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The mounting social, environmental, and economic issues facing communities throughout the country have accentuated the need for planners to remain proactive and adaptable. As priorities continue to shift at a rapid pace so, too, should the thinking and solutions applied to them. Tackling issues as complex as those faced today requires a variety of relevant insights. There have long been calls for new initiatives to attract a broader range of entrants to the planning profession. However, neurodivergent individuals remain a relatively untapped pool of talent within the profession.
‘Neurodiversity’ is the diversity of all human brains. The umbrella term includes those with Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia and other neurological conditions – individuals described as ‘neurodivergent’. The neurodiversity movement is centred around the principle that there is no “normal” or “right” type of brain.
It is widely acknowledged that diverse organisations perform better – this includes diversity of thought. However, despite increased promotion of the neurodiversity movement, research undertaken by The Institute of Leadership & Management (2019) reveals a significant lack of understanding and awareness in the workplace; although around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent (more than 15% of the population).
Innovation requires a variety of perspectives and calls on organisations to include people and ideas “from the edges” as, software corporation, SAP notes. Neurodiversity presents a competitive advantage and can provide a depth and breadth of abilities and talents in the workplace. For example, many neurodivergent people are highly skilled in creative, holistic, and strategic thinking; problem-solving; pattern recognition; and verbal communication – all of which are beneficial attributes for planners to possess. Employing neurodiverse individuals has been shown to not only increase the innovative capabilities of organisations but bring about also productivity and quality improvements. However, to effectively harness these talents, employers need to prioritise exploring more holistic approaches to recruitment; promoting difference within their organisation; as well as embedding and tailoring reasonable adjustments throughout the business ethos - from entry to senior levels.
Initiatives are well established in the tech and finance industries, with Google; Microsoft; Goldman Sachs and Apple; actively seeking to recruit neurodiverse individuals. But there is much to be done in the planning profession and wider built environment sector. This should include, but not be limited to, the following:
1. Ensuring that the profession gets a broader pipeline of candidates by expanding the universities that are recruited from. Also, and perhaps more importantly, encouraging these universities to teach at the margins. This will help to harness students’ individual strengths and promote agile thinking – both of which will be key to planning in the future.
2. Implementing more progressive interviewing and hiring methods, especially those which are centred on removing unconscious bias from the process, will expand the pool of candidates considered for positions. Applying conventional interview-based recruitment methods and prescriptive hiring criteria means neurodiverse talent is often systematically screened out.Despite candidates possessing skills to excel in a job role, they may not always “interview well”. Talent acquisition methods have been shown to remove bias considerably by focusing solely on candidates’ competencies in role-related skills. These can then be used to match a candidate’s skill set to a role. Other approaches may include discussing a personal interviewing preference with the candidate in advance or sharing a sample question at the beginning of the interview.
3. Placing greater emphasis on filling the knowledge-gaps about neurodiversity (especially amongst line managers and senior management) which appear to exist within many organisations, will be a key step to changing hiring priorities and internal policies. Several of the challenges faced by neurodivergent people in the workplace can be mitigated. Often, part of the issue is that managers are subconsciously optimising for neurotypical people, in the way they outline job roles, set tasks or provide feedback, for example. Raising awareness across organisations about neurodiversity at work would also allow managers to think more pointedly about maximising the talents of neurodiverse members of staff. On a personal level, this is also about ensuring employees disclosing personal information regarding a neurodiverse condition are appropriately acknowledged and are made to feel comfortable, when doing so.
4. Building in flexibility – This comes in various guises and will be dependent on individual challenges/preferences. For example:
- Allowing employees with heightened sensory triggers to avoid travelling on public transport during peak hours;
- Opting for concise (and more accessible) presentation formats;
- Enquiring about individual sensory distractions so that employers can ascertain what support is most appropriate based on individual needs. This can include measures such as installing an extra monitor; allowing employees to wear earphones in open plan workspaces or communicating information by phone rather than solely email.
Implementing informal adjustments within the workplace from the outset, has been shown to increase perceptions of organisational support, which improves productivity, reduces stress and benefits employee retention.
Initiatives such as those I’ve mentioned above are just a first step. As with all other strands of the diversity and inclusion agenda, supporting neurodivergent planners in the workplace requires a multi-pronged approach and a concerted effort from all planners – not only neurodivergent planners.
Attracting new entrants to the profession and fostering a culture that facilitates the retention of diverse skills and talents are equally important. It needs employers to be sensitive to individual needs; genuinely get to know their employees; and remain alert to challenges they may be facing. This is essential, not only, to future-proofing individual organisations, but is also integral to ensuring the planning profession, as a whole, continues to thrive.
Layla Vidal-Martin MRTPI works at Vistry Partnerships, where she is a Planning Manager and works on delivering joint venture schemes. Layla is also a co-founder of the Neurodiversity in Planning working group. For any additional information, please feel free to contact the Neurodiversity in Planning working group at [email protected].
 Institute of Leadership & Management (October 2020) Neurodiversity at work - Research Summary - 1156 respondents surveyed.