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The next talent opportunity for the digital workplace? Neurodiversity

24 Sep 2019
Nahia Orduna

Nahia Orduna

Senior Manager Analytics and Digital Integration (Data Leader of the Year 2019)

When I first met my former colleague Alex he told me he had difficulty writing and reading owing to his dyslexia. As his manager, I searched the internet for how to help the dyslexic workforce.

It was a mistake – I was focusing on his weakness. After some months, I discovered Alex has above-average capabilities in reasoning and that, in all likelihood, these are related to his dyslexia.

As explained in a previous World Economic Forum article, we all carry with us a wealth of life experience, a kind of book of stories, which we consult to make sense of the world. Our identity (gender, race, age, origin), neurological differences, our studies and our experiences influence the content of that book directly and, therefore, the way we reason.

Neurodiversity is the term that describes those neurological differences. The books of neurodiverse people contain unique information that makes them see the world from a different perspective. It is manifested in conditions such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia.

In the digital workplace and specifically in the tech industry, we need to solve complex problems, constantly innovate and think creatively to face our next cybersecurity or artificial intelligence (AI) challenge. We need more people who reason differently because this is the way to come up with new ideas and overcome biases. Neurodiverse colleagues provide a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, as was the case with my conversation with Alex, the emphasis is usually on their challenges. It’s time to change this; let’s talk about the unique contributions they can make.

The competitive advantage of neurodiversity

Looking into it from a general perspective, neurodiverse people are gifted in some skills that are essential in the digital age, for example:

  • Autistic brains are said to be highly creative with exceptional concentration, logic, imagination and visual thought. They also tend to be systematic, meticulous and detailed. Besides, they share unique insights and perspectives in problem-solving.
  • ADHD people also have great imagination and score higher on creativity tests than non-ADHD people. ADHD people can hyperfocus, which means that while they generally have an attention deficit, they do have a high focus on their area of interest. For example, it takes them less effort to play videogames.
  • Dyslexic people have demonstrated the ability to think outside the box: 84% of dyslexic people are above average in reasoning, understanding patterns, evaluating possibilities and making decisions. Their competencies are invaluable when it comes to viewing aspects from a broader perspective and assessing situations from multiple views.

These conditions also bring an added value to the digital workplace. While most of us are easily distracted by constant digital interruptions (emails, instant messages, notifications), neurodiverse brains are better at maintaining focus on a task. They are also, in general, more keen on holding on routine tasks, which can also be very valuable in our environment where we tend to jump from one assignment to the next too quickly. Those traits make those people with such brains a very productive workforce.

I have talked many times with Alex about his capabilities and how those unique gifts are not only invisible, but often obscured by a misperception by other colleagues who expect another kind of interaction via email. This could result in a loss of productivity and capabilities. How can organizations attract and retain this untapped talent instead?

Empowering neurodiversity in the digital workplace

A recent study of neurodiversity in the workforce gives us guidance on how to support these workers:

  1. A flexible workplace so that each person can play to their strengths. Neurodiverse people have special needs that have to be addressed to boost their productivity. Autistic employees may need specific equipment, such as headphones to reduce auditory overstimulation. ADHD people may also require minor adjustments to their work environment in terms of having quiet places to work and flexibility in their work schedules. Standard good practices, such as a written agenda and minutes for meetings, would also support them.
  2. Train managers to recognize, facilitate and support strengths to achieve greater organizational and individual productivity. Plan unconscious bias and awareness campaigns for colleagues to help them understand how to work better together. For example, better awareness around dyslexia would help staff understand how to improve email communication with colleagues.
  3. Reconsider the interview process. Ambiguous and too broad questions are a disadvantage for neurodiverse talent and can discard great employees. It is much more appropriate to give them a task to perform. Not all the roles may be optimal for people on the neurodiverse spectrum, but in our digital age, with new careers in data and in IT, there are more and more opportunities where their skills are needed.
  4. Other ways to empower these workers is through advocacy and policy. It is a good idea to set up employee groups. Role models, like Richard Branson, who is open about his dyslexia, are needed. This way, neurodiverse people may be more comfortable sharing their perspectives and feel confident that the organization will not look down on them.

While these approaches are similar to other diversity programmes, they are still not as common as, for example, gender initiatives. Fortunately, some of the big IT corporations are taking the lead in attracting neurodiverse talent: Microsoft has been the first company to sign a global pledge to help people with dyslexia and has an autism hiring programme; SAP also has an Autism at Work programme. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that more and more companies are looking for people on the autism spectrum to grow their AI talent pool. We are just at the beginning of the neurodiversity revolution.

Organizations in the digital age have a talent challenge, and neurodiversity provides a new perspective and an untapped set of skills. With more cognitive diversity in our lives and workplaces, we want organizations to successfully face new challenges and become more creative and competitive.

I have been discussing our journey together with Alex. He recognized the need to share the experience and our findings but said he would struggle to write an article around it. This is article is for you, Alex, and for all the people with invisible gifts.

World economic forum

This article originally appeared on the World Economic Forum website, first published 16.08.2019.

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