Podcast
23 minute read 08 April 2022

Creating a better work environment for all by embracing neurodiversity

Organizations that make an extra effort to recruit, retain, and nurture neurodivergent workers can gain a competitive edge from increased diversity in skills, ways of thinking, and approaches to problem-solving

Steve Hatfield: The Great Resignation, the great reshuffle, the great exhaustion, the great onboarding—Organizations are needing to look at where they can find different talent, where they can upskill and reskill, where they can source and determine different pockets of talent. And so, the neurodiverse are an often-overlooked subgroup within that.

Brenna Sniderman: This type of “disability” is not something that someone can see when they look at an individual. It's not usually something that is externally evident, and so it can be challenging to discern whether somebody is neurodivergent [or not] unless they're willing to disclose it. From a diversity and inclusion standpoint, there are a lot of interesting challenges and considerations around how to be inclusive and how to let people share or encourage them to share their differences. 

Tanya Ott:Welcome to the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. I’m Tanya Ott. It’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of people around the world are neurodiverse.1 

What exactly is neurodiversity? Well, it’s not just one thing.

Amy Edwards: You know, with neurodiversity, we're seeing an increase in not just autistic students in college, but other neurodivergent students who are struggling with similar things, such as executive functioning, time management and organization with ADHD, social anxiety, different things. It's not just autism. 

Tanya Ott: That’s Dr. Amy Edwards, director of Drexel University’s Autism Support Program. She’s one of my guides to this issue. She’s joined by Steve Hatfield, the global leader for Future of Work at Deloitte Consulting, Brenna Sniderman, managing director and lead of the Center for Integrated Research (CIR) at Deloitte Services, and Monika Mahto, the Center’s research lead. 

Steve, Brenna, and Monika are coauthors of A rising tide lifts all boats: Creating a better work environment for all by embracing neurodiversity. The report contends that creating a better work environment for the neurodiverse will make work better for all of us—and will help solve some of the looming issues we’re seeing from the Great Resignation. 

Brenna is the mom of twins who are both on the autism spectrum, so they know first-hand that [the] population of people with neurodiversity is definitely, itself, very diverse.  

Brenna Sniderman: So, I could look at one of my children, and he's very, very into rules and science and math and all the stereotypical things one thinks of when one thinks of an autistic individual. My other son, on the other hand, is quite the polar opposite. He loves art and music—and you cannot get him to pay attention to his schedule if his life depended on it. And I think what that illustrates is the variability of talents, the variability of mindsets and ways of thinking and ways of processing. And, in some ways, I think that also extends to the types of roles and jobs that individuals who are neurodiverse can have, and the need not to shunt people into one specific area, because the overwhelming belief is that that's the area where people tend to be most talented. 

Tanya Ott: It's a kind of diversity that we don't really hear about often, but we're acknowledging it more. And especially with younger people—They're acknowledging it within their own ranks. And there are probably some listeners who wonder if it’s more common now than it was previously? 

Brenna Sniderman: It's not that it is necessarily more common, so much as we're more aware of it, [and] we're better at diagnosing it earlier. We're better at diagnosing it in general because there are many individuals who have neurodiverse diagnoses, who are “close enough” to neurotypical, that they may not have been diagnosed in the past. But I also think there is—to your point about younger generations—perhaps more of a willingness to speak about it openly. To say, "This is who I am, and this is what I identify as." And I think that in particular has also brought more awareness to things that people used to keep a little bit more quiet [about]. 

Tanya Ott: Steve, why does this matter so much when it comes to hiring? 

Steve Hatfield: We've been approaching the trend lines around the future of work and we've been talking about the way that technology will transform how work is done. Then, of course, with the pandemic, this spike in the way in which we were all operating in a more remote and hybrid model has shined a bright spotlight on a couple of different things. In a remote world, we can access talent more broadly than just those that are within a commutable distance to our geographies. But the reality is, in a remote world, you can access talent even past that. There are other pockets of diverse talent that are actually really well-suited to operating in a remote environment and quite possibly can bring some very interesting skills to the table. So, there's that one angle. Couple that with the other dynamic that's happening now, which of course, is the Great Resignation, the great reshuffle, the great exhaustion, the great onboarding. Organizations are needing to look at where they can find different talent, where they can upskill and reskill, where they can source and determine different pockets of talent. The neurodiverse are an often-overlooked subgroup within that. We think it's really important for organizations to step back and think a little bit about it. Your adaptation to a remote and hybrid model in the environment today can open up very interesting doors for you, if you think about it right. 

