3 Tips to help Neurodiverse People Thrive at Work
What is Neurodiversity?
According to Harvard Health neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia. As reported by this 2020 Oxford University study, it's estimated that approximately 15 – 20% of the population are neurodivergent. How then does the modern workplace support people with neurodiversity? Sarah Zerella, a successful Workplace Consultant tells her story about how she came to understand and embrace her dyslexia and shares tips on how she has learned to professionally thrive in the workplace.
Sarah Zerella, How I learned to Thrive with Dyslexia
In a world where conformity often takes centre stage, I, a dyslexic neurodiverse professional, have embarked on a unique journey in the realm of workplace consulting. Throughout my career, I've faced numerous challenges, reading lengthy reports under time pressures can be a daunting task. Spelling and grammar sometimes elude me, even though I have valuable insights to share, the frustration of misreading a letter or confusing words is real.
Over time I have learned to understand my strengths and weaknesses and now I find I have embraced my Dyslexia as I have learned to thrive professionally. One thing that has consistently helped me is a flexible and agile work arrangement.
Embracing my Neurodiversity
The consulting world is a dynamic one, filled with brilliant minds and diverse talents. It's a place where creativity, innovation, and problem-solving are paramount, and it's also where my dyslexia has both challenged and empowered me.
One thing we should remember is that Dyslexia does not mean low intelligence, in fact, they are not actually related. Before I realised my neurodiversity, I assumed I was lower intelligence than others, because I needed extra time to absorb written information. My ah-ha moment was after completing abilities assessments revealing that compared to others in professional roles, I have average verbal and numerical reasoning, and well above average in the 98th percentile, for abstract reason (a person's ability to solve problems, identify patterns, and work with logical systems). Funnily enough this makes sense with how I use my strengths in my work.
Workplace Challenges for the Neurodiverse
The open plan office has always been a bit challenging for me when it comes to focused work. Absorbing written information, even in a quiet space takes mental effort and I have built specific tactics along my way to absorb information better, however having control over where I do these tasks is essential… Reading and writing in a noisy office is near impossible and frankly quite stressful.
Post Covid Working in a Pre-Covid Workplace
Many people have been able to experience what it is like to work from home. Most experiencing greater autonomy, privacy, psychological comfort, as well as choice and control over their environment. Now that we are driving our people back to the office to connect and collaborate, the question to ask is… does your workplace support the tasks your people are required to perform in the workplace?
Common Post Covid Workplaces:
- Back in the office: If managers apply pressure or mandate office attendance and it is not fit to support the needs of neurodiverse people it can lead to high stress levels.
- Filled with distraction: Especially being near colleagues on video calls. This is common in workplaces where there is an open plan and not enough meeting rooms with technology to support video calls. In some workplaces, the etiquette may even encourage calls at workstations.
- Typically, lower occupancy: This has reduced positive social connection at work, along with limiting the availability of ad hoc in person support (if needed).
- Don't meet current expectations: Working from home, many people have become accustomed to controlling their environment to minimise distractions and improve productivity. A workplace that is full of distractions and detrimental to productivity can cause frustration.
Going back to pre-covid work environments that don't support new ways of working means they are no longer fit for purpose.
3 Neurodiversity Tips for Workplaces.
As a Neurodiverse professional with direct experience in workplace strategy, here are my top 3 tips for workplaces.
1. The Power of Flexibility
One of the lessons I've embraced wholeheartedly is the power of flexibility. The rigid structures of traditional offices don't always work for everyone. This flexibility can come in the form of working outside of the office, but also comes in the form of what is in the office environment. Having a variety of spaces and settings is crucial to support productivity and wellbeing of all staff.
I have been lucky to find myself in roles that naturally require me to be highly mobile and flexible, moving around from location to location has been the norm for the past 10 years. This has provided me with the awareness of what works for me, and the choice to find the right spaces to perform my work tasks like working from a quiet cafe, various showrooms, the local library, at home or on an airplane – wherever my work takes me, I have been privileged to have the choice over where and when I conduct my focused work.
The benefits of being agile has lent itself to having greater control over where and how I work than a typical office-based role. Remote work and the ability to adapt my work schedule to my most productive hours have allowed me to perform at my best.
2. Hybrid Working and a Fit for Purpose Workspace
Not everyone has had the luxury that I have. Many companies are now mandating working from the office without providing the appropriate spaces to support post-covid working requirements. This can impact productivity, engagement and wellbeing.
Not only have neurodiverse people been mandated to a location that they must do their thinking, reading, and writing – but many pre-covid workplaces do not provide spaces suitable to perform these tasks effectively or to rest/destress. For some workers, they are being set up to fail.
Comfort and control over our environment might be seen as a nice to have, but for neurodiverse employees, this is a necessity for their wellbeing and their work performance.
As a dyslexic woman in the workforce, to perform well, I need:
- A Variety of spaces and settings
- Choice and control over where I perform tasks.
- Awareness and respect for my neurodiversity
3. Provide a Supportive Network
One of the most positive aspects of my journey has been the support and understanding I've received from my colleagues and superiors. My colleagues will check in with me about music levels, or intentionally play music with no words so as not to disrupt me. I am grateful to work for an open and supportive organisation where I have no fear of a negative perception of working from home to concentrate or isolating myself in the office for long periods to focus.
I have not only been accepted for my unique needs, but my strengths are utilised to their fullest, knowing that my different way of thinking can lead to innovative solutions. A supportive network has been crucial to my success.
Dyslexia isn't my weakness it's my SuperPower!
Navigating the consulting world as a dyslexic professional has its challenges, but it has also provided me with a unique set of skills. The power of flexibility and agility has not only allowed me to overcome obstacles but has also enabled me to contribute to my team and clients in innovative ways.
The support of the workplace environment and my ways of working enable me to be my best for my team and my clients.
As I continue my journey in the consulting world, I hold my dyslexia as a badge of honor, a unique perspective that has made me a more agile thinker and a better consultant. In an ever-changing landscape, it's not about conforming to traditional norms but about harnessing the power of diversity, flexibility, and agility to drive success.
Find out how your workplace strategy can benefit from considering the needs of neurodiverse people.