Storytellers Blogs How to support neurodivergent employees returning to the office After two long, hard, disruptive, unsettling years (should I keep going!) it now seems that the workforce will commence returning to sites. We have had a lot of false starts, and many planning days trying to prepare for how we will return our exhausted, overwhelmed and somewhat fragile employees back on site. With a 90% vaccination rate we are now ready to go back to our old ways. Or are we? For some, there will be resistance after two years of rolling out of bed and turning on the computer at 8:55. The thought of returning to public transport, train delays, traffic, oh the traffic, the early morning starts and the late nights, can our workforce realistically return to what once was? The thought brings some dread as we think about restarting old routines, the additional time needed to get ready in the morning, the reduced sleep and reliance on coffee. The transition back on-site may be challenging for some and for others a sense of relief. Not having to stare at the same four walls a moment longer. The aches and pains of sitting at the kitchen table for way too long. Not having to see your partner 24/7! Your children are back in childcare, kindergarten or school. The shift for everyone will be different, the fears, anxieties, and elation. So as leaders and employers what have we learnt over the last two years? What are some of the benefits we have seen that we can implement when sites reopen? I see flexibility, trust and working autonomously that has been granted to so many during the pandemic as key to supporting and retaining our current workforces. Workplaces must shift their thinking and move out of the archaic age. If we want to reduce the impact of the Great Resignation, we must rethink our old ways. The pandemic has given employees a voice, one they haven’t had before. We are now at a point in history, like no other, in a time where employees can demand better working conditions. We are in an exciting era of change, the pandemic thrust us into a world where we had to trust each other to get the job done. For those of us who are neurodiverse these anxieties of returning on site might be heightened as the routines we have developed and the coping strategies we have implemented are taken away. The anxiety and feeling of stress might be even greater. We now must go back into open-planned offices, noisy environments, the small talk in the tea rooms, the wearing of headphones so you can concentrate, working through lunch to meet deadlines and the wearing of masks that hide visual cues needed to follow and understand a conversation. The inability to take more breaks or longer breaks. The constraints of the office environment for the neurodiverse can impinge on our ability to work to our best. For some, working from home in a quite environment with the right lighting, the ability to take breaks when needed, to work to our best perhaps at 6am until the early afternoon or start work later in the day, has enabled them to thrive. Using adjustments that work best, has enabled people with neurodiversity to achieve their best as an employee. There are many strategies that can be employed to support neurodiverse staff as they transition back into the workplace. Many of these strategies can actually foster better working environments for all employees, reducing anxiety and igniting excitement at the prospect of returning back on site. The following are some suggestions as to how you, as a leader, manager and or employer, can support this transition: Open ongoing communication with staff around timelines and activities that lead up to returning to site. This will give neurodiverse staff, in fact, all staff the time they need to plan ahead and prepare for these changes. Allowing the opportunity to work from home on some days especially if there are tight deadlines to be met Encouraging breaks and different options for working hours. Can you work from 7-3 from home and then in the office 8-4? Can employees work longer days but with bigger breaks? Is assistive technology available and easily accessible? Those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia may have been using the software at home, can this be easily accessible and installed on work computers? Are there quiet spaces that people can work from if they need to reduce sensory overload? Do you offer mental health and wellbeing programs outside of EAP? Sometimes it’s the small changes that can make the biggest difference. If you are unsure what your neurodiverse staff needs to return to the site, the first step is to ask them. Continue the trust and autonomy that has been fostered over the last two years. And remember we are all a bit fragile right now, unsure of what lies ahead. Most of all our employees need compassion, reassurance, flexibility and psychologically safe environments where they feel trusted, valued and supported. That’s what builds strong workplace culture and ensures neurodiverse staff can thrive.