Neurodiversity – a competitive advantage

Employers worldwide have woken up to the fact that hiring neurodivergent talent not only burnishes corporate reputations, it also offers greater productivity, innovation, commitment and a better workplace.

Words / Hilary Ivory 

Illustration / Bardia Koushan

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In 2016, management consultancy Korn Ferry released The Talent Crunch research study. Its findings rang alarm bells: by 2030, the world would face an estimated shortage of 85 million tech workers, equating to $8.5 trillion in lost annual revenue. Little did anyone know that four years later the global economy would be hit by a pandemic that would accelerate its reliance on technology, increasing the skills deficit exponentially.

How prescient, then, that when Dirk Müller-Remus’s son was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2011, he was so dismayed at the dismal job prospects facing his son that he set up Auticon, a specialist IT consultancy in Berlin. The company’s USP? All its IT consultants have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – they are paired with coaches who help them communicate with clients. Today, Auticon’s superb quality assurance, data science and cybersecurity services have expanded to Switzerland, US, UK, Italy, Australia and Canada.

Tapping the potential of neurodivergence

Lars Backstrom is one of Auticon’s stellar assets. With three Masters’ degrees, he has worked as a non-commissioned military officer, reinsurance analyst, lecturer and tested algorithms for NASA. Despite the glittering resumé, for eight years he couldn’t find a job – not uncommon for those with ASD. Auticon’s supportive working conditions, he says, have enabled him to “be part of a growing team and a ground-breaking project that provides employment and spreads awareness of our untapped potential”. He hopes that Auticon’s success will inspire others, not just IT companies, to harness the potential of neurodivergent thinking.

He must be gratified, then, to see his hope become reality. Fast-forward a couple of years and a host of companies – Google, Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, EY, Goldman Sachs, Universal Music and the Israeli army – have spotted the advantages of tapping neurodivergent talent pools in a tightening labour market.

Adapting the workplace

Automotive digital marketing business Auto Trader was one of the first UK companies out of the blocks. Their Autism at Work programme has adapted the interview process to factor in the requirements of people on the spectrum. Open-plan office space and hot-desking have also been updated to make life easier for staff who may be sensitive to sensory stimuli. If the aim was to stop excellence slipping through the net, the programme has more than delivered.

Software giant SAP couldn’t agree more. Through their 2013 Autism at Work initiative, they now employ 200 neurodivergent staff across 16 countries in 25 different roles. “Originally the programme targeted people with skills like pattern recognition and data processing,” says Tatiana Arthur, SAP’s Chief of Staff, Diversity & Inclusion, “but we’ve learned that autistic capabilities are as unique as the individuals themselves.”

The benefits of inclusivity

This approach encourages new ways of thinking. Nicolas Neumann is a prime example: faced with a complex cross-company invoicing process that took two days to do, he developed a tool that reduced it to 20 minutes, winning him SAP’s most prestigious innovation award. This inclusivity has huge benefits for the culture. SAP Chief Executive Christian Klein notes that, thanks to being shown fresh ways of seeing problems by their autistic colleagues, the volume of patent applications and product innovations among teams that include co-workers with autism has gone up.

Asked why they actively hire autistic staff, employers and recruitment agents give a similar answer: The perspective that high-functioning people with ASD bring to the table is invaluable because they don’t do groupthink or knee-jerk responses. They are logical and curious; they think outside the box; they are highly focused, evidence-based decision-makers who tend to have amazing analytical and problem-solving skills and memories.

Possibly the biggest payoff has been in the culture of the workplace: employers have realised that if the environment is better for people with autism, it generally feels better for everyone.

A win-win.