By Wayne McRae
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, nearly everyone who could work from home was asked to do so. This was true for teams of people who typically work closely together testing software and solving IT quality assurance issues as well. What these teams normally do in conventional offices in buildings across the country, they needed to do at home, in separate workspaces — ready or not.
Many people hit technical roadblocks or blundered through their first experiences in video meetings. There was fear that people couldn’t manage their time well or that collaboration would break down. But the fears subsided, and we all accepted — some more quickly than others — that remote work is the new norm.
The upside was that some people thrive in remote working conditions. Some people prefer the ability to control the conditions of their work environment and the quiet of the home office. And companies with a growing awareness that humans aren’t all wired the same — companies that appreciate neurodiversity in their workforce as a source of creativity and problem-solving — found that the transition to remote work might offer some real benefits.
In fact, enterprises that depend on neurodiverse teams in the Autism2Work (A2W) program at CAI actually saw a jump in productivity, ranging from 11 to 24%. A2W associates transitioned quickly, rapidly solving the inevitable logistics issues that come from an overnight stay-at-home order, and have embraced the tools and mechanisms that foster collaboration virtually.
The term neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits that is part of the normal variation in the human population. Though the term can be used to describe ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia, it is most commonly used to capture the sweep of diagnoses that fall under autistic spectrum disorders.
Though the neurodiverse population remains a largely untapped talent pool, it includes exceptionally talented people with advanced degrees, high academic standing, and strong work ethics. A2W associates often share superior pattern-detection abilities, great attention to detail, and innovative problem-solving skills.
For many neurodiverse employees, the move to remote work was an unexpected gift. “While working remotely, I find that some of the distractions of the office space are no longer a problem,” says Tony Arocho, Quality Assurance (QA) Analyst for A2W. “I can leave the temperature in my apartment at my preferred conditions all day, the lighting isn’t too harsh or low, and I can play music without headphones and not impact my coworkers.”
The reality is conventional offices are designed largely for neurotypical employees and can unintentionally present a number of challenges for people like Tony who are sensitive to their environments. What might be considered “normal” to workplace architects and to many employees can create a distraction for others. Sensory overload caused by lighting or sound and communication issues in team meetings are common examples neurodiverse employees point to as obstacles to employment. Long commutes also can be sources of friction, often causing anxiety or testing workers’ ability to focus
CAI clients have realized increased productivity levels as high as 24% from A2W teams working remotely.Wayne McRae
For Tony’s QA team, a typical remote workday starts with a virtual standup meeting over Microsoft Teams, where Tony meets with other team members to discuss the progress from the previous day, calling out any impediments and sharing plans for the current day’s activities. After that, Tony works independently creating automated scripts and testing, with virtual collaboration as needed with team members if he runs into a roadblock, is being assigned something new, or needs to help train newer team members.
“I do value in-person collaboration,” says Tony. “It can be preferable when providing instruction to team members, for example. Personally, I would value a system in which working in the office is an occasional event for those who prefer such an environment, while others who prefer remaining virtual could do so with no penalty or stigma. Our team’s performance speaks for itself – remote work is not only a viable option, it’s actually an ideal scenario in many instances.” Tony's team continues to meet and exceed client expectations.
There is no question that the workplace has been changed forever. Many companies are studying the implications of the work-from-home model into the future – and re-imagining how neurodiversity in their workforce can help them get ahead. In fact, during the pandemic, CAI not only successfully transitioned 95%+ A2W team members to work remotely within one week of the COVID-19 lockdown, but it also launched new A2W teams that are currently remote in nature. Companies that have embraced A2W get not only productive remote teams, they get talented people who are exceptional at their jobs.
The case for neurodiversity in the workforce is especially compelling now, given the success of the past year’s remote work experiences and the skills shortages that increasingly hamper IT, data analytics and other business services. It’s time for all of us to rethink how we expand and support neurodiversity in the workplace – whether the work is happening in the office or at home.