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“Who Doesn’t Want 140% More Productivity and 3.5 Million Work Hours Saved?”

Practical steps employers can take to improve their neurodiversity: a Q&A with Tara Cunningham, CEO of Beyond Impact

Beyond Impact is a consulting firm which works with organisations to improve how they source, recruit, onboard, include, and nurture neurodivergent individuals. Its clients have included high profile companies such as Salesforce and EY.

Founder and CEO Tara Cunningham is passionate about neurodiversity and is also an in-demand public speaker on the subject. We caught up with Tara recently to discuss what employers can do to embrace neurodiversity in their workforce and bring out the best in neurodiverse individuals – as well as what the benefits of doing so can be.

Q: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, we fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” This quote is from author and inspirational speaker Alexander Den Heijer. What does that make you think of?

A: I adore that quote, for two reasons. One, I’m neurodiverse myself and my environment always has to be set up in a way that is best for me to work. Secondly, I’m the world’s worst gardener!

But this is a perfect way to go about this. Traditionally in schools for neurodiverse and disabled people, they’re told what they’re not good at. But individuals don’t need to be fixed. There’s the space that an individual is going to exist in, and that space should allow for that person to be their best self.

This is the same if they’re neurodiverse, if they’re a child, if they’re elderly, or if they’re just Joe worker. Everybody’s space needs to work for them. And the first way things fall down is the laziness in our human brains.

“Companies have an opportunity to look at their systems and processes and rules through a neurodiverse lens to create an environment in which every flower can bloom.” 

Due to evolution, we developed the ability to categorise things. So we categorise people into people like me, people not like me, people that I don’t want to work with because they seem like they’re too much work. That’s lazy. And it’s also lazy the way we tend to standardise job descriptions, recruitment and onboarding processes, even insisting on nine to five hours.

But we’re living through the Great Resignation because as companies go back to the way things were, we’re finding out that this never worked for everybody. We just never had the chance to say so. Now, companies have an opportunity to look at their systems and processes and rules through a neurodiverse lens to create an environment in which every flower can bloom.  

Q: So what you’re saying is that while employers now have the chance to make changes to accommodate neurodivergent people, they should also be completely inclusive and consider the needs of everyone in their organisation?

A: That’s exactly right. Let’s talk about companies looking at their processes through a neurodiverse lens. The first thing is that recruitment needs to change. Around 80% of employers get their employees from internal referrals. And whether those referrals are black, white, female, LGBTQ, or they will have the same cultural background, thought processes – the same everything.

Companies are looking for difference, critical thinking, innovation, and the ability to look at the world differently. You can’t do that if you’re just hiring friends of your employees.

How do we change that? The first thing is job descriptions. If you’re describing an entry level manager role you need to explain clearly that it doesn’t involve managing individuals. A neurodiverse person has probably been told countless times they’re bad with people and not good communicators, so they won’t apply for a job managing people.

“If you decided to write me off because of a simple mistake, you’re missing out on everything I can bring.”

Secondly, almost all job descriptions ask for the ability to communicate perfectly verbally and in writing. Some diverse people are excellent at writing. Some are excellent at verbal communication but can’t write. But if you’re a tax accountant and you like to work with numbers all day, why do you need to communicate well verbally and in writing? They’ll take themselves out of the running.

I have dysnomia, which means I forget words, yet I’m also a professional speaker represented by the Harry Walker agency. I’m really good at what I do, so if you decided to write me off because of a simple mistake like not being able to remember a specific word for something, you’re missing out on everything I can bring.

The same thing happens with neurodiverse people and people with disabilities who are trying to get employment. Yes, it’s easy to rule out someone for making a small mistake while hiring someone with fewer skills because they’re part of the crew.  

We don’t live in a society where we need more people like us. We need people who think differently, who can critically evaluate things, that see patterns where others can’t, so we can all move forward as a society together.

Q: On a practical, day to day level, what should employers be doing to be more inclusive of neurodiversity?

A: Say a manager wants to hire another project manager for their team. They go in the system and see a project manager job description that’s been used before and they add a line and send it off to HR or a recruitment agency. And that’s as much thought as they put into the process.

Then they’ll say, “That’s not what I’m looking for” as the candidates come in. But the manager hasn’t spent time thinking about what skills or traits they need. A really good manager will talk with their team and say, “Here’s our three-year strategy. What skills are we looking for right now so that we as a team can improve?”

“Building a job description around the missing piece is what’s important, because then recruiters can find you the person you’re looking for.”

