Neurodiversity in the workplace: why office life isn’t for everyone

When chancellor Jeremy Hunt commented earlier this year on the world of work post-Covid, he spoke about a default return to the office in order to encourage water cooler moments, develop team spirit and foster creativity in the workplace. 

What the chancellor failed to acknowledge is that for many neurodiverse employees, the office environment can be the least productive place for them to be, and those ‘water cooler moments’ can be the stuff of actual nightmares for those who do not respond to social signals and hidden context the same way as others. 

Remote or hybrid working, far from being a barrier to embracing office life, is exactly what allows neurodiverse talent to play a full and active role in the workplace.

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To truly understand the role that the environment plays, here is a useful analogy.

A cactus flowers and blooms in the desert.

Here it thrives and really reaches its potential, but if we move that cactus from a desert in Arizona and plant it in my back garden in the UK, it might not thrive or survive.

The climate would not be right for it.

However, we would never say that the cactus is broken, or that there’s a deficit with this cactus, or think that the cactus needs fixing or curing.

We would realise that the environment wasn’t right for the cactus to meet its potential. And we should recognise that for the cactus to thrive we may need to make adaptations to its environment.

So we need to do the same thing for neurodiverse people in the workplace. 

Flexible working

Covid accelerated a move towards more flexible working, establishing a landscape where it quickly became clear there was no need to be present in order to be productive. Team building was taken online, idea generation carried out via Teams or Zoom sessions.

For neurodiverse employees who struggled with the overwhelm of a busy office, this meant they could be involved in and contribute to meetings where previously they may have been too distracted or anxious to be fully present.

This is why the chancellor’s remarks are so damaging.

Rather than emphasising the need for employers to work with neurodiverse individuals to find a way of working that suits both parties, they perpetuate the myth that productivity only comes from being in the same place at the same time and in an environment that might not have been adjusted to support neurodiverse needs. 

And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Multiple studies show that productivity is higher in those that work from home at least a few times each month – and forcing people to work in an environment in which they are uncomfortable, or penalising them for working remotely, is simply encouraging presenteeism.  

The problem with presenteeism

This ‘showing up for the sake of it’ poses several problems.

Apart from the financial costs (estimated to be as much as £29 billion), presenteeism results in employees who are demotivated, inefficient and disengaged. 

Far from improving output by encouraging conversation and collaboration, it’s actually a clear productivity-zapper: being physically present but not dedicated or passionate about a task leads to missed deadlines, poorer quality work, more mistakes and less attention to detail. In fact, one study suggests that 38 working days are lost per employee every year as a result of presenteeism

For neurodiverse individuals especially, being forced into an office environment where face-to-face interactions, open-plan layouts and social norms are prioritised can be overwhelming, and hinder their ability to focus and perform at their best.

Similarly, constantly feeling the need to be physically present, even when struggling or not fully engaged, creates an environment where health and work-life balance are compromised and mental health suffers. People develop a sense of inadequacy, experience increased stress and often burnout. 

Therefore, it’s not surprising that companies promoting presenteeism commonly find that productivity drops, staff retention is a struggle and morale is low. 

The solution

In short, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to working patterns.

The spectrum of neurodiverse conditions is wide-ranging: not all neurodiverse employees will face the same challenges, and what works as a solution for one will not necessarily work for another. 

What we need is open communication channels, a supportive environment and flexible policies.

By recognising that each individual has unique requirements, it’s possible to accommodate the needs of neurodiverse employees and ensure everyone is given the opportunity to work to their full potential. 

Daniel Adherne is author of the pocket guide to neurodiversity and founder of Adjust, neurodiversity training for workplaces