Most organizations want to hire people with high potential to be productive and creative. In many cases, “spiky profiles” of neurodivergent people offer that sought-after productivity and creativity potential; focus and creativity have been identified by research as important characteristics of autistic and other neurodivergent people.
If only workplaces did not get in the way of focus and creativity with poor work organization and unnecessary stress!
You know what I mean. Meetings that could have been emails. Dozens of emails sent at all times that could have been batched into one daily or weekly newsletter. Emails to follow up on emails sent 30 minutes ago. Drop-everything-and-do-this-instead emergencies that are not really emergencies. Check-ins for the sake of checking in…
Employees are frazzled and running in circles, looking busy, but with very little time for actual productivity and creative work. Knowledge workers spend over 85% of their time in meetings, which harms psychological, physical, and mental well-being. Cumulatively, the lack of control, social pressure, and chronic stress in such workplaces are detrimental to our creative brains.
Many employees crave time for deep work – and that is especially imperative for neurodivergent people. For autistic individuals, whose intensely focused and hard-working brains also have an intense reaction to stress, the need for focused time and the cost of interruption are much higher than the average.
According to Cal Newport, author of the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” deep work refers to the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. In other words, it’s the ability to do the work that really matters, without getting sidetracked by emails, notifications, or other distractions.
Having time for deep work can help employees achieve flow – an enjoyable state of focusing on mastering a challenge. In flow, we do our best, most creative work.
How can managers ensure that we have time for deep work in the workplace?
One solution is encouraging and supporting timeboxing, a technique that involves setting aside specific blocks of time for focused work. This technique is especially useful for individuals who are easily distracted or need significant time stretches to get into their best productivity mode, their flow.
Individual employees can implement timeboxing by scheduling specific blocks of time for deep work, and then communicating those blocks of time to colleagues and managers. For example, an employee might schedule three hours in the morning for deep work, and then communicate that to their colleagues and manager, so that they know not to interrupt during that time. If course, doing so requires an environment supportive of productivity and psychological safety. Workplaces focused on “looking busy” and presenteeism are likely to punish timeboxing behavior even if it results in higher productivity.
A possibly even better approach might be collective timeboxing. The entire team can designate specific distraction-free periods each day. Many organizations are starting to introduce no-meetings days or half-days. A drastic example is Shopify, which cancelled all meetings for a month, relying instead on asynchronous communication – a move that increased productivity. No-meetings approach can be taken further with no-message, no-call, no-emails, no dropping-by time blocks when everyone can focus on heads-down work – e.g., Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings as designated “quiet” time.
However, teams are embedded within organizations. They can effectively implement focused work techniques and, by doing so, become more neuroinclusive only if organizations develop cultures that genuinely support it. This may require two major organizational shifts – from valuing and rewarding “looking busy” to rewarding outcomes, and from reactive work to proactive work.
From “looking busy” to outcomes
To support focus, many organizations may need to override the cultures of “looking busy” and become more comfortable with outcomes-based work. Managers have a critical role in supporting deep work and protecting employees’ focused time, but not all managers are ready for this responsibility. A transition to outcomes-focused work may require training managers and supervisors in new ways of thinking and working.
For managers and supervisors who are used to measuring productivity based on hours worked or visible activity, learning to support a culture of outcomes and deep work can be a significant adjustment. These four strategies go creating a more focused organization can help:
1. Educate managers about the benefits of deep work and its advantages for inclusion, specifically neuroinclusion, productivity, focus, and well-being. Focus time also benefits managers!
2. Create an outcome-focused reward system. Celebrate and reward high-quality work, shifting the focus from visible activity to actual results.
3. Help managers understand not just time management, but energy management – understanding the importance of supporting employees in finding their rhythm for best work. One way of working does not fit all because everyone’s natural energy cycles that support best work are different. Normalize involving employees in discussing ways to structure work for maximizing their energy and supporting them in working with their natural productivity cycles, not against them.
4. Share success stories of employees and units/teams that have been able to produce high-quality work through deep work techniques and tailored energy management. Real-world examples can help managers and supervisors understand the value of deep work.
In some cases, the culture of “busy” is also rooted in reactive rather than proactive work mode that becomes typical for the organization. But most of us do not work in emergency rooms – and proper management of emergency rooms needs to involve a great deal of planning. For most organizations, there is little excuse for not planning ahead except for bad organizational habits.
From reactive to proactive work
Shifting from a reactive and frenetic work environment to a proactive one can be a major challenge for managers, but it is essential for maximizing productivity and achieving long-term goals. A predictable, orderly work environment can greatly reduce stress and free employee energy for doing their best work.
Here are some strategies that managers can use to create a proactive – not reactive – work environment. These strategies can help teams focus on achieving long-term goals and proactively addressing challenges. In turn, a focused team environment can help support productivity, reduce stress, and ultimately lead to greater success for the entire unit.
1. Set clear, realistic, and resource-supported goals. Too often, organizational “visioning” turns into unsupported dreaming and mandates without resources. Chronic understaffing and “squeezing” lead to systemic problems that may push people toward another extreme – not setting goals at all and just dealing with whatever comes their way. A culture of resource-aligned planning can make much difference in both morale and productivity.
2. Develop clear and transparent ways to prioritize tasks. Help the team to prioritize tasks based on clear criteria for importance and urgency. This will help ensure that the most critical tasks are addressed first, and prevent reacting to every new request or issue, which is all too common in our stress-filled organizations. This might be particularly beneficial for some hard-working employees with ADHD who might be nevertheless distracted by low-value tasks. Investing time to develop clear decision-trees and criteria for prioritizing work is also likely to be appreciated by many autistic employees and by those who experience anxiety. It will also support everyone’ morale and save managers’ time in the long run.
3. Develop transparent processes and systems: For example, predictable workflows can “automate” the routine and allow everyone to focus on more creative, forward-focused work. Using digital systems for asynchronous work has additional benefits of increasing transparency, lowering employee stress and supporting creativity and inclusion.
However, it is essential to note that while managers and line supervisors can do a lot to support their employees, without organizational-level change, they will be hard–pressed to maintain outcomes-focused and proactive work environments. To be fully effective, those with the most leverage in organizations must model and nurture organizational cultures that support focused work, strategic and goal-oriented operations – and neuroinclusion.