3 Ways to Support Neurodivergent Remote Workers
The world of work has changed drastically over the last few years – and according to the headlines, most people seem to think it’s changed for the better. Despite pressure from the tech and finance sectors to return to the office, employees seem adverse to the idea of losing the flexibility to work on their own time, with pets (or plants) as their only officemates.
According to Forbes, “Remote work is here to stay and will increase into 2023.” Citing increased worker productivity, engagement, and well-being, Forbes and other outlets have added to the public perception that remote work is such an added bonus that some employees are even willing to take a pay cut to hold onto the privilege.
While it is undeniable that many employees do prefer remote work – including women, people of color, and other historically-excluded groups, such as disabled folks – I can’t help but see the popular drumbeat for remote work as reflective of our culture’s bias for neurotypicality.
Full disclosure: despite being an introvert and a highly sensitive person, I’m about as neurotypical as they come.
I think in a linear fashion, crossing off items on my to-do list gives me a small thrill, and I have no trouble organizing myself or my workday. Since Brilliant Ink was remote Before It Was Cool™ (since 2015), I’ve been able to thrive in a remote environment. But not everyone does.
For neurodivergent individuals, particularly those with AD(H)D, remote work can be a blessing and a curse. Difficulty prioritizing, navigating constant changes, and social isolation can be stressful. As employee engagement professionals, we must challenge our assumptions about what employees want or need and make space for all.
Read on for 3 ways to support neurodiverse employees who may find it difficult to work from home, so that they too can thrive.
1. Maintain Routine And Structure.
Flexibility is the main draw of remote work – most employees love being able to manage their time in a way that suits them, while still meeting the company’s productivity goals. But flexibility can be a double-edged sword for neurodiverse employees. For folks with ADHD, the lack of structure in a remote environment can be disorienting, so usual difficulties with time management and prioritization can become disabling.
While it’s impossible to stop rolling out changes as your company adapts to the new world of work, frequent changes in communication tools and/or processes are especially stressful for people with ADHD, who need more time to get used to how things work.
Without being rigidly prescriptive (because no one likes that!), establish a long-term routine, structure, and ways of working in your organization. This is a huge part of our role as internal communicators – so, in some ways, this should already be best practice.
A regular cadence for meetings, internal updates, and as much runway as you can muster for internal changes will go a long way to ensuring a neurodiverse employee’s comfort while working remotely. Make sure to put extra scaffolding in place to help neurodiverse employees adapt to changes and create opportunities for 1:1s to explore any concerns/adjustments.
If you’re a manager, communicate your expectations about deliverables and due dates clearly, kindly, and regularly. For example, it’s more helpful to communicate to a neurodiverse employee that a deliverable is due at 4 PM on Friday than to say that it’s due by the end of the week. If email overload is a problem, a manager might suggest checking email only at certain times of the day, or being on the lookout for correspondence during a specific window. Helping your report prioritize their time will help everyone feel more prepared and productive.
2. Make Space For Various Communication Styles.
While clear, direct communication is always the goal we’re striving for in internal comms, neurodiverse employees have varying communication needs and preferences that we should aim to accommodate in a remote environment. Autistic employees may find video calls triggering, as anxiety about reading body language and tone is exacerbated by the lack of in-person communication, while dyslexic employees might prefer phone calls to written communication in Slack.
As the saying goes, the medium is just as important as the message – and that’s especially true for the neurodiverse. Where possible, encourage neurodivergent employees who work from home to use the communication channels they prefer. When you must have a video call, ensure that virtual meetings are accessible and inclusive (big shout-out to our accessibility expert, Mylanah Gordon, for her brilliant tips).
Providing materials ahead of the meeting, along with a clear agenda, allows neurodiverse employees to feel prepared for what’s to come. Setting clear expectations around chat usage – for example, participants are only allowed to use the chat after the close of an agenda item – reduces distractions and sensory input, which can be overwhelming for autistic employees and those with ADHD.
Even as a neurotypical, I can find chats distracting and appreciate dedicated time for comments/questions. When you apply an equity lens to your workplace practices, everyone benefits!
3. PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR CONNECTION.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has impacted our ability to socialize and connect with others. In a remote work environment, it’s obviously even harder to connect – there are days at Brilliant Ink where I have no meetings on my calendar and my only officemate is Wildman, my cat.
Most neurotypicals love the flexibility of a meeting-free day and don’t see it as negatively impacting connection or culture.
According to a recent Future Forum Pulse report, remote workers are 52% more likely to say their company culture has improved over the past two years compared with fully in-person workers — and they cite flexible work policies as the primary reason their culture is changing for the better.
But not everyone has this experience.
For neurodivergent employees, consistent connection, community, and culture-building are essential to their well-being and happiness. Even occasional meeting-free days can be anxiety-provoking for employees with ADHD, who are at an increased risk of isolation. Asking for help on a meeting-free day, when neurotypicals either don’t see the need – or don’t want – to be “bothered” can be a serious roadblock to a neurodiverse worker’s productivity.
So, am I suggesting we stop meeting-free days and fill up everyone’s calendar? Absolutely not. But one thing we can do is check in on our neurodivergent colleagues, caringly and consistently.
If you’re a manager and your report has identified as neurodiverse, you can ask them what they need to feel connected and supported by their team. Solutions may be as simple as assigning a buddy that meets daily with an employee who needs more support and connection to get through their workday. Once we stop assuming that everyone loves “alone time” when working remotely, we’ll start to truly elevate our remote work culture for all.
WORKING FROM HOME ISN’T FOR EVERYONE – SO LET’S ENSURE THAT ALL EMPLOYEES THRIVE!
No one knows what the future of work holds, but one thing’s clear: remote work is here to stay. While most neurotypical employees love the flexibility of working from home, neurodiverse employees – especially those with autism, ADHD, or dyslexia – can find it disorienting and isolating.
To ensure that all employees thrive in a remote work environment, be sure to maintain routine and structure by establishing ways of working and scaffolding any new changes; make space for various communication styles by encouraging preferred channel usage and hosting inclusive and accessible virtual meetings; and provide plenty of opportunities for community and connection through frequent check-ins and a daily buddy.
Whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, everyone can benefit from equitable communication and employee engagement practices. Remember: accommodating one creates opportunity for all. (And that’s what keeps me in the business!)