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In this episode of the ICAEW Student Insights podcast, host Jag Dhaliwal explores the link between supporting neurodivergent people at work and better business performance.


Jag Dhaliwal, External Audit Manager, Deloitte


  • Lydia Stott, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser, Cooper Parry
  • Meera Roy-Chowdhury, Senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant, JLL


Ed Adams


Jag Dhaliwal: Hello and welcome to the ICAEW Student Insights podcast. My name is Jag Dhaliwal. I’m a chartered accountant working in the audit sector and this podcast is all about learning how the world of work is changing for finance professionals. Today we’re talking about neurodiversity in the workplace, and how to empower people who think differently.

Lydia Stott: If you create an environment where neurodivergent people are able to play to their strengths, you get access to a really wonderful talent pool.

Meera Roy-Chowdhury: It’s not about just making sure that your company is the best. If you’re doing something really great it’s sharing that experience and knowledge.

JD: The world of work has changed significantly since the pandemic, perhaps becoming more flexible than ever before. But it can still pose challenges to neurodivergent people, so how do we ensure teams and workplaces are set up to encourage neurodiversity? And what are the benefits for business? To answer those questions I’m joined by Lydia Stott, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser at accountancy practice Cooper Parry, and later today we’ll hear from Meera Roy-Chowdhury, chartered accountant and Senior Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at property services firm JLL. Thanks for joining us today.

Lydia, as well as being an adviser at Cooper Parry you’re also an ambassador for the National Autistic Society. Can you explain what neurodiversity means for people who may be unfamiliar?

LS: Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for the differences we all have in the ways our brains process information. The majority of people are neurotypical – that means their brains process information in a way that is the standard, the way that most people’s brains function. But then when we talk about neurodiversity, we’re most commonly thinking about people who have neurodivergent conditions or people who are neurodivergent. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s not something to be cured. It’s not something you acquire. It’s just something you’re born with; your brain is wired differently. The most common ones are autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

JD: I guess it’s just thinking differently.

LS: Absolutely, and we all do. But for people whose brains are actually wired in a different way, it means we approach the world with a different perspective and with different experiences.

JD: Right, I’ve got you. Where might common working practices be challenging for neurodivergent people?

LS: There’s so many different ways that the world of work is geared towards a neurotypical mind that might pose challenges for neurodivergent people – things like rigidity in ways of working. You mentioned at the start about the benefits of flexible working and how that can really help with accessibility for neurodivergent people. There are also sensory issues of being in different working environments – different ways of communicating can be a real challenge. And there’s a lot of assumed knowledge about the workplace. People assume that you know how to communicate in a way that is professional as opposed to what you’ve been communicating all your life in school, or in family life before that. People assume that you have basic skills in being able to work a printer, being able to do things around the office that aren’t explained to you, and that can be a real challenge for neurodivergent people where those things don’t come implicitly and we’re not taught it. I think there’s a real positive movement towards education on soft skills, so that really helps neurodivergent people.

JD: And what would you say is the level of awareness around neurodiversity in accounting and financial services?

LS: I think we’re seeing a great movement forward, a great progression to raise awareness of it. One in seven people is neurodivergent or has a neurodivergent condition, which means the more people open up about their experiences in the workplace, the more we’re all learning. And I think the second challenge people often experience in the workplace is communication difficulties, being around people who don’t communicate in a way that is accessible or understandable. So, as we become more aware, as a firm or as an industry, there’s a real opportunity for us to become a more inclusive environment. There’s still a way to go, because lots of people know what neurodiversity is on a definition level, but how it can actually play out and what the different conditions can look like has a lower level of awareness.

JD: What can people do differently? What does that look like?

LS: I think it’s individual for each neurodivergent person what they need. For example, with autism, some people who are autistic can really struggle with taking things literally, with needing things to be direct and explicitly communicated. For example, if you imply something to me, I wouldn’t pick up on it as well as if you just asked me directly. Alternatively, maybe people with ADHD, when it comes to deadlines, they need those really clearly communicated. Because if something doesn’t have a hard deadline, it’s much harder to create motivation to perform your best. And people with ADHD often work really brilliantly up to those deadlines. So, there’s lots of different ways that we can be more explicit, more direct and clearer when we communicate. But ultimately, it’s down to the people you work with and building a relationship with them to understand what they need.

