SXSW EDU: How can employers support different thinkers to transition into the world of work?

At the recent SXSW EDU event, Texthelp’s Founder & CEO, Martin McKay, joined a panel exploring, ‘The Power of Different Thinkers’. During this session they explored the strengths of neurodiversity, highlighting why workplaces should, and how they can, become more neuro-inclusive. Below, we highlight key insights.

Discover advice shared by:

  • Clare Bertrand, Senior Director, JFFLabs (Jobs for the Future)
  • Martin McKay, Founder & CEO, Texthelp
  • Prat Panda, Northeast Market Unit Lead, Accenture Development Partnerships
  • Bhakti Vithalani, Founder & CEO, BigSpring

But first, what is the SXSW EDU Conference?

The SXSW EDU Conference & Festival is an annual event that fosters innovation and learning within the education industry. Over four days, attendees enjoy sessions and workshops that aim to inspire change for the future. The event brings together learners, practitioners, and entrepreneurs, creating a space for us to drive impact collectively.

Why does neuro-inclusion matter?

Educators have long adopted the process of Universal Design, creating classrooms where learners with diverse abilities can work together side by side. Through this process, learners are provided with multiple means of perceiving, comprehending and expressing their learning. They’re able to engage with material in the way that benefits them the most. 

This system is serving to make work-ready employees. The next generation are entering the workforce with an understanding of how they work and learn best. 

Workplaces need to be ready to adopt them into an environment that’s as flexible as the one they’ve left. 

Having spent over 25 years partnering with educators and employers to support neurodivergent individuals, Martin has key learnings to share from both industries.

From his experience, Martin explained that often, learners are supported with tools and resources in school. But too often, they don't have the same tools in the workplace. For neurodivergent learners in particular, these tools are often essential in supporting them to play to their strengths, and boosting confidence. We mustn’t strip people of the toolkit they’ve carefully gathered throughout their fundamental years. 

Prat highlighted that workplaces must design inclusively, and account for the fact that many of their employees are neurodivergent. Whether they know it or not. As many as 1 in 5 people are neurodivergent. Yet, 76% don't feel comfortable disclosing their neurodiversity at work.

Bhakti also shared that becoming neuro-inclusive isn’t just the right thing to do, it can also add lots of value. Neurodivergent people often think and behave in ways that are more unique to the typical population. With this comes the benefits of outstanding pattern recognition, creative solutions and more.

Adding to this, Martin shared that through diversity of thought we’re able to look at things from many different angles. As Founder of an inclusive technology company, this is beneficial because it means being able to make products that are fit for the society they’re created for. All products and services should be designed with neuro-inclusion in mind.

How do we ensure the world of work is welcoming to neurodivergent talent?

Graduating into the world of work can be daunting for anyone. But for someone that’s neurodivergent, entering the corporate world can come with extra challenges. 

According to research from The Institute of Leadership & Management, half of leaders and managers would not employ a neurodivergent person. From negative stigma, to non-inclusive recruitment processes, there’s many barriers preventing this transition into work.

Clare highlighted the prevalence of unemployment among neurodivergent people. For example, analysis from Deloitte found that 85% of those on the autism spectrum are unemployed. This compares to 4.2% of the overall population. She explained that recruitment processes are key in ensuring neurodivergent talent can get in the door.

In agreement, the rest of the panel shared key advice;

Bhakti began by stating that we must revamp the recruitment process and remove outdated processes. For example, allow people to show evidence that they can do the job, rather than asking all people to sit an interview. This may not suit all types of people. We must place the spotlight on the work, and focus on skills first.

Prat elaborated, stating that recruiters and interviewers must be made aware of, and have what they need, to create a more equitable process. There are many traditional views that are outdated, and if continued, will not improve neurodiversity in recruitment. An example being that eye contact relates to how interested or confident someone is during an interview. Placing importance on eye contact can automatically exclude many people with Autism, who often have difficulty maintaining eye contact.

Martin also shared the importance of language choice, and cognitive accessibility, when it comes to advertising job roles. He referenced Vanrath as a company that’s leading the way in recruitment in the UK. In a recent webinar with Texthelp, Vanrath shared how they’ve made their recruitment website accessible and neuro-inclusive.

How can we make the working environment neuro-inclusive?

Beyond recruitment, and indeed onboarding, we need to be able to support neurodiversity across the full employee lifecycle.

With this in mind, Prat spoke of a four part process involving; 

  1. Awareness 
  2. Access 
  3. Engagement
  4. Care

Throughout the discussion, our panel shared a lot of great advice which can be applied to each part of this process.

  1. Awareness
    Through awareness, we can highlight the strengths of neurodiversity and reduce negative stigma. We can also educate on the challenges that neurodivergent individuals may have, so tools and resources can be put in place to offer support.

    In addressing stigma, Bhakti suggested putting the spotlight on role models. For example, John Chambers, Former CEO of Cisco, and one of an estimated 35% of entrepreneurs with Dyslexia. During his 20 year tenure as CEO, Chambers grew the company from 400 employees to 70,000, and from $70 million in sales to $47 billion a year.

