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The benefits of hiring a neurodivergent tech workforce

WE ASKED A RANGE OF EMPLOYERS, CONSULTANCIES AND NEURODIVERSE INDIVIDUALS ABOUT THE UNIQUE ADVANTAGES OF NEURODIVERSE EMPLOYEES AND HOW LEADERSHIP CAN SUPPORT THEM IN PLAYING TO THEIR STRENGTHS.

Neurodivergent people often see the world differently, offering different perceptions that fuel creative ideas. Perfect for the tech industry.

Neurodiversity is a term that is associated with a range of conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Tourette’s Syndrome — to name just a few.

One in seven people in the UK identifies as neurodivergent, and research suggests that companies with a neurodiverse team can be 30% more productive.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT TO FLOURISH

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, Consultant at Sparkle Class, is autistic and has ADHD. She noted that it’s important to recruit a neurodiverse workforce because “neurodiverse people have incredible talents.”

“Neurodiverse people overall are 30% more productive (Harvard Business Review) and autistic people in the right environment can be 140% more productive than their peers (JP Morgan Chase).”

“The benefits go beyond having productive employees who are fast learners. Further research shows that all employees benefit from an inclusive workforce and that inclusive and diverse teams generate more revenue,” she added.

Morgan-Trimmer said that when neurodiverse people feel they’re lacking confidence, employers can help them to see their true potential and value by looking at neurodiverse people and processes in a different way.

“We encourage companies to let neurodiverse talent climb the corporate tree rather than a corporate ladder — meaning promotion into positions other than standard management roles, and ‘job tailoring’ where the job is designed to fit the person. These adaptations allow neurodiverse people to flourish.”

— Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, Consultant at Sparkle Class

Carlene Jackson, CEO of tech company Cloud9 Insight, who is dyslexic, estimates around 20–30% of her company is neurodiverse.

She believes that firms need to understand the value of having people that don’t think in a traditionally: “We find the ability to focus and be loyal are strong autistic traits while being creative and an out-of-the-box thinker is a dyslexic’s contribution. Why wouldn’t we want this in our business? When you have the person, the role has to be fitted around that person, not that you have a job to fill. Otherwise, you’re wasting half of that person.”

“Dyslexics can be quite disorganised, really struggle and need to make a huge effort to meet deadlines and to manage their time. So they could be great leaders, but from a task management perspective, shockingly bad. So, you have to be careful that you acknowledge that’s how they are — you are not going to change them, so don’t try. Instead, buddy them up with people who can support or disguise their weaknesses.”

Jackson advised: “Organisations that are good at building high-performance teams value the strengths of everybody and minimise the weaknesses to the point where they are not ever discussed. So you put people in a position of where their strengths are going to come out.”

A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Chris Griffiths is the Founder of the Inspire Genius Foundation, which raises awareness of neurodiversity and improves the experiences of neurodivergent people. He is also the founder of the software company, OpenGenius.

“Any team without diversity is going to suffer. It would march on in one direction, no matter what the consequences. In today’s world of constant change, one of the most valuable forms of diversity for any team is that of being able to think differently. Through the recruitment of individuals with neurological differences, a workforce gains variety and becomes naturally more resilient to changes, hosting a swathe of strengths that can be needed at any given point,” he said.

“Although our world is built on neurotypical principles, change is happening everywhere — one change to make today which can accelerate many more, is giving neurodivergent colleagues the opportunities to shine. Individual confidence and greater progress will both be found.”

— Chris Griffiths, Founder, Inspire Genius Foundation

Ruby Melling, Community Engagement Lead at Manchester’s Tech Festival, said building an inclusive workforce and hiring neurodiverse employees can provide tech businesses with a competitive advantage: “Someone who is neurodiverse will see the world in a different way; having different schools of thought and different approaches to work will drive ultimate innovation and creativity.

“Employers who leverage this talent pool will see better productivity, innovation around processes, products, services & solutions, higher employee satisfaction engagement and retention in a market which has a huge skills gap and shortage of tech professionals.”

Caroline Sands, Head of the CIO and technology officers practice, Odgers Berndtson, said: “By quite literally ‘thinking differently’, neurodiverse individuals bring novel ideas to teams which often lead to greater innovation and more creative problem-solving. It’s important to recognise that neurodiversity covers a spectrum of traits that can be highly beneficial to teams in different ways.”

