Fostering a neurodiverse workforce isn’t just about equality – it’s about the benefits a different range of thinking skills can bring to company results, says Paul Grover
Most firms in the construction sector have policies for fostering equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. However, if our sector is really going to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, it is vital to have a truly inclusive environment where everyone feels able to participate and achieve their full potential.
While UK legislation covering age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation sets out minimum standards, an effective diversity and inclusion strategy must go beyond legal compliance. And companies across the sector are waking up to the advantages fostering diversity can bring, not just in terms of the happiness of their employees, but also to their bottom line.
One area where firms continue to struggle, however, is neurodiversity. This refers to the natural range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits and can be used to describe alternative thinking styles, including dyslexia, Asperger’s, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia.
Neurodivergent employees can have unique strengths, from data-driven thinking to sustained focus over long periods and an ability to spot patterns – skills actively sought after within construction
For decades, those considered neurodivergent have not been truly valued in the workplace. The Harvard Business Review, however, suggests firms that embrace a neurodiverse workforce are at a competitive advantage. Recent studies have shown neurodivergent employees can have unique strengths, ranging from data-driven thinking to sustained focus over long periods, an ability to spot patterns and trends, to the capacity to process information at extraordinary speed – all skills that are advantageous and actively sought after within the construction sector.
Just one in 10 companies say consideration of neurodiversity is included in their recruitment and people management policies. Yet an estimated 10% of the population are neurodivergent, so firms could be missing out on talent. Nancy Doyle, a chartered occupational psychologist who advised the BBC documentary Employable Me, says “historically, neurodiversity has focused on the negatives – the things people can’t do” and that “we’ve decided that the only skills we care about are literacy, numeracy, concentration and eye contact”. Indeed, many companies lack the inhouse tools to meet the needs of those identified as neurodivergent at the recruitment stage, let alone in the workplace itself.
Working in the construction sector as someone diagnosed as neurodivergent as a teenager, I’ve experienced the advantages and daily challenges this can bring
The issue is particularly pressing for construction companies. Those that lack the policies or culture to enable different types of thinking fail to reflect the neurological makeup of the cities in which they operate. If we are to improve how cities function – and how construction firms rise to the challenges modern cities create – we need organisations and individuals to think differently.
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Some sectors are known to attract a higher proportion of neurodivergent employees than the general population average. Tech companies as well as engineering attract those with Asperger’s, and some firms have recognised the benefits of a neurodivergent workforce. Microsoft, for instance, targets recruitment drives towards adults on the autistic spectrum and has lengthened its interview process to reflect the needs of such candidates, allowing them to show what they can do outside the rigours of a conventional interview.
Working in the construction sector as someone diagnosed as neurodivergent as a teenager, I’ve experienced the advantages and daily challenges this can bring. Over time you develop coping mechanisms to enable you to operate in a neurotypical workplace, and being neurodiverse in my thinking and problem solving has proven advantageous – specifically an ability to multi-task and process data rapidly. The pressures of working in an open office and overstimulating environments, however, can be exhausting.
So what more can firms in construction do to support those of us who are neurodivergent?
- Ensure job descriptions are jargon-free and signal neurodivergent individuals are welcome
- Review competency frameworks that don’t place enough merit on reasoning skills or that filter out applicants who don’t meet minimum academic standards
- Ensure those reviewing applications and conducting interviews know about neurodiversity
- Avoid bright lights and multiple screens showing multiple images that can lead to sensory overload
- Consider how noisy, open environments can be distracting or make individuals feel overwhelmed
- Ensure that desk assessments for new joiners support a wider range of neurodiverse needs
- Train line managers to help neurodiverse employees them make the most of their skills
- Encourage regular one-to-ones to keep communication channels open
- Senior leaders should champion neurodiversity and promote a culture of celebrating difference
- Highlight support networks to new employees
- Ensure individualised support is available to all – such as mentoring, coaching and counselling
- Address comfort at work regularly through workspace preference questionnaires
Clients and partners
- Explain to clients the benefits of a truly diverse team can deliver on their projects
- Present opportunities for clients to meet a diverse range of employees to allow for new ideas and processes to be considered and adopted
- Host joint events where clients and partners can come together to celebrate diversity, with messaging that can be taken back.
Businesses that foster a diverse workforce are at a competitive advantage – and are helping to shape not only our companies but also our cities and society as a whole.
Paul Grover is an associate director at Arup