    In educating on the challenges, Clare highlighted that the burden is often on the neurodivergent employee. But, it shouldn’t be. We must empower managers with the skills and knowledge to manage and support neurodivergent employees. We must educate employees on neurodiversity so they can work and communicate successfully in neurodiverse teams. 

    Looking beyond raising awareness internally, Martin also highlighted that we should do so externally as well. Share the benefits of neurodiversity across your industry. Share success stories with fellow employers. By working together, we can make greater strides.

  2. Access
    We must make sure that the workplace is accessible. With neurodiversity in mind, this means addressing cognitive accessibility as well as physical accessibility. 

    Martin explained that this involves making sure that all materials are accessible, compatible with Assistive Technology, and easy to read. It also involves being open to providing different forms of communication, such as offering information in video format as well as written. It also means offering tools, such as Read&Write, that can allow employees to understand and communicate in their own way. For example, users can turn written content into audio using text-to-speech. They can choose to dictate information rather than type. Its features also help to reduce cognitive load, improve focus, and beyond.

    Prat also highlighted the importance of making tools universally available, so that people that don’t want to disclose a need can also gain access.

  3. Engagement
    A neuro-inclusive workplace should also continually engage with, and raise the voices of, neurodivergent employees.

    Prat explained that Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are vitally important. A neurodiversity ERG would allow a workforce to build a community of neurodivergent employees and neurodiversity allies. Within this group, they can share advice with one another, raise awareness across the business, and identify what would make their experience at work better. With the latter in mind, leadership engagement and sponsorship are important. Access to a dedicated member/s of the leadership team can ensure voices are heard and positive action can be taken.

    Emphasizing the role of ERGs, Bhakti stated that employees often take notice of information that comes from their peers rather than their employer. In fact, research from LinkedIn found that the click-through rate on a piece of content is 2x higher when shared by an employee versus when shared by the company itself. ERGs can help companies expand on their efforts in driving awareness and access, and do so in a way that’s truly impactful for the neurodivergent community. 

  4. Care
    Another important element in becoming neuro-inclusive is to address the company culture. Neuro-inclusive companies truly value and celebrate neurodiversity, and employees can genuinely feel it.

    Prat explains that we must make sure that we meet the needs of people, and do so in a way that shows we truly care. An important aspect of designing for inclusion is to do so in a way that doesn’t identify people as ‘different’, and doesn’t define them by their neurodiversity. 

    It also means creating an environment where people feel comfortable to be who they are, without a fear of being judged or seen as different. Martin explained that, often, neurodivergent people feel like if they disclose their neurodiversity at work, they will be discriminated against.

    In fact, going back to John Chambers (Former CEO of Cisco), despite his success, he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing his dyslexia. In fact, the reason it’s out there today is accidental. No matter how successful someone is, or how much their colleagues are in awe of their greatness, not all neurodivergent people associate their neurodiversity as a strength. John felt this way until he began to talk about being dyslexic more openly. Only then did he realize that what he once perceived as a weakness was actually the source of his greatest strength.

    Clare highlighted that many neurodivergent people mask who they are in the workplace. With masking comes anxiety, mental fatigue, and an impact on mental health. Being able to be who you are at work is incredibly important.

How important is it that businesses prioritize neuro-inclusion, now and for the future?

Concluding the discussion, our panel reflected on what neuro-inclusion means for the future world of work.

Clare began by highlighting the expectations of today’s working population. Employers of choice are those that prioritize diversity and inclusion. Flexible ways of working, and neuro-inclusive practices are expected. 

Emphasizing this, Martin spoke on the role of neurodiversity when it comes to Environment, Social and Governance priorities. When it comes to investment, investors look for inclusive practices. In fact, diverse and inclusive companies are more likely to be sought because they generate 4.4% higher return on equity and paid 19.2% more in dividends. Expanding further, Prat highlighted research by Accenture which found that companies that think about neurodiversity perform 3-4 times better than those who don’t. 

Looking to the future, Prat also spoke on the accountability placed on companies to do better. Organizations are required to report on ESG, meaning that there’s a method for holding companies accountable for how we’re impacting the world.

Being neuro-inclusive not only makes the world of work a better place, it offers a huge business advantage. We must make it a priority, for our current generation and the next.

Discover more

Webinar & Guide: Introduction to inclusive recruitment & beyond

In this webinar series, discover how to create a recruiting and onboarding process that's welcoming, accessible and inclusive.

You'll receive 3 sessions including:

  • Session 1: 5 key tips you need to know about inclusive recruitment, with Auticon
  • Session 2: How to create an inclusive Early Careers recruitment strategy, with Rolls Royce
  • Session 3: Transforming the first 90 days of the employee experience, with Texthelp, AMS, and Hymans Robertson

You'll also receive our downloadable guide to inclusive recruitment.