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Return to office policies must work for neurodivergent staff

Employers should speak directly with neurodiverse employees to truly understand their needs

There are a range of ways for HR leaders to help make return to office policies work better for neurodivergent people.

One in seven people in the UK are neurodiverse, according to the Local Government Association, meaning that they experience the world differently from their peers. For many neurodivergent people, everyday working life can be a challenge. 

Last year, UK employment tribunals issued 278 judgements against employers for discriminating against neurodivergent workers – a stark increase from the three issued in 2016. The rise appears to be partly due to insensitive handling of return-to-the-office (RTO) mandates.

Read more: How to create a thriving neurodiverse workplace

Although it’s different for each individual, in-person work can present specific challenges for neurodivergent people. Autistic individuals may find the commute and/or workplace environment overstimulating, potentially leading to sensory overload or burnout. For workers with ADHD, concentrating in a busy office can be hard.

Despite these challenges, employers often expect neurodivergent employees to return to the office and be just as productive. But neurodiverse brains cannot easily begin processing in a different way. What might seem like an inconsequential concern to neurotypicals can actually become a major stressor, and efforts to overcome frequent challenges can seriously drain the energy of neurodiverse people. 

Hybrid working is often a good compromise, reducing stress by limiting the number of days that neurodivergent workers are required to come in and ‘mask’ – hide their difficulties to blend in and avoid reproach. However this doesn’t fully address the physical workplace challenges that some neurodivergent people face.

Read more: Neurodiversity: a legal perspective

Employees can now request tailored flexible working arrangements twice per year, at any time. People who disclose neurodiversity as a disability are protected by the Equality Act when filing flexible work from home requests, so employers are bound to honour their preferred arrangements wherever they can. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other measures that employers can take to make coming into the office more appealing for neurodivergent people, boosting support while limiting stress. 

An adaptable approach

Employers must move beyond black-and-white dialogues of either full office attendance or consistent remote work. Instead give neurodivergent workers more control over when they come in. This should be flexible based upon changing daily experiences. Employers must acknowledge that challenges can vary considerably from one day to the next. 

Reasonable adjustments can also make the workplace more welcoming and comfortable for neurodivergent employees. Introducing supportive measures is a great way to boost both productivity and autonomy. 

Employers should speak directly with affected employees to truly understand their needs and respond to regular feedback. This ensures that the employee is treated as an individual. Bespoke adjustments can provide more comfort. 

Opting to introduce some of the most proven accommodations as standard is also a great move, potentially encouraging more neurodiverse people to enter the workforce as well. Popular and effective options include: 

  • Introducing soundproof booths and quiet workspaces, to allow neurodivergent workers to escape excessive sensory input and potential distractions. 
  • Creating areas with different or lower lighting, to reduce both sensory overload and fatigue. Comfortable break areas are another great idea. 
  • Delivering a clear brief ahead of meetings, to help manage people’s expectations. Knowing the schedule can really help neurodivergent people, allowing them to prepare, as does having written minutes or a recording of meetings after the event, to assist with memory and comprehension. 

Of course, allowing for personal accommodations is another absolute must, be it extending travel times to ease anxiety or facilitating the use of soundproof headphones and fidget toys while at work.

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

Offering comprehensive training, coaching and mentorships also goes a long way, as does uninterrupted work time and access to organisational tools, to drive both performance and job satisfaction. 

Rather than forcing office attendance, these small changes encourage participation and boost employee safety, satisfaction and engagement. 

By Michael Doolin, CEO of Clover HR