Rear view of man at work
Supplying everyone with headphones for the office can help neurodivergent colleagues.
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January 10, 2022 12:01 PM EST

There’s no denying that the past two pandemic years have been uniquely challenging for managers and employees alike. But amid all the upheaval Covid has brought to our working lives, it’s also sparked two trends that, taken together, signal a moment of real change for workers with thinking and learning differences.

The first is companies’ increased commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Despite the fact that one in five people in the United States is born with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, or other atypical abilities, they’ve often been left out of discussions about DEI. But when an organization can honestly reflect on how its systems prioritize some groups over others—on whose needs get elevated and whose needs get sidelined—it creates new space for those with learning differences to make themselves heard.

The second, of course, is hybrid work, which has prompted employers to reexamine, and in some cases permanently shift, their expectations for how collaboration happens. Employees speaking up about the resources they need to succeed in their work isn’t just an expectation; it’s now a necessity. And as team members have moved away from a full-time office environment and into the more varied circumstances of their homes, managers have been forced to recognize that flexibility yields greater results than sticking to one uniform way of doing things.

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For both of those things, right now is an inflection point: an opportunity to turn trends into permanent fixtures of the way we work, and to incorporate neurodiversity into everyday business, DEI initiatives, and hiring and retention practices, which will ultimately create a better workplace for everyone. Here are just a few ways we can do so:

  • As workplaces move forward with permanently hybrid or remote models—or prepare for an eventual return to office—they face an opportunity to rethink the way they use technology to accommodate employees with learning and thinking differences. Video meetings, now a fixture for so many of us, can be challenging for neurodivergent workers—but those challenges can be easily solved by not using a camera, recording the session, providing pre-read materials, or providing closed captioning.
  • Perhaps the company’s internal documents and resources could use an upgrade. Working with multiple menu options or add-ons can be exhausting for people with learning and thinking differences; streamlining them creates a more inclusive infrastructure.
  • For those working in the office, quieter spaces can be a valuable resource for neurodivergent people who struggle to focus amid constant hustle and bustle. Some research has found that many companies are redesigning their offices in advance of a return to in-person work, prioritizing open plans and space for collaboration; within that redesign process, they’d do well to remember that some people work best in less stimulating environments. Even paying for a pair of headphones for each employee can provide a much-needed environment that encourages productivity where it otherwise would have been difficult to achieve.
  • Beyond the visible accommodations, there’s also work to be done toward encouraging a culture of acceptance and understanding around neurodiverse workers, who have faced a long history of bias and misunderstanding.

Like many initiatives to improve DEI in the workplace, progress here will not happen overnight—but with resources like training, workshops, and platforms for conversations regarding learning and thinking differences, progress is not only possible but also scalable. Address and challenge stereotypes to increase awareness, and provide tips on how to interact respectfully and professionally with colleagues with disabilities, whether physical or invisible. Reexamine hiring practices in ways that focus on attracting recruiting, and hiring people with learning and thinking differences. Create a cultural norm where every new hire feels comfortable asking for what they need to be successful.

There are limitless benefits to explicitly encouraging the inclusion of people with learning and thinking differences, including living your company’s commitment to inclusion to a fuller, more evolved extent. We can and should expect confusion and moments of ignorance as people try to better understand their peers, but the ultimate goal is for all to be able to do great work in an environment that allows it.

Fred Poses is founder and chief executive of Understood, a nonprofit that supports the one in five Americans who learn and think differently. Poses was previously CEO of Ascend Performance Materials and Trane, and president and chief operating officer of Allied Signal.

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