Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 could make the world of work more inclusive. Especially for those who are neurodiverse

Margryt Fennema and Louis Zantema, co-founders of the virtual reality app Reducept, are seen working at the Dutch MedTech start-up office in Leeuwarden, Netherlands February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

The current practical demonstration of remote working at scale should become a real opportunity to rethink how we work. Image: REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Sean Gilroy
Head of Cognitive Design & BBC Neurodiversity Lead, BBC User Experience & Design
Leena Haque
Senior UX Designer, BBC
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As a small design team interested in workplace culture and neurodiversity inclusion, we recently began a conversation about the changes we’d noticed to our work culture as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

There is no doubt that the current pandemic has started to change perspectives across society. Many believe this situation has the desirable potential to precipitate a step change in the way we approach many of our previous societal ‘norms’.

One of the significant changes resulting from our current isolation is the need, where possible, to work remotely from the office. While this in itself is not necessarily a new concept, it is the first time that it has been practised at scale.

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Rather than those few team members based at home or the seemingly typical Friday WFH (‘Working from Home’), remote working has suddenly become the new normal.

This has proved to be an unusual experience for many, resulting in a plethora of shared hints and tips for maintaining productivity, wellbeing and mental health, together with advice for the many available tools and apps that enable remote working.

Now as previously mentioned, for some people the idea of working remotely from the office is not a new concept. It offers an accessible way of working for many, particularly with regards to the 1 in 7 of us of who identify as neurodivergent or neurodiverse.

Neurodiversity, coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990’s, recognises the infinite variations in our cognitive functioning (similar to biodiversity for life), leading to the paradigm that conditions like autism, dyslexia, ADHD are valuable, natural variations in human cognition.

As everyone begins to settle into this ‘new’ way of working, we have an opportunity to consider this as a social experiment at scale, taking the time to identify any benefits that we have not previously considered.

If we want to introduce new ideas to society that might offer us a more desirable means of living, this is a good time to discuss not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ and ‘how’.

So, in the spirit of research, we thought it worthwhile to capture and share these initial five observations from our new world of out-of-office working, that could contribute to more inclusive workplace cultures:

1. Typical, yet unwritten rules around social structures in the office are no more. Everyone is free to choose when they go for breaks or for lunch and the social minefields of gathering after work or around the water cooler have been cleared.

These social connections are still happening, but they are structured and online. We have scheduled meet-ups with start and end times and open conversations held on collaborative messaging hubs.

They are also explicitly offered as optional so there is no obligation to be part of the social team.

It is as though the culture around work social values has recognised that people might have other needs or wants, potentially forming a much more inclusive socialising proposition.

2. Different forms of communication are now the norm. Whether you prefer Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom or WhatsApp, now that people are working remotely, they are experimenting with these different tools for communication.

This increased tendency toward online collaborative platforms has the knock-on effect of people being more accepting of different communication preferences, meaning everyone has more options to join conversations in a way they prefer.

3. Might video conferencing be positively affecting how we build and maintain relationships?

Typical office politics can be like black box algorithms if you don’t know how to ‘play the game’, inhibiting opportunities and working against a culture of inclusion.

However, talking via video might be restricting the ability to utilise emotional and physical micro-behaviours to influence and build alliances which support negative social and cultural politics?

Levelling this playing field could also perhaps result in contributions from individuals previously working off the hierarchy radar being recognised because of the more direct nature of conversations online (plus the effect of being able to communicate in a preferred way, per point two above).

4. Recruitment and interviews were always one of the most significant barriers to neurodivergent people being able to demonstrate properly their skills and abilities.

Recruitment hasn’t stopped entirely through this pandemic, so interviews are being conducted online. This has always been highlighted as an alternative method to be more inclusive, but for some reason was seen as less effective or even unfair on others.

Perhaps now that interviews are being successfully conducted online, it will become a more familiar option and will remain a viable alternative for anyone who wants it in the future.

5. Work how you want, when you want. The idea of working Monday through Friday, 9-5 are gradually eroding with each passing week.

This historical hang-up from the industrial revolution over a century ago (along with most of the standard employment faults now being questioned, including the above) is increasingly recognised as a false construct, especially for an online, remote workforce.

People are looking for more flexibility in their lives and most recognise they are more productive at different times of the day. As our working structures have become fractured, people are able now to work at those times which best suit them and focus their workloads on those times when they are most productive.

This current practical demonstration of remote working at scale should become a real opportunity to rethink how we work and not just from the perspective of improvement to work-life balance.

More importantly, these changes or improvements to our ways of working could be the catalyst to a cultural step-change toward diversity and inclusion, especially neurodiversity inclusion where adjustments to social communication and the sensory environment are key.

Notably, if any big changes resulting from the pandemic are going to positively impact our future society, then we will need those diverse and neurodivergent thinkers to help us properly navigate and implement those adjustments.

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