Adapt Work, Not the Worker
Meet the company where neurodiversity is not just accommodated but actively embraced.
Designing a new way of working.
“On the whole, work sucks,” a CEO told me recently. “And work practices are harmful.”
Nothing is typical or ordinary about the way work happens at Ultranauts. The company’s competitive advantage lies in its neurodiversity, encompassing a wide range of naturally occurring variations in the human brain: three quarters of the team are neurodivergent, the majority are autistic, many are ADHDers and dyslexics.
“There’s a lot of different brain types and a lot of different needs,” said Anandan, who is neurotypical, of his team. “There’s such a wide range of information-processing models, learning styles, problem-solving approaches, communication preferences, lived experiences, stress triggers, strengths, and challenges.”
Starting with the decision to go remote — many neurodivergent individuals find the typical office environment unproductive, and commuting stressful — Ultranauts actively embraced its team’s neurodiversity. Every aspect of work and the workplace was calibrated to meet the employees’ needs.
In the process, the company created a better way to work.
“We arrived at something better, not by solving for the needs of some stereotypical autistic person, or even just the richness and diversity of autistic people in general. We redesigned work for neurodiversity, which meant redesigning work for everyone.”
In other words, “neurodiversity,” properly defined, exists at every company.
When the pandemic unfolded in 2020, many of Ultranauts’ Fortune 500 clients sought their advice as they were struggling to adapt to a fully virtual work environment.
“There are no silver bullets,” said Anandan. “You have to do many things. And the ideas for those things need to come from everywhere.”
And, he stresses, it’s not enough to just wax lyrical about lofty values and aspirations. “We have to move past words on a webpage to practices and habits that make them real.
“The pandemic exposed that most of us are just not doing well. We have a better understanding of all the different ways in which an unhealthy work environment can be an impediment. It’s not good for the individual person’s wellbeing, it kills productivity, it kills innovation. It’s bad for business.”
In the past, Anandan has politely corrected people who describe Ultranauts as “accommodating” neurodiversity.
“The way in which I often hear the word ‘accommodation’ used, it implies that the person is deficient and somehow needs extra help. The reality is, it’s the system that is broken and doesn’t work for some people. It’s not about, How can we give that person extra help? It’s How do we change the system so it works for everyone?“
Diagnose your team — regularly and thoroughly.
At 5pm every workday, Ultranauts team members are polled on their feelings of inclusion and wellbeing. The company uses polly.ai, a bot that integrates with Slack, Google Teams, and Google Hangouts. (They refer to it — affectionately, Anandan said — as “Smilecorp.”)
Team members indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as: My unique strengths are understood and valued at Ultranauts; My supervisors communicate clearly about deadlines, priorities & expected outcomes; and I’m satisfied with the amount of work I’m receiving.
If issues show up, Anandan said, everyone on the team is on high alert.
Fewer than 15% of Ultranauts feel lonely at work, compared to over 40% of the American workforce.
“Measuring something doesn’t make it better,” said Anandan, “but it does force you to be more aware, attentive, and attuned to one another.”
In addition to its daily wellness polls, Ultranauts participates in an external independent audit of the company’s psychological safety, with Aut Collab. Currently, the audit is an annual occurrence, though there are plans for it to be conducted quarterly.
“It’s a governance tool,” said Anandan.
“If you have a financial audit that goes to your board once a year, creating accountability and transparency around the core functioning of the business, I would argue that the psychological safety of the team is equally important as a leading indicator of the health of the business. If not more important.”
Anandan added, “It also sends a signal to the team that their psychological safety is important.”
Aut Collabs’ audit of psychological safety at Ultranauts revealed that standards are better than most other organizations.
90% of Ultranauts team members feel more psychologically safe at the company than at any previous workplace.
In Anandan’s view, though, there’s always more work to be done.
“It helped us home in on a couple very specific aspects that we need to work on. When you start measuring psychological safety more precisely, then you can take more concrete actions.”
Be explicit with work boundaries, expectations, and etiquette.
Clearly defined expectations at work reduce anxiety. That’s useful for all employees, not just neurodivergent ones.
At Ultranauts, team members know precisely what’s expected of them when it comes to availability during business hours (and after hours). They also have clear instructions on proper etiquette around real-time collaboration tools like Slack.
“With everyone working remotely, you have to be a lot clearer about expectations,” said Anandan. “When it comes to clearly defined work hours, a lot of leaders intentionally don’t want to say, ‘Actually, you’re not expected to work past six.’ They secretly want workers to work past six. The result is that people are working all the time. Which is unhealthy, unproductive, and, ultimately, dangerous.
“If you believe that there are diminishing returns past a certain number of hours for workers — what number depends on the worker — then working all the time is unproductive. It’s going to lower your quality of decision making. It’s going to make you more error-prone.”
Anandan recommends clearly stated expectations that address questions such as:
What time do I expect you to be online? What time do I expect you to not be online? What do I expect when you go run an errand? Do you need to tell me if it’s five minutes? Do you need to tell me it’s two hours? Why do you need to tell me?
Use employee user manuals to get your team on the same page.
Ultranauts teammates can easily learn about out each other’s personal working styles and preferences, habits and routines, strengths and weaknesses. All of that info is just a couple of clicks away, in a Slackbot-enabled system called the Biodex.
The Biodex is an organized collection of employee user manuals, where every team member essentially describes how they work, and how best to work with them.
The concept of employee user manuals has been widely adopted since, though most companies know them as READMEs. (We covered them in more detail here.)
“The Biodex is our way of reducing communication friction and increasing collaboration,” said Anandan. “With a distributed team, you have to be transparent. You have to spell this stuff out. Otherwise everyone’s making all kinds of different assumptions.”
Watch out for burnout. And loneliness.
For The Async Review‘s recent round-up of predictions about the future of work, Anandan listed social isolation and burnout as the key issues that remote organizations need to watch out for. Ultranauts’ daily survey is particularly useful at providing an early warning system for both.
“With remote work, because of the loss of work-life boundaries and the heightened insecurity of not having unconscious belonging cues around us all day, the tendency for burnout is more serious,” he said.
“Most humans are terrible at knowing when they’re on the verge of burnout. They only know after the fact, which is harmful to your personal wellbeing, and really disruptive to the team. The blast radius around someone needing to just shut down and take time off without notice that has a huge impact on productivity.”
Ultranauts employs a couple of team bonding activities in the interests of staving off isolation and burnout. Every couple of weeks, a Slack bot randomly pairs team members for a virtual coffee. “You have to subscribe to the channel,” clarified Anandan. “It’s not mandated, because that’s not useful either.”
There are also virtual social events, from regular employee contests to an annual holiday party. “Our parties have lots of contests and games that allow different team members to participate in ways that are most fun for them. Which, I would argue, is a whole lot better than everyone being forced to endure a Zoom happy hour.”
Even the Biodex can be used to connect colleagues with common interests. “With a simple search, I can find someone who’s also into, you know, deep house music. For example.”