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At first sight there is nothing unusual about the office of Swink, a small internet agency tucked away in an inconspicuous business park in the outskirts of Amsterdam. Look closer and you´ll maybe notice small differences with the average workplace. For example, you would never see anyone just walk up to a colleague’s desk for a quick question. The planning of the workday is less “agile” – or chaotic -, and there are less distractions, like a music playing in the background.
That´s because most of the employees have a type autism. That is not considered a defect by their employer, on the contrary, it´s one of their qualities. “People with autism notice things other people don´t notice and can do things that you and I are either not capable of or just don´t have patience for,” explains Nina Brugman, Account Manager at Swink.
It´s for that very reason that also many large corporations like SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Microsoft and EY have set up so called “neurodiversity programs”. The first results are quite amazing. According to the HPE, their “neurodiverse” software testing teams are 30% more productive than others.
These results are not all that surprising, knowing that many people with autism are highly qualified. When SAP began its Autism at Work program, applicants included people with master’s degrees in electrical engineering, biostatistics and anthropology. Some had dual degrees, and one even held a patent.
And yet, the unemployment rate under autistic people worldwide is around 80%. How can more companies profit from this untapped talent pool? It´s not that difficult. These are the most important lessons they can learn from a company like Swink:
For most companies the job interview is still one of the most important part of the recruitment process. With people with autism however, interviewing them is not the best way to get a good idea of their capabilities. Sometimes they don´t like to make eye contact and can be overly honest about their weakness.
Most companies start the recruitment process by making a list of requirements the job candidates must meet to fulfill his or her role. This approach doesn´t work when you want to hire people with autism, because they might not have the skills you would take for granted with an average candidate.
The typical soft skills, like “being a team player”, “persuasiveness” or the “ability to network” rule out most candidates with autism. It is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Instead, companies like Swink look at their goals and check if the candidate has the right skillset to reach those goals. “If they do, we think about what they need to do their job well, “explains Nina Brugman “We adjust to them, instead of the other way around. If you don´t, people get stuck. That´s the main reason why many employees with autism have such hard time keeping their job.”
“We had, for example, a colleague who lost her former jobs because her employers thought she was too slow. After we hired her, she flourished, just by creating the right environment for her to do her job.”
Like in any social environment, there are many unwritten rules in the workplace. What time to have lunch, how to dress, when to take your holidays; all these things are not necessarily explicitly explained. “People with autism can´t handle these kind of implicit rules,” says Nina Brugman. “You need to be completely transparent. Once you´ve achieved that, you can get rid of all the unwritten rules. We don´t expect, for example, our employees to engage in chitchat during lunch. Which doesn´t mean that they don´t do that, but if they want to go for a walk that´s also fine.”
“One of the things we never do is to discuss something at someone´s desk,” says Nina Brugman. We always go to a separate room, to not disturb anybody. Our meetings are very structured; we have a clear plan and we always explain exactly what we expect of someone, and what time they can spend on it. When you think about it, this way of working is much better for everybody, regardless if you have autism or not. Our clients also appreciate the transparent way in which we work, where it´s always clear what the exact status of a project is.”
All these small workplace adjustments pay off, as companies like Swink, HP and SAP have experienced. “People with autism can focus much better on one specific task then many other people can, says Nina Brugman. “They are also much more analytical then most of us. They see connections that we might mis, which also helps our clients”
It wouldn´t be the first time an employee confronts a client with an irregularity or disorder in the organisation. One of the software testers at HP found out that client’s projects always seemed to go into crisis mode before a launch. He was the first one to question the client´s chaotic approach and helped them to redesign the launch process.
“It´s their unique and different view on the world that only makes it such an amazing experience to work with autistic colleagues,” says Nina Brugman. “They enrich your product and service. I recommend anyone to have that experience.”