Entire teams working from home as the future of work seemed a utopian notion, until recently. In a few short months this has become a reality for many organisations around the world as they respond to COVID. According to The Australian Financial Review (19 April 2020), over 90% of Australian companies are now encouraging – or requiring – their employees to work from home.
People are working in ways they never have before and this has presented its fair share of challenges. There are many stories emerging however of companies showing that neurodiversity can offer a key ingredient to making remote work a success, and in many cases deliver a competitive advantage. Companies including Ultranauts, Auticon and Xceptional show their largely autistic teams are not only surviving, but thriving in a work from home setting.
· Challenge 1: Staying focused and managing distractions – Autistic individuals usually perform highly complex jobs requiring dedicated concentration, which is achieved when office distractions are eliminated. Auticon, a global IT consulting firm with 200 autistic staff, out of 300, has found workers with autism communicate better in remote settings and often excel at business intelligence, quality-assurance test automation and complex software development projects when there are fewer interruptions, less stress (by eliminating travel), and a quiet environment.
· Challenge 2: Maintaining productivity – Xceptional, a leading technology platform that evangelises and harnesses the strengths of autistic people, securing them meaningful business, technology, engineering and accounting roles, recently found one of the unexpected positive consequences of COVID has been an increase in productivity for the autistic candidates they have placed, when they are allowed to work from home.
“92% of our candidates prefer to work from home, at least part of the time. Working remotely in the comfort of their own home where they can control the environment is hugely beneficial to project outcomes. We are now seeing workplace structural changes as an advantage for autistic people, when typically the recruitment process excludes them,” Aron Mercer, Chief Growth Officer, said.
“I’m finding it [working from home] great, to be honest. I’m better able to focus and with communication being asynchronous I can ask for help more easily and understand the help I’m given more clearly.” (candidate recently placed by Xceptional with the new working from home arrangements).
Auticon notes that going virtual has allowed their global team to work more closely, leveraging a deeper resource pool with specific technical capabilities in real time. They can now manage across multiple time zones with more rapid deployment which otherwise would have taken months or years to realise.
Ultranauts, with a team who are 75% autistic and 100% remote, demonstrate the cognitive diversity and remoteness of their team allows them to visualise technology systems in new ways, doing it better than others, and as a result, deliver superior results for their customers. They have achieved 50% growth annually, proving that you don’t have to be co-located and neurotypical to be high performing.
· Challenge 3: Well-being concerns – Xceptional shows that autistic individuals are experts at working from home while remaining connected. Xceptional not only place candidates, but also employ a software testing team who are 100% autistic, two-thirds of whom work from home. To ensure the team stays connected they build in ‘play time’. Each week they host a virtual games lunch using multi-player gaming options, and https://discordapp.com/ a messenger app popular with gamers. Zoom is used for multi person video meetings, and during each call team members are encouraged to be creative with their backgrounds. “It’s become a competition amongst the team – our CEO even uses a Hogwarts library,” said Aron.
Xceptional have introduced a #kitchentable channel on Slack where team members enjoy simultaneous lunches and share pictures of whatever they have cooked.
Ultranauts offers similar advice, they recommend developing the opportunity for casual interactions in communal spaces. They have a #cafeteria channel on Slack for brain breaks and casual chats.
Xceptional believes strongly in supporting the mental health of their autistic employees. Each month their dedicated job coaching team sends out a wellness survey to their autistic staff, and the external candidates they coach. It measures how supported each team member feels and how comfortable they feel talking to their manger, among others. Ultranauts uses polly-ai, which integrates with Slack and Microsoft Teams for setting up re-occurring polls.
· Challenge 4: Communication and collaboration – There are a variety of workplace technology tools available cater to the individual communication preferences of autistic individuals. Xceptional conducts virtual meetings by Zoom or Google Meet, allowing staff to make human connections regularly through the week. Dedicated Slack channels are also used to collaborate on specific projects. Both ensure project work is completed to a high standard.
Ultranauts suggest setting up a virtual space for work meetings that is always on. Auticon uses Microsoft Teams, which works well in cases where team members are uncomfortable with verbal or face-to-face conversations.
· Challenge 5: How do I know my team is actually working– Harvard Business School confirms you can build trust through online relationships to the same level as if you were working with an individual face-to-face.
Auticon doesn’t worry about how their autistic employees spend their time. They note autistic individuals are very direct and honest about what they are doing during the day.
Xceptional uses a shared calendar and has created a Slack availability channel. For the broader group, team tasks are tracked using Trello, and for the technology team, Jira. Xceptional notes, communicating in the right place regularly is key, and ask your employee if you are unsure. Xceptional offers some essential tips, which can be found here.
· Challenge 6: Onboarding and training people remotely – Onboarding a new employee remotely is a simple process requiring very few modifications to current processes.
New employees can be introduced to teams remotely and via email. Appointing a mentor or buddy will ensure the new recruit has a clear point of contact to ask all those little questions along the way.
Over the first days and weeks spending time with the new employee on a video link call using the shared screen option to discuss tasks, projects and teach new systems and procedures is helpful. Many autistic people report written instruction useful, so ensure verbal conversations are followed up with written material the individual can refer back to.
Xceptional provide a unique and in-depth onboarding assessment and report for all new recruits placed with clients. This report provides detailed information on the person’s learning preferences, communication styles (which online channels work), short and long term goals, strengths, challenges, recommended adjustments and background to ensure the placement is successful. Aron added, “many employers comment on how useful this report would be for all new employees as it speeds up much of the ‘getting to know you stage’.”
E-Learning platforms like Go1 are also making it easier to train people remotely.
“We find the gap is not the technology, but often how comfortable employers and managers are with training remotely. With a slight shift in mindset, technology offers real benefits,” said Aron.
Many companies have been forced into remote work in an abrupt way. It is conceivable large scale remote work will become a permanent fixture in many industries owing to ongoing external public health regulations around social distancing. Optus offers a recent example, announcing it will make work-at-home measures a permanent feature of its call centre operations.
Internal staff pressures for more flexible work options will also drive this trend. A recent workplace survey found 74% of individuals felt flexible work is more accepted.
As a result, decentralised and distributed work will be more common. Companies will need to take a longer term view of how they manage movement and contact of people and associated human resource capabilities. Building and managing a workforce that can thrive in this ‘new normal’ will be critical. Hiring more people with autism could provide companies with a solution.