JD: Yeah, that completely makes sense because of course, everyone is different. Everyone’s going to be thinking differently.

LS: One of my favourite phrases is, once you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. You really can’t make assumptions and generalisations, especially when thinking about neurodiversity as a whole. I know I mentioned autism a lot because it’s my lived experience, and through my work with the National Autistic Society I speak a lot on this topic. But then you bring in other neurodivergent conditions that have very different experiences. Often there are co-occurring difficulties – people who have one neurodivergent condition are far more likely to have another. You’re more likely to have more than just one.

JD: That really makes me think it is important that everyone does need to understand each individual’s needs.

LS: And I think that’s a pothole that companies often fall into when starting to become more neuro-inclusive. They decide that they want to be accessible to neurodivergent people, so if you come forward with a label, you say ‘I have dyslexia’ or ‘I have dyspraxia’, they have a set list of adjustments that they’ll just give you automatically and leave it at that. Not every dyslexic person needs read-and-write software where the computer reads aloud to you. Not every person with ADHD needs to be in a silent room with no distractions around them. It’s a real challenge with workplaces to create space and create solutions that are scalable on the size of different accountancy firms, but that provide an individualised approach, understanding that each individual neurodivergent person will have their unique needs.

JD: How are you working to ensure Cooper Parry as a business is inclusive for all neurodivergent people?

LS: I think it’s really interesting that the work you do to be more neuro-inclusive, or more inclusive of neurodivergent people, is actually beneficial for everyone. So, our flexible working policies, we have work from anywhere, anytime, forever, which means you can do your hours when and where you like as long as it fits into the business needs. We have open holiday, and these are things that everyone loves, but they are especially beneficial for neurodivergent people. I’ve also been working really closely across the business to build our supports process for neurodivergent people to ensure that everyone has an individualised supports plan. Adjustments passports is something that I’ve heard other companies do, which we’re introducing at Cooper Parry to ensure that no matter what changes you experience in the workplace, no matter if your line manager changes, if your department role changes, you keep the accommodations and adjustments that are right for you.

I think there’s a wider level of education that’s needed. For neurodivergent people, often there is a high burden of education. It is your responsibility to not only educate everyone else about your individual needs, but to educate everyone else about neurodiversity as a whole. I started out as an apprentice accountant, did nine months of that, and then I moved into a diversity and inclusion role at Cooper Parry. The thing that I found hardest in those nine months wasn’t anything to do with accountancy work. It was having to do my accountancy work to the best of my ability and ask for the adjustments and requirements that I needed to make the workplace accessible, and educate my team, my managers, the wider company about why those things are needed, about what neurodiversity is. And it was the extra workload of educating people that meant that I wasn’t as good an accountant. I absolutely love that Cooper Parry created the opportunity for me to move into a role where this is my job, I am paid to educate people, to do this labour, so that other neurodivergent accountants have the full capacity and power to thrive in their work.

JD: How do you talk to people who are sceptical about D&I in the workplace? How do we frame neurodiversity, in particular, as a business benefit?

LS: I think that’s one of the easiest things to do. It’s so easy to explain why diversity in business contributes to better business practice. It contributes to better decision making, new perspectives and ideas, challenges to the status quo. That’s what Cooper Parry is all about and that is why we are making so much progress in the accountancy industry. It’s because we don’t take things for granted. And that’s something that neurodivergent people often do. Having a neurodiverse team means you have new perspectives and ideas.