Tanya Ott: Give us a sense of the size of the population with neurodiversity and what their employment rates look like right now. 

Monika Mahto: We're talking about a sizable portion of our workforce actually—Estimates will vary for different neurodiversity types across age groups and regions, but it's estimated that roughly 10 to 20 percent of the global population is considered neurodivergent. And, often times, these individuals experience higher rates of unemployment compared to the general population. In the United States, for instance, it's estimated that 85 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed, compared to four percent for the overall population. And it's important to note that these numbers are based on those who have been diagnosed and have self-identified. 

It's a huge lost opportunity for organizations, because by hiring neurodiverse talent, they can foster diversity of thought, drive higher productivity and retention, [and have the] possibility of better innovation in products and services. So bottom line, the benefits of hiring and embracing neurodiverse professionals can be manifold and far-reaching. 

Tanya Ott: How do organizations make neurodiversity in the workplace work? 

Steve Hatfield: I think it's important to recognize that the things that hamper a neurodiverse individual in the corporate environment are fading away in some respects, [such as] the need to be in an office, the social anxiety, the social interaction dimension—as opposed to being in your home environment working in in a deep-thinking sort of way on a technical problem that's rather sticky; but you have sort of the mental passion to keep at it. As we think more and more around how teams need to operate in this new remote and hybrid world, what's logically happening is that people are thinking more and more about, well, when do we need to be together and when do we need to be apart? How do we use the tools right? What sort of team standups do we have, and how do we break down the work in a way where it is more understood at team level—for the different dynamics of what needs to happen in terms of that outcome when we're together and apart, and so forth. As that unfolds, it's not too far to take a step that says, well, what portions of this work are better suited to different personality types? We already think about that. We think of the skills that you bring to the table on a team, and we think, well, this is the storytelling skill and Brenna's really good at that; this is the math part of the problem that we have to solve, and Monika's really good at that. It's not too far to begin taking that further in terms of what neurodiverse folks bring to the table as well. 

Brenna Sniderman: Steve makes a really, really great point about thinking about the skills people bring to the table, [and] that's something that we already do. It should not be any different for neurodiverse individuals. I think that speaks to the culture of a team and an organization where it's not just being tolerant or even accepting of people's differences, but really embracing the differences and saying, this is an area where this person has specific talent, [and] that we want to make sure that there's a real opportunity here to take advantage of this person's talent here to make a better product, a better service, a better team, a better outcome—as opposed to just saying, well, this person is slightly different, we'll accept that, but sort of push it to the side. 

Tanya Ott: We're talking about people working in the workplace, but there's that pipeline issue as well because, for many positions, that requires a college degree—sometimes [even] an advanced degree. I'm a university professor as well as a podcast host, so I'm very conscious of that with my students who have neurodiversity. I'm really curious, Amy, in terms of what you've seen in your work at Drexel about the ways to help support students who are walking that path. 

Amy Edwards: Our model at Drexel is [one of] fading support. In the beginning, it's a little bit more intensive, and the hope is that by the time they get to senior year, they're just coming back to say hello, and [that] they're ready to go out [in]to the workforce. But again, every student is different. We typically offer help around executive functioning in the beginning. We sit down, we go over every syllabus. We go over every blackboard shell. We look at everything that's due for the entire term. We put it all in one organization, whatever works well for them, and then, we slowly go through that. We also work on social skills—We have peer mentors. There's a lot of different pieces to it, but again, the hope is that it's a fading support. 

Tanya Ott: I imagine that, quite honestly, the program in which I teach is probably somewhat challenging because it's very production-oriented and deadlines get moved around all the time, and that can be a real challenge for some students. 

Amy Edwards: Yes, it can be. We also work on skills around that, so what do you do when you walk up to the class and the class is canceled suddenly, you know, there's a note on the door that says you don't have class. What do you do now? A lot of students may have trouble with that transition. We figure out ways to handle that. 