“For example, many include an aversion to ‘group-think’ decision making that beleaguers many companies and really affects the bottom line. Another common trait is highly persistent problem solving, i.e. a tenacious approach to finding solutions, even in tough circumstances. What company wouldn’t want to hire someone like that? Other traits include high levels of curiosity and focus, but the latter can often depend on whether they have the right work environment.”

According to Sands, hiring neurodiverse individuals doesn’t just have positive financial outcomes for companies, it also has great people outcomes too: “ It leads to a more inclusive and accepting environment, which in turn makes everyone feel like they can be themselves, which ultimately leads to greater talent retention and attraction.”

“Today, the best businesses know that innovation and driving disruption are the keys to success. It’s their people that make this happen, and there are few people better at doing this than those with neurodiverse characteristics. That’s why neurodiverse people should believe in themselves and their talents,” she added.

UNIQUE BENEFITS

Carolyn Stebbings, Chief Operating and Inclusion Officer at RAPP UK, said recruiting neurodiverse staff benefits everyone: “We all have a brain that is unique to us. No two brains are quite the same and some people’s brains simply work in a different way.”

“Neurodivergent talent brings huge benefits to creative and technology businesses. Their power is rooted in how their brains process and respond to stimulus — in ways that can intersect and diverge from what some folks would describe as ‘neuro-typical’. They can have a positive impact on the workplace and work outputs through their disruptive thinking and ability to ideate creatively and develop original concepts — diversity in thought is what our industry thrives on.”

“Neuro-divergence comes in all shapes, sizes and qualities. Some carry exceptional visual abilities, some can quickly identify and categorise images, a skill that is increasingly in demand in developing and training artificial intelligence and machine learning software.”

— Carolyn Stebbings, Chief Operating and Inclusion Officer, at RAPP UK

“Others might have the ability to achieve deep focus in sprints and then allow their minds to wander, which boosts creativity and problem-solving. And some talent has above-average abilities in areas such as analysis, information processing, pattern recognition, high degrees of loyalty, attention to detail and memory.,” added Stebbings.

Paul Modley, Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at AMS, said: “Those from neurodiverse groups bring a number of things to a business, including fresh thinking and different perspectives, sometimes even ideas that challenge the status quo.”

“At AMS, we have seen how this works in practice, hiring two new employees through our National Autistic Society pilot last year. Throughout the process, we have had to adapt our way of thinking alongside our processes to ensure that our new employees are set up for success. This has really opened our eyes to embracing neurodiverse talent and I’d encourage others to take similar action.”

Modley noted that if individuals are worried or concerned about how they can find suitable roles, there are several organisations that can support them in securing employment, such as the National Autistic Society.

BEING OVERLOOKED

Hannah Starkey, HR Manager at Propel, said neurodiverse individuals can often be overlooked during recruitment: “It can be tempting to recruit more of the same types of people, especially if they are successful in their respective roles, but by consciously developing a neurodiverse workforce, you are more likely to be successful as a team and as a business.

“Problem-solving is a critical part of software development projects, and having a neurodiverse workforce can significantly impact the speed at which solutions are identified and their effectiveness. The projects require a high level of knowledge, skill, and ability, and having neurodiverse individuals can bring innovative ideas to the team.”

“If everyone within the project team thinks in the same way and therefore takes the same approach to problem-solving, then a solution could be missed or could take longer to identify than if the team was more neurodiverse. ”

— Hannah Starkey, HR Manager at Propel

“Including neurodiverse team members in your team can strengthen your business strategic thinking and creativity as well as create a positive and cooperative environment where everyone can thrive,” she added.

Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skillsoft, said: “While many employers are realising valuable skills lie with workers belonging to marginalised groups, such as those with physical disabilities and women, one diverse community is persistently missing from active employment strategies — neurodiverse candidates with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs).”

She highlighted a Skillsoft survey confirming that while a large majority (88%) of respondents said that their organisation has a DEI policy in place, less than half believe it includes people with IDDs.

“It’s no hidden fact that it’s simply harder for these workers to ‘find’ jobs. Although some candidates are actively sought through neurodiversity schemes at university level, standard recruitment practices continue to disadvantage neurodiverse candidates, and many face stigma and exclusion by organisations for roles which could perfectly accommodate their skills,” she added.

