Here’s how agencies are adapting for neurodivergent staffers
This World Mental Health Day, we examine how agencies are adapting their workplaces and workflows to the needs of neurodivergent staff.
How should agencies adapt their workspaces and ways of working for neurodivergent staff? / Unsplash
Modern offices and modern ways of working in advertising – open plan offices, exhausting pitches, a premium on extroversion – aren’t very welcoming to neurodivergent staff. That matters – it’s hard to do work you’re proud of in a hostile environment. Some agencies, however, are trying to amend their working conditions to be more accommodating.
We spoke to various leaders from the industry’s largest agency networks, recruiting firms and indie shops to find out what solutions they’ve implemented.
How do you solve a problem like… molding workplace policies to the needs of neurodivergent staff?
Elaine Grell, UK and EMEA chief people officer, Ogilvy: “We constantly engage with ReWired – Ogilvy UK’s neurodiversity network – as it is crucial to work directly with neurodiverse talent to get a handle on how they’re most comfortable working.
“We know that blanket policies for neurodiverse employees won’t work. Everyone has different needs and challenges. Our people policies are designed to be flexible and inclusive so that our colleagues can decide what suits them best, whether that’s time off, well-being initiatives, or coaching schemes. My advice to other agencies would be to listen. Listen to what your neurodiverse colleagues’ needs are before you assume what’s best for them and then adapt.”
Joanne Lucy, group managing director, Major Players: “Our 2023 census shows that almost 10% of those within the creative industries have a neurodivergence, so making reasonable adjustments is necessary for an accessible and inclusive work environment.
“Every workplace is unique, and so it’s essential to tailor based on the agency’s needs and circumstances, but our recommendation would always be to consult with neurodivergent employees – this way, you can actively involve them in the creation, revision or shaping of policies, ensuring they truly work for them. You should also consider providing training to your staff and leadership, understanding the challenges that neurodivergent individuals might face at work and help promote empathy and understanding.”
Leila Bartlam, chief production officer EMEA, Accenture Song: “Having recently been diagnosed as autistic, I’m amazed at how robust Accenture Song’s policies are in supporting the needs of its neurodivergent employees. From flexible working policies to alleviate sensory overwhelm and access to accommodations such as mind mapping software or noise-canceling headphones to telephone counseling services and therapies through healthcare and neurodiversity community meetings, the support available is varied.
“However, a policy is only as good as the colleague tasked with fulfilling it and for me, this is key. We all need to take responsibility to learn and grow and to provide a psychologically safe working environment for all.”
Aurelia Noel, global head of innovation and transformation, Dentsu X: “As a mum to neuro-atypical children, recognizing the gap between neurodivergent individuals and their workplace representation is personal – and I’m proud to be at an organization that tackles that head-on.
“At Dentsu we are training managers to understand and champion neurodiversity and have a clear Reasonable Adjustment policy to ensure we can accommodate people’s needs and empower them to bring their best self to work. We’re also making sure neurodiverse voices are heard throughout our network with the creation of ERGs like VisAbility and regular seminars and town hall topics. Yet, there’s still a journey ahead as we adapt and grow together.
”Media agencies have a profound influence on societal narratives. By leading in this space, we don’t just accommodate – we celebrate the rich tapestry of minds. It’s time we all see the person, not just the label and that can start with us.”
Linn Frost, managing director, The Social Element: “To meet the needs of neurodivergent staff and demonstrate a genuine dedication to inclusivity, you need to break down barriers and continually commit to evaluating your inclusion strategy. We adapt our hiring criteria/processes and ensure everyone’s skills shine through from the off. Plus, we have extensive flexible working policies and a supportive work environment that empowers neurodivergent individuals (myself included) to excel (on their terms) once embedded in the business.
“Creating diverse teams ensures that strengths are celebrated and leveraged, and regular leadership training, specific to supporting neurodivergent thinking, fosters an environment where it thrives. Most critically, we make sure our neurodiverse employees have a say with our ERG group made up of people with neurodiverse superpowers. It directly helps us to better support them and their preferences by opening up the conversation and allowing us to listen and take action.”
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Michelle Gonzales, senior people operations manager, Hook: “Organization-wide, we educate and train our employees and leadership to ensure that open lines of communication are the norm and people can bring their full selves to work. It’s no secret that some of the world’s best and brightest creatives are neurodivergent, and as a creative agency, we want to not only attract such talent but keep them – and keep them happy. College degrees are a nice-to-have, not a need here, and we don’t require in-office days or core working hours. If there’s something our people need – from a tech standpoint to closed captioning, standing desk to specialized software – we make it so.”
Charlotte Boerescu Kelly, head of marketing, The Go Network: “Agencies sit in a unique position with challenges like this. They’re often more agile, fast-moving, and able to adapt quickly to changing environments, but certain demands of agency life can prove damaging for neurodivergent professionals. Neurodivergent team members bring so much to the table in their speed, drive, and creativity – these skills can be hindered by burnout or frustration in settings that put more emphasis on keeping up appearances than getting results. The ability to work flexibly and crystal clear processes and communications day-to-day are both smallish changes that make the world of difference in getting the best from us.”
Marian Connolly, people partner, Fold7: “To maintain an inclusive, accommodating environment, open communication is actively encouraged and all accommodations are approached on an individual basis. Flexibility is key as individuals may have different working styles and may need scheduled break times, reduced hours or to work from home. Making roles and responsibilities very clear is also important. There are many practical implementations of support including offering alternative methods of communication, visual aids, instructions and checklists, which have all proved helpful in our experience. We have dedicated mental health first-aiders and recognize that sensory sensitivities can be common, so we provide quiet areas and noise-canceling headphones.”
Bertille Calinaud, Regional Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, McCann Worldgroup: ”To ensure our colleagues who are neurodivergent feel included, and that they can thrive here, we run awareness sessions on neurodiversity including specific topics such as ADHD, dyslexia and autism, with follow up takeaways that colleagues can implement.
”We provide quiet rooms for colleagues who find the office too noisy; and partner with organizations to provide reasonable adjustments so people have the right tools to thrive. I’d suggest for any organisation that has not started: show that you care about this topic by raising awareness. Have a simple process to request adjustments. And consult your employees – they know best. And, tell them what you are doing.”
Sally Pritchett, chief executive officer, Something Big: “The neurodiverse community is far larger than the support it gets and likely to be an even more significant community in creative organizations. Reasonable adjustments are often simple and cost-free. I recommend starting with a clear, safe and simple policy for disclosure that covers both formally diagnosed and self-diagnosed neurodiversity and the introduction of a well-supported employee resource group. Together, these help to identify the specific needs of your neurodiverse community, enabling you to introduce and normalize adjustments.”
Jayne Connell, strategy partner at Interstate: “We view neurodiversity as a superpower in the business. After all, the best ideas are often not produced by linear thinking. We find the most effective approach is less about ‘catering for’ neurodivergent team members as though it is a disadvantage and instead focused on creating the free space and right environment for neurodiversity to flourish. For example, many of our designers have creative, dyslexic minds that see things differently, asking ‘what if’ with no overthinking or barriers. To enable this kind of thinking, our briefings are written and verbal, and checking spelling across your team is built into the project process.