Tanya Ott: Brenna and Monica, you've got some specific examples that you talk about in terms of incorporating neurodiversity into the workplace culture and workflow. Can you maybe point to some that you think are pretty interesting? 

Brenna Sniderman: Sure. One example that we talk about in the article is starting at the very, very beginning, even before someone comes on board; even in the interview and hiring process, thinking about how an individual may not necessarily feel comfortable in a traditional interview environment, and thinking about other ways to do interviews—whether it's a group interview where rather than going from person to person to meet with multiple, different individuals, having everyone meet together. Whether it's conducted virtually, whether you allow or encourage an individual to bring their own technology with them if there are needs to use a laptop or other tools, so that they are using tools that they feel comfortable with. Rethinking the way that you bring talent in can help widen the aperture and open the door for different modes of thinking and different modes of processing to shine through in that process, where it can all too often be a little bit too surface [level]. So, that's one area. 

Monika and I had also talked a little bit about ways—when someone joins a team—to make sure they're supported. Obviously, there are typical mentorship models that would help anybody, but is there a mentorship model that enables an individual to help solve some of the social-anxiety issues, a mentor who can introduce someone around and make them feel more comfortable with meeting people, where that might not be an area in which they have a strength. And, also, things like, quite frankly, simply accepting that some people just need to work differently. This goes back to something that Steve was talking about earlier with virtual work environments and flexible work environments, but also for some individuals who may have social anxiety, or be incredibly introverted, or find unstructured interactions to be challenging—If they don't want to go out for drinks or dinner after work, they shouldn't have to. It's all about making sure that we meet people where they are and where they're comfortable. One other thing we had talked about—There are a number of alumni networks or affinity networks within an organization where people can connect with individuals that have similar backgrounds to them. Can organizations create affinity networks for the neurodiverse as well, so they can connect with others within the organization that can help them navigate some of the cultural or structural challenges that they may be facing? 

Tanya Ott: Essentially, what you're talking about, particularly with the meet them where they are, is that this really needs to be a "no one-size-fits-all" kind of solution. 

Brenna Sniderman: Yes, I'm glad you pointed that out because the way I think about this is that you wouldn't walk into a workplace and create a one-size-fits-all solution for neurotypical people—you shouldn't do it for neurodiverse people either. Everybody is different and everybody uses or needs different types of support. I just keep going back to when we talk to our children about their diagnosis and help them understand a little bit about themselves and their identity. The way that we framed it for our children is, you perceive and process the world a little differently than others do. Some people have trouble with math. Some people have trouble with reading. Some people are dyslexic. Some people have trouble learning foreign languages. You just process things differently and that is who you are and that's okay. I think if we look at every individual as a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses or strengths and areas that they need to develop, a lot of the tools we're suggesting in varying degrees are going to be useful for any individual to help them reach their fullest potential and bring their broadest set of skill sets and tools to the office every day. 

Steve Hatfield: I'd love to build on a little bit of what Brenna's saying, because that comment on a) this also works for neurotypicals, and b) that spotlight on potential needs an underscore. In the remote and hybrid world, we're helping managers think about how they manage the workflow and how do they manage their teams? How do they make sure that people are operating at their best? How do we create an environment where it's not about throughput and output and productivity—it's about human performance. Our performance as humans. That's the dialog on well-being, that's the dialog on innovation, that's the dialog on asynchronous and synchronous work. Across all of it is this appreciation for the fact that probably the greatest untapped asset within organizations today is human potential. We're sort of stuck thinking about people in terms of the bullets on their job description as opposed to what they absolutely truly bring to the table.  Suddenly, if you're taking that approach, you've shifted your mindset to think about your workforce [and] expanded it further into this population that's not getting as much as it deserves in terms of workforce attention. They can bring so much to the table. 

Monika Mahto: I think sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference. So, for instance, communication and working styles vary a lot. Some neurodiverse individuals, they may be comfortable with high-level instructions. Some may prefer more step-by-step, detailed instructions; some may prefer to listen to a call recording; [while] others may like a call transcript. Overall, it's important to treat these individuals as individuals, and it's easier said than done. But [it’s] very important to do that and respect individual preferences when it comes to day-to-day workflows and work experiences. 