Mel Venner, Head of Performance at tech recruiter Maxwell Bond, explained: “Neurodiversity means diversity of thought, more robust decision-making and a wider field of vision when it comes to accessibility. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), only 21.7% of neurodiverse people in the UK are employed, meaning almost 80% haven’t found a place in the UK workforce.”

“The ability to process information differently is a huge asset to businesses and serves as a competitive advantage. Thinking “outside of the box” or being able to interpret data and trends in divergent ways means increased creativity, innovation and novelty. This isn’t a question of morality, it’s common sense.”

HIRING A NEURODIVERSE TEAM

“Diversity sparks creativity,” said Heather Delaney, MD and Founder of tech communications consultancy Gallium Ventures.

“When thoughtfully woven into the fabric of a team, diversity — of cultures, characters, backgrounds, together with neurodiversity — is often the one that moves the needle and brings that precious added value we’re aiming (or should be aiming) for.”

She added: “During my career in the world of tech communication, PR and marketing, I have hired many neurodiverse people, who had been diagnosed with dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD and more. All of these collaborations have clearly shown a benefit for the teams, in ways we could have never imagined before, due to their unique ability to look at situations and problems differently, to really think outside the box, and to come up with ideas and solutions the rest of the team wouldn’t have thought of. In addition to this, each was a valued and joyful member added into our cultural mix.”

Richard Purcell, Founder of CareScribe, said: “Excluding neurodiversity only acts to limit diversity of thought, innovation, and creativity. In fact, it’s been clearly demonstrated that within some work environments the inclusion of neurodiversity within teams can increase productivity significantly. Being inclusive isn’t just about race or gender, it’s about embracing the diversity that exists in society and promoting equal access and opportunity.”

EMPLOYERS CAN OFFER THEIR SUPPORT FURTHER

“Technology companies should actively recruit neurodiverse individuals because the consequences of inequality extend beyond simple fairness. Failure to incorporate diversity at the development phase will result in inferior technology that is inherently biased toward the singular viewpoint of its creators. Still, neurodiversity in technology remains overlooked, with continued stigma and barriers to employment — 40% of neurodiverse tech workers hide their status,” said Nick Morey, Associate Director at consultancy Snow Hill.

“Technology reflects the values of its creators, and so it is the responsibility of all tech companies to ensure their innovations are created by diverse teams who reflect the diverse world in which we live — an estimated 1/3 of people are neurodiverse, which represents a significant portion of the global population. Technologies will shape our future, and so it is imperative that their development process isn’t stuck in the past.”

“At Deloitte, we know that teams that combine diverse ways of thinking, perspectives, and ways of solving problems are stronger. The firm as a whole benefits because different perspectives contribute towards building the strongest, most innovative teams,” said Anthony Friel, Deloitte Neurodiversity Network lead.

“It’s important that organisations do not exclude neurodivergent people on the basis that their perspectives may be ‘different’ or that they may not fit traditional ways of working. It can lead to a lack of self-confidence in neurodivergent people. One way that organisations can address this is by breaking down barriers for people applying for roles. Deloitte, supported by the neurodivergent community, put together a guide ‘Neurodiversity Learning Guide for Recruiters’ to help recruitment professionals support neurodivergent candidates and improve recruitment processes.”

Helga Alvarez the CTO of performance marketing company Leaf, explained how to build teams with “polyperspectivity”.

“Polyperspectivity is a vital component of any successful tech team. I have had the immense privilege to build an international team that has grown exponentially over the last two years,” she said.

“For me, the biggest takeaway in recruiting and retaining a high-performing team is to create a space where everyone can feel safe being themselves.”

— Helga Alvarez the CTO of performance marketing company Leaf

Alvarez added: “We are all different and all of us have some degree of neurodiversity engrained into us. By creating a ‘safe space’, we empower everyone. For a remote business such as Leaf that often means using different methods of communication such as Slack, Silent Meetings, Group Meetings, Surveys, 1:1 meetings, and company-wide conversations to gain everyone’s perspectives. Safe spaces also mean we can encourage people to step out of their comfort zone — recently we’ve rolled-out communications training across the business.”

“While this training was of benefit to everyone it was of particular value to members of the team whose personality types mean they are less comfortable expressing themselves in public. This allows us to bring effective solutions that can bring innovation to an industry that is thirsty for genuine diversity of thinking.”

Carolyn Stebbings is Cheif Operating and Inclusion Officer at RAPP UK

This Article originally ran in She Can Code in July 2022

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