By now, the business world is used to the idea of widespread remote and hybrid work. It has cut down on commutes, given folks more time in their days, and turned couches and comfy pants into a perfectly acceptable way of working.
I believe it has also paved the way for something that has been a very long time coming: creating space for neurodivergent people to thrive in the workplace.
The neurotypical majority might take for granted that it’s relatively easy to pop on some business casual clothes and stand up in front of a room full of people and give a presentation. It might be simple to be productive with the sights and sounds of the office swirling around you. But what if you are one of the estimated 20% of the global population that is neurodivergent? What if your brain works differently and makes it paralyzingly difficult to be productive, present, and professional in a “traditional” work environment?
A quick look at global stats shows approximately 15%–20% of the population is thought to be neurodivergent in some way––meaning those who have a condition such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, or Tourette syndrome, and may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, and social interaction.
As a neurodivergent executive, I spent years—decades actually—trying to fit the mold. I thought I was broken. But as I’ve learned, it turns out that the mold itself is the problem.
A NEW PHASE OF WORK
I am fortunate to work at a company that is not just immersed in the new phase of work; we’re actively building it. As the head of brand for Corel, I get to help reimagine how our company will adapt to this next phase. As we envision it, work will be a place where no one is counting down the minutes until they can sign off for the day and turn to their “real” life. In this phase, people are excited about creating, ideating, and sharing things that matter to them. Professional productivity should be a natural effect of having the time, space, and freedom to do your best work—however, wherever, and whenever it suits you.
And that last part—however, wherever, and whenever—isn’t a casually selected turn of phrase (even though you may hear it a lot these days in marketing copy). Until the pandemic, the business world was still operating with the same archaic work structures tolerated since the industrial revolution. These structures expect on-demand focus and seamless interpersonal communication, among many other barrier-inducing elements.
You might be thinking, “Well yes, that’s called being a paid professional.” But why? Who said that’s the only way—much less the best way—to be innovative and productive? (And isn’t that potentially ableist to assume?)
Who said that if you can’t put on a blazer and dazzle people with your ideas in person during specific hours using pre-approved lingo that you aren’t intelligent or capable? And, frankly, how do any businesses expect to constantly innovate at the pace the market demands if they’re busy trying to cram people into the same molds that our grandparents used?
Technology is innovating rapidly to accelerate business progress, so I believe the way a business treats its most valuable asset—its people—must change, too. This new phase of work is an opportunity to do just that.
EMBRACING WORKPLACE INCLUSIVITY AND FREEDOM
Today, leaders shouldn’t simply tolerate remote work because of a pandemic or because it’s the way to attract talent in a tough market. You should embrace remote and hybrid work because it’s more progressive and inclusive. And that doesn’t mean simply shifting the traditional work schedule to a screen—that’s not progressive; it’s stifling.
Sometimes inspiration strikes at 2 a.m. Sometimes a contributor hits their stride at noon. Sometimes it’s on a beach. Sometimes it’s surrounded by colleagues. With inflation skyrocketing and budgets tightening, it feels like a no-brainer to pay people to be at their best—whenever and wherever that might be—rather than to enforce old ways of thinking that may inhibit genuine, individualized productivity. In fact, at my company we recently gave all employees the choice to become permanent remote workers or return to the office—nearly 95% of them chose remote work.
I believe everyone, not just those who identify as neurodivergent, benefits from dismantling old structures surrounding work and freeing up space and time for ideas. Remote work has been shown to level the playing field for knowledge workers of all types, including parents and caregivers, individuals with disabilities, those with health issues, nursing mothers, and people who need to work outside their geographic region in order to secure a living wage. Remote work also has the potential to reduce discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or ability. It helps cut down on visual bias stemming from ethnicity, gender identity, tattoos, or hairstyles (all elements that are routinely used to discriminate against marginalized groups). It cuts down on expectations and costs associated with wardrobe and transportation.
In a recent survey conducted by my company, 36% of people said they felt more comfortable following up virtually as opposed to in person, and that question didn’t even account for neurodiversity. Being comfortable in the space of your choice can be emboldening.
Again, it’s not enough to be remote. Right now, I believe work needs to be remote, inclusive, and free of artificial restraints, which is what it truly means to let people work however, whenever, and wherever they want. For those of us who are neurodivergent, leaning into this means we can make accommodations with less fear of alienation and discrimination.
If you’re concerned that workplace inclusivity and freedom equate to anarchy and lost productivity, you’re still applying the molds of the past. Deloitte reports that, in a three-year period, inclusive workplaces are as much as eight times as likely to be innovative and have 2.3 times the cash flow per employee as non-inclusive workplaces.
Diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of background—and, in my case, diversity of brain function—can lead to breakthroughs and an eschewing of the status quo. This new phase is here. It’s flexible and inclusive. It’s productive. It’s dynamic, built on forward motion. And it’s a place people want to be. If you prefer to stand still, you might soon find yourself standing alone.
Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Alludo. An award-winning technology brand-builder, storyteller, strategist, and advisor.