BuddyConnect – Building an inclusive workplace for neurodiverse staff

By Jack Reeves, - Employee experience

Workplaces are becoming more inclusive than ever.

Nearly three quarters of workers value inclusivity in their organizations, according to our recent research. Millennials and Gen Zers in particular value an organization’s social goals lining up with theirs, more than traditional financial incentives.

Companies are realising that inclusivity is not only a great way to attract the best talent, but also leads to better workplace environments.

So, there is renewed focus on trying to bring more neurodiverse people – those with autism or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought – into workplaces. However, how do organizations ensure they are able to retain these individuals?

In this blog post, I will share some details around our new app, BuddyConnect, and how it helps neurodiverse people lead more supported and happier lives in the workplace.

Hostile environment

Assistive workplace technology is not new. However, most of these tools are created to aid those with physical limitations – ergonomic keyboards, screen readers and magnifiers, for example.

There’s been a gap in the market for those with less visible impairments.

For most neurotypical people, common features of an office – bright lights, loud noises, certain colors – can often go unnoticed.

However, these elements can have a significant effect on the productivity and, more importantly, the wellbeing of people who are neurodiverse.

And even when these ‘blockers’ are identified, getting them rectified can also be very stressful.

In recent years, progress in smart building technology has allowed staff to more easily adjust the light intensity, temperature and even mood lighting in specific areas.

Similarly, with more attention being paid to mental health by society, many organizations and individuals are reaching out, willing to assist however they can.

So, now is the time for organizations to combine people and technology to create a truly inclusive workplace – and one new option is BuddyConnect.

Help from a buddy

BuddyConnect is a smartphone app which provides users with a ‘buddy’ – a one-on-one, trusted partner who is also trained to assist neurodiverse people in the workplace.

Many organizations have buddy systems; however, they tend to be very formal and hierarchical. The ‘buddy’ usually has a similar job role and is contacted mainly in times of distress.

But, as beneficial as that may be, it can fail to address the ongoing wellbeing of those individuals.

We wanted BuddyConnect to be informal and focused on wellbeing. When users are experiencing stress due to their environment, they can simply message their buddy who can suggest somewhere else better suited for them to work.

Our aim is for the app to start a real, personal relationship as the needs and preferences of each neurodiverse individual are unique.

The app can help to build long term relationships across the business, supporting employees with buddies who have developed an understanding of their needs over time.

Preventative measures

By focusing on the wellbeing of the users, incidents of extreme distress can be largely prevented from happening.

For example, our simple and dynamic well-being tracker allows junior buddies to set their current mood on their BuddyConnect social page. This covers a spectrum of emotions: from things are going well to distressed and in need of support.

This builds in a layer self-prevention as, over time, patterns can be deduced from these well-being trackers. If someone is always stressed at a certain time on a Monday, what is usually happening around that time? Is there something that can be done to mitigate that stress?

The app also has several assistive programs integrated for additional support. Aside from the ability to call or message your buddy, users can also access our employee assistive program which offers 24/7 support from trained professionals, as well as other calming exercises and time-out functions.

Creating an app with good intentions is great, but if you can’t embed the input and feedback from those you are trying to help into your tech from the ground up, you may miss the point all together.

Agile creation

Autistica, one of the Fujitsu charity partners, helped us validate a lot of our ideas. New functionalities were often tested on both the neurodiverse and neurotypical through the charity.

Many users told us they didn’t like having to leave the app to message their buddies. So, within the space of two weeks, we created an in-app messaging function.

Feedback also indicated that users liked meeting their prospective buddies face-to-face before committing to the relationship. But at the same time, they also liked an element of familiarity before that session.

So, we also gave users the option to create social media-like homepages, so they could share their hobbies, interests and other personal information before they sat down with prospective buddies.

We’re continuing to develop the app based on feedback. Due to popular demand, soon users will be able to pick their own buddy, for example. Because, the more we listen to our users, the more likely we will create a system that meets everyone’s needs.

The future

Earlier this year, we completed a BuddyConnect trial with sixty UK based apprentices at Fujitsu with great success.  Currently, BuddyConnect is undergoing customer trials, to see how it can be utilized by all kinds of workers to create a more supportive workplace for everyone.

Our next goal for BuddyConnect is to develop an integrated real-time, predictive anxiety monitoring tool through the use of wearables, like smartphones and cameras, to help promote and improve wellbeing at work.

Like with BuddyConnect, our focus remains on improving the wellbeing of employees. And, through thoughtful use of technology, we can make workplaces more inclusive environments for an increasingly more diverse workforce.

Read here how by focusing on our potential, and removing the barriers that impede some from reaching it, we can create a workplace that lifts everyone and allows us all to thrive.

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