They might decide they need someone who’s really good at graphics, or at Python, because that’s a skillset they don’t have. Building a job description around the missing piece is what’s important, because then recruiters can find you the person you’re looking for. So the first thing is the manager has to be aware of what they’re looking for.

The second thing is, that means that the manager has great communication skills, which you need in order to create an environment that allows people to grow. One of my former clients, Salesforce, sent out an email to say they were starting a neurodiversity at work programme, and only the best managers could apply.

To be part of the proof of concept, applicants needed to write an essay about why they should be considered. The five best managers went from being anonymous to visibility amongst their peers and the C suite. And what set them apart as brilliant managers was their ability to communicate effectively with their team.

When a job came down the line, they asked their team Who, What, Where, When, How, Why. Why is this important for our team to work on? Who should have the responsibilities for the various tasks? How are we going to do it?

The manager then types all this up sends it to the team. That allows the introverts that need time to process what they’ve just heard. They then have the opportunity to go back and suggest changes or improvements to the plan.

Q: What else do you feel could be implemented easily at low or no cost?

A: If you have a meeting, you must have an agenda to send to everybody beforehand so they can prepare. If a manager is unable to come up with an agenda, you shouldn’t have the meeting. Every meeting should have a reason and an outcome, and every meeting should have a rotating note taker.

The notes get sent out immediately after the meeting – immediately! And there’s a window of however much time depending on what the project is for people to think through what was discussed and feedback to the wider group.

This stops water cooler and tea breaks where teams are trying to figure things out informally. This common practice is why you get bad productivity, why products get sent out without being tested properly. It’s because employees are not mind readers. When a manager says, “I need you to push the envelope on this and I want it later,” the neurotypicals will go around together and try to figure out what they’re supposed to do. The neurodiverse person will sit there and wonder, “What envelope?” and “Is now later?”

Q: What physical things are there we can do or change that might not cost anything but would be necessary for a neurodivergent individual to operate at their best?

A: Almost every large company I go to has hot desks now. But some neurodiverse people require the same seat or desk every single day. Not having that can be very stressful for them.

Many individuals don’t want to go back into the office because they hate hot desking. They want a space that belongs to them. Allowing every individual to choose would stop this from being a problem.

There was an advertising agency I went to where there was a big neon art installation near the space where the neurodiverse people were working. It was hurting me, and I was like, “Oh, that’s gotta go.”

When I mentioned it to the company they said, “We spent a lot of money on that.” And I was like, “Look at the space.” Everyone working there had books on their desks tying to block out the light. They unplugged it and everyone in the team started cheering. So what was better for the neurodiverse people actually made everyone’s experience better.

We need to be aware that the spaces we’re putting our employees into need to be good for them. Bad lighting reduces productivity and makes people tired. It can give them migraines. Switch it to LEDs, which are great value and better for working.

Real estate in offices is hard to come by, but we all know that having a quiet room where you can have a phone conversation is important. There’s also an extreme need for neurodiverse people to have a place to recharge and shut off the lights.

“For every one minute you meditate, you gain nine minutes of productivity.”

Dr Dave Cordell runs Vanderbilt University’s Centre for Autism Innovation. He says to imagine your most hungover day where it hurts to life your head off the pillow. Now imagine going on a roller coaster while five-year-old girls are screaming in your ear. That’s how it feels for some people.

Before my diagnosis, I used to come out of my office after a hard day and I would say my brain hurts. And it would feel like fingers tapping on my skull. If you’re going through airports now everybody’s talking about higher anxiety levels going to airports. Imagine that feeling of anxiety every single day because there’s not a simple room where you can just go and switch off.  

And again, what’s true for neurodiverse people is also true for everybody. Every floor in Salesforce has a section devoted to meditation, because they know that for every one minute you meditate, you gain nine minutes of productivity.

“EY’s Neurodiversity Centres of Excellence have saved them $300 million in six years.”

I could give you some financial reasons to do this. EY started Neurodiversity Centres of Excellence out of their Philadelphia office in 2016. At the end of 2022 they announced they had saved over 3.5 million hours on work optimization, saving $300 million in the process.

Why would you not hire people that are neurodiverse? Why would you not want to change your work processes and the way you recruit and promote? You have the opportunity right now to change the game with that neurodiverse lens.

Honestly, who doesn’t want 140% more productivity and 3.5 million work hours saved? You have to do this. If you don’t, your company’s not going to be here. It’s just that simple. And the generations coming up expect inclusion. So now’s the time to make these changes.