Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and my favourite fun fact is that it is the opposite of “neuro-typical.” “Neuro-diverse” has always sounded much more appealing to me than “neuro-typical”.
ASD is seen by some as a disability but I prefer to think of it as a characteristic, like being tall. And like all such traits, some are more useful at particular times. Being tall is excellent when playing basketball, and woeful when flying overseas. Being on the autism spectrum is challenging in a noisy office, but pretty excellent when working from home.
One of the common traits amongst people “on the spectrum” and maybe more broadly amongst introverted people, is that being around people drains our energy. It is not that we do not like people, in fact the opposite is usually true, it’s just that we need to make a big effort to be around people. We find things like eye contact, reading body language, and shaking hands exhausting. So, in a world that interacts over Zoom and no one shakes hands, the neuro-diverse are right at home. Literally.
It is true that loud noises and confusion can cause anxiety for people with ASD. This is certainly a disadvantage in a disordered world. But in a world in which X’s are taped onto the café floor to show you where to stand, and arrows control the flow of people around the office, a little ASD will not slow you down at all. In fact, our more gregarious friends may be at a disadvantage, struggling to follow the new rules of social order, whose clear definition we have been craving for so long.
John Bryson writes that some neuro-diverse people have felt the need to mask their superpower, and have suffered greatly as a result, being unable to participate in work that they love. This is both individually tragic, and economically wasteful. Our “new normal” might allow people to be more fully themselves and to exercise their strengths to live a full life and to benefit those organisations that adapt to include everyone.
At Macquarie as elsewhere, the transition to remote working was sudden. Many of us already worked from home on a regular basis, and it was not uncommon to be in meetings with people dialling in from interstate and overseas offices, airports, cars or home. It was still a very big change to go to all-remote all-the-time. For some, it was very challenging. For me, it has been a revelation and I’ve never felt more productive, engaged and supported.
Some of the common complaints about working from home:
- Video calls are tiring because it is hard to read body language, hard to make eye contact, and there is a small delay that makes it hard to reply in a natural way. Well, welcome to my world.
- You can’t just bump into people and ask them things or walk up to someone’s desk and share information. Awesome – as David Aspinall points out, neuro-diverse people much prefer the clarity of communication in text form via collaboration tools like Slack and Workplace Chat.
- Meeting in person gives the opportunity for meaningful human contact. I get this, and I suspect that many neuro-diverse people also miss some level of in-person interaction, but we would like it to be the exception rather than the rule. One day a week in the office might just fill that need for me.
Even amongst my neuro-typical colleagues and friends, there has been an acknowledgment that video meetings as a standard format are more egalitarian. For someone dialling in from another city, or from the school pick-up, it is unquestionably fairer if the rest of the meeting is not sitting together rustling paper and forgetting to speak into the microphone. Many have pointed out “the Atlassian rule” for everyone to dial in as soon as one person is dialling in. This is great for everyone, but potentially inclusive enough for the neuro-diverse to enable their full participation where otherwise it might not have been possible.
One of the things that I have enjoyed most about remote working is the clarity of purpose that it has driven. There is little room for ambiguity, and so people are needing to be straight to the point and focused on priorities. Neuro-diverse people love clarity, and the characteristic bluntness and honesty with which we communicate has found its moment. But another thing I’ve enjoyed is the genuine care that people have shown for their colleagues and the way that they have shared themselves, in ways that I can more easily absorb and reciprocate – perhaps in a text message or phone call instead of a coffee chat.
If it is true that “soft skills” will become even more necessary for workers of the future, it might also be true that the nature of those soft skills is changing in a more socially distant post-COVID-19 world. Text-based communication, collaboration via video, and wellbeing from afar will no doubt become more important – and the neuro-diverse have traits that are suddenly in demand, like a tall person looking around and realising that everyone is suddenly playing basketball.