areas come hand in hand with huge strengths and abilities in others. These may include, but are certainly not limited to, prized project team skills like empathy, creativity, innovation and problem-solving. We rarely “tease out these super abilities”, the book says, because we allow the challenges and additional workplace support that may be needed to come to the forefront of our minds.

This means organisations are potentially missing out on attracting new talent, optimising existing talent, being able to generate new solutions and deliver superior projects, as well as meeting their ethical and moral responsibilities.  

In addressing this issue, we need to be honest with ourselves. Smith and Kirby challenge us to “check our internal dialogue”. Reaching out to new groups takes work and effort; it requires processes to be non-standardised.

For people who are neurodiverse, candidate assessments may need to be adjusted to fit their particular needs, whether that’s placing someone in a different room away from noise; offering extra time for written assessments: providing IT accessibility tools to replace handwritten responses; giving candidates access to a grammar or spell checker; or offering one-to-one rather than group interviews.

Stop being a barrier

What’s your reaction to being asked to put greater effort into supporting project team members who are neurodiverse? Do you feel it’s too much bother? Do you feel these small adjustments are actually unreasonable? If you don’t pay closer attention to your response you won’t be able to take conscious steps to change that perception and stop being the barrier to someone else achieving their potential.

One thing that can help, the authors suggest, is to consider how you would feel if it was a close friend or relative asking for an adjustment and you knew just how capable they were of doing the job they were applying for.

Project leaders who are willing to regard neurodiversity and those from neurominorities as highly skilled workers, putting a premium on the benefits they bring, and encouraging more open dialogue so the right support can be offered, are helping to create positive, productive, inclusive work cultures with collaboration and innovation at their heart.

That’s got to be a reward worth the effort for businesses.

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