Tanya Ott: I think we need to say that in so many workplaces, there are probably quite a few neurodiverse employees who are not publicly identifying themselves as such and their managers may not even know that they are. 

Monika Mahto:Yes, that's absolutely right. There will be neurodiverse individuals who are not comfortable disclosing—maybe with the fear of biases or even job insecurity. And it's when leaders self-identify themselves that the rest of the workforce feels more comfortable to come forward too. If leaders come forward and share the business accommodations that they requested and how the firm supported them, the rest of the workforce would also feel that they could do the same. 

Tanya Ott: One of the things that we've been talking about throughout this conversation is this idea of not limiting the opportunities, being aware of underemployment, and not allowing people to meet their full potential. And Amy, I think you've got an interesting story related to that. 

Amy Edwards: Yes, so we actually have a student who is working in a department on campus. I went to check on him to find out what he was doing, and they had him moving something from one area of the room to the other area of the room. And that was it. That's all they had him [doing]. And the student is brilliant. He's a senior. He's a biology major. And, yet the people who are working with him, I think, weren't properly prepared to work with someone on the spectrum. So, it kind of goes both ways you know—we can empower the student and help the student to self-advocate. But in the same breath, I think we need to meet them in the middle and make sure everyone's trained as well. 

Steve Hatfield: This dialog in the marketplace around the Great Resignation, the extent to which there's 11 million job openings in the United States, it's also opened the discussion on do we need to think past pedigree and back to the capabilities and skills that people bring to the table? The Philadelphia Federal Reserve did a study that found that somewhere in the vicinity of 36 million Americans in the US workforce could earn 70 percent more if we thought in terms of their skills versus their pedigree. If you bring that line of thinking to the table, it just puts another underscore to this population and the extent to which there's a real opportunity here. 

Amy Edwards: Just to add on to what you just said, that can bring you down a little bit further into the interview, for example. You know, not looking at exactly how someone shakes their hand, or how they make eye contact, or how they answer the crazy questions that you have in these interviews, or how they make conversation. Look at more of what they can do, what their actual application to the position would be, and how well they could perform the job. 

Brenna Sniderman: I think Amy makes a great point that I want to build on, which is a person not making eye contact is not indicative of the job that they will do for you unless they're an eye doctor. So don't try to spend time focusing on the small things. Really look at the totality of the individual, what they can offer, and the potential that they have because it's critical as a leader to set the tone for your team and for your organization that people have things to offer and they have value to offer. When you think of people as humans, you can find a tremendous amount of potentially untapped value in each person and untapped talent and untapped opportunity that can really open the door for your organization to a lot of tremendous growth and innovation. 

Steve Hatfield: That's the key point—that as you take advantage of the opportunities of the hybrid model, and as you think about a refined workforce experience, as you think about human performance and human potential in a new and different way, and as you open the aperture to take advantage of the opportunity of the neurodivergent, you actually create an environment in the organization that serves everyone. The ripple effect will be felt by the entire organization. 

Tanya Ott: That’s Steve Hatfield, principal in Deloitte Consulting’s Workforce Transformation practice. We also heard from Brenna Sniderman, managing director and lead of Deloitte Services’ Center for Integrated Research, and from Monika Mahto, the Center’s research lead. And finally, Dr. Amy Edwards, the director of Drexel University’s Autism Support Program.

The new report is A rising tide lifts all boats: Creating a better work environment for all by embracing neurodiversity. It makes the argument for why you should be hiring neurodivergent workers and how you can help ensure their success. You’ll find it at deloitteinsights.com.  

We’re on Twitter at @deloitteinsight and you’ll find me there at @tanyaott1. If this is your first time listening, go ahead and click that little follow button so we’ll be easy to find in your podcast queue. We drop new episodes twice a month and we’ve got some really cool special series on the future of work, the future of government, and other timely topics. I hope you check them out!   

Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott. Have a wonderful week! 

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. It provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.

  1. Miriam Moeller, Dana L. Ott, and Emily Russo, “Neurodiversity can be a workplace strength, if we make room for it ,” The Conversation, September 8, 2021.

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Cover image by: Kevin Weier

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Steve Hatfield

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