Diversity & InclusionEmployee ExperienceFuture of Work

RTO Mandates: Careful Considerations

Employers must take into account the accommodation needs of neurodivergent employees when planning for hybrid or in-office work.

By Tammy Harper

As some businesses gradually shift from a remote working environment to hybrid or full-time in-office models, HR departments and managers are faced with a new challenge: How will this transition affect neurodivergent employees?

Neurodiversity describes the differences in individual brain functions and traits, which includes but is not limited to autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. Neurodivergent and neurotypical employees alike may be apprehensive to change which is crucial to keep in mind if an organization seeks to transition back to the office.

Conducting a successful return-to-office (RTO) transition requires careful consideration and preparation. Employers need to explain to employees why they are implementing the mandate, take inventory of their needs, and offer proper support for a seamless move.

Why RTO? 

The push for employees to get back into the office is rooted in a few key beliefs. For one, the traditional mentality of the conventional, in-person atmosphere still prevails among many senior leaders. For some, having the workforce collaborate in person every day is ideal. So, when the opportunity to restore this format arises, some leaders are quick to employ RTO policies and get back to a time when everyone was under one roof.

There is also the economic perspective. Businesses have office buildings that may not be fully utilized except for when teammates choose to meet in person. Even still, while these locations may be underutilized, rent or lease payments are owed.

When taking these perspectives into account, it’s important to consider neurodivergent individuals’ needs when exploring back-to-office strategies and tactics.

What to Keep in Mind

When it comes to bringing people back, there are pros and cons for everyone. The decision to mandate RTO is one that should not be taken lightly and involves necessary planning. Business leaders and HR need to be sensitive to every individual’s needs and provide ample time to acclimate to the new work environment.

One of the most pressing factors in this process is change. For all employees, including neurodivergent colleagues, a switch from remote work to the office may lead to increased anxiety. Anxieties might be more provoked for employees who began their careers working from the comfort of their home and were never in an office building.

To complicate things further, employees who reside in geographical locations that are further from their employers’ offices may also need to figure out logistical aspects of RTO. Without enough notice, employees may struggle to arrange for childcare, eldercare, pet care, or  reliable transportation. These challenges can affect all employees, but neurodivergent individuals might need more time to adjust.

On the other hand, returning to the office can provide a structured routine, which can help many neurodivergent individuals thrive. The workplace might offer fewer distractions to focus on their tasks at hand. They can also communicate more effectively with their colleagues about whether or not they are prepared to be approached. For example, using visual indicators on desks or cubicles can help signify if neurodivergent employees are open to engaging in conversations.

Managers and HR should work together with neurodivergent individuals to provide any necessary accommodations.

The opportunity for in-person socialization and collaboration has its advantages too for those who enjoy social environments. As with any employee, neurodivergent associates have varying preferences of person-to-person interaction, so for those who enjoy social engagement, RTO can be a positive adjustment and keep their morale high.

Beyond these logistics, it’s the employer’s responsibility to create a comfortable and conducive physical workspace for neurodivergent employees. It’s especially essential if the RTO is mandatory. Without surveying the office’s environment, placing employees in an unfamiliar setting may lead to heightened anxiety and impact their performance. Managers and HR should work together with neurodivergent individuals to identify where in the building they will be most successful and provide any necessary accommodations which can include desk placements to avoid high-traffic areas, reducing overstimulating lighting and sounds to decrease distractions, providing noise-canceling headphones to mute sounds, and adding closed captioning to video and audio content.

Not everyone needs the same workplace accommodations. Managers should get to know their teammates and have open conversations on what they require to transition successfully.

Navigating the Transition

Understanding the impact, weighing the pros and cons of RTO, and then carefully putting the plans in place are just the first steps. During the transition, it’s necessary for employers to learn how to approach the conversation about RTO with neurodivergent employees. Proactive communication, offering a wide array of accommodations, and providing sufficient time to prepare will aid in a seamless transition to the office.

Simply asking what employees need to perform their job to the best of their ability will go a long way. It’s important to create an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their needs and bringing their authentic selves to work.

In the ever-changing world of work, successful employers will be the ones who lead with a people-first approach. It’s paramount that organizations keep the diverse needs of their workforce in mind, creating a supportive environment for neurodivergent employees to flourish.

Tammy Harper is chief human resources officer at CAI.

Tags: January February 2024

Recent Articles