Then when you think about individual conditions, individual neurodivergencies, there’s a great opportunity with each of them to think about the strength and how they play in accountancy. For example, with autism, we can have really strong attention to detail, which is perfect when you’re looking at numbers. People who are dyslexic often may struggle with the details, but they have a brilliant big-picture thinking, they approach things from a larger scale. Neurotypical people may struggle with seeing the wood for the trees, where dyslexic people may not have that problem, they can see the overarching picture. People who are dyspraxic may bring new insights into how we can streamline processes, where the issues and barriers are, and how we can make things more efficient, more effective. And ADHD is a condition that means your thoughts go so fast, you are able to move from a first idea to a full conception and full ideas quickly. That can mean people with ADHD have really good problem-solving skills, they approach things in a really engaged way. If you create an environment where neurodivergent people are able to play to their strengths, you get access to a really wonderful talent pool, which will benefit your business.

JD: Is there anything else that we can do to become allies to neurodivergent people in our working lives other than what you’ve touched on already?

LS: I think it’s what we’ve been speaking about – that burden of education is a real challenge. You as an individual can go out and learn about different neurodivergent conditions, learn about what it might look like, and then take that broader knowledge into how you approach individuals. I think you also need to bring a lot of flexibility, be willing to try new things, be willing to focus on outcome and output, not process. If we judge people based on how they do things instead of what they achieve, you are more likely to shut out neurodivergent talent. But if you really value output and enable neurodivergent people by listening to them about what they need and working with them in a way that supports them, you have the opportunity for real growth.

JD: You’ve really inspired me today. I feel like I could leave this podcast and go away and start researching, and really see what different tools are out there, broaden my own mindset and try to understand a lot more, what can be done to help in those situations. So, thank you for that, Lydia. That’s been really helpful.

LS: Thanks so much. It’s been so lovely to chat.

JD: Now, switching from the accountancy sector to property services, I’m keen to get Meera’s take on neurodiversity, and everything we’ve just discussed. So, Meera, you’re a senior D&I consultant at JLL. Before we get started, what roles and responsibilities does your job encompass?

MR-C: Well just to distinguish, when you have D&I roles, like Lydia you can have internal roles where individuals work within a company to progress D&I, or external-facing roles. So currently, I’m doing an external-facing client role. I work with clients in terms of supporting them with their D&I journeys across the spectrum of D&I areas and issues. I guess my work roles and responsibilities are quite similar to other consultants. It would be, for example, selling work to clients. That could be writing proposals, delivering pitches to clients, going to networking events, trying to source clients. Then there’s the actual delivering of work, so managing projects. When it comes to D&I, there’s such a range of different work that we do. It could be data analysis, data gathering, designing programmes, implementing programmes – for example, mentoring programmes or sponsorship programmes – facilitating focus groups and interviews, facilitating workshops. It’s a very varied job in terms of the types of projects we deliver. And then there’s also a third piece, which is probably the main thing, around thought leadership. That’s producing research and innovative thoughts to educate the wider sector and industry on the latest trends and thinking around diversity inclusion, which is really interesting for people who are into research and report writing.

JD: How have you seen awareness and understanding of neurodiversity improve at JLL and with clients during your time with the business?

MR-C: Firstly, in terms of JLL itself, it’s definitely an area that has got an increasing focus in terms of promoting awareness and education. Some things that the organisation has done recently, for example, include launching a guide for the whole organisation in terms of neurodivergent conditions. Obviously, as Lydia mentioned, it’s not one page that describes every single neurodivergent individual, but the key things that people should consider when working with colleagues who are neurodivergent, or especially if you’re managing a colleague who is neurodivergent – what are the things that you should be thinking about? We have a neurodiversity business resource group as well. These are often also called employee network groups, which are a key way of ingraining and embedding D&I within organisations. So, you may, for example, have a women-in-business network or a network around a certain religion or belief. Neurodiversity is another area. Not a lot of organisations have this, but we’ve recently started one, and they promote education and awareness. They also host loads of cool events. The interesting thing about D&I in the corporate world is that it’s kind of different to other areas you might work in where you have to be a bit protective over the work that you’re doing, and there’s a bit of competitiveness between different organisations, whereas you really have to have a different approach and spirit when working in D&I. It’s not about just being the best and making sure that your company is the best. It’s if you’re doing something really great, sharing that experience and knowledge with others because your intention when working in this area is to make the world a better place.

JD: So even though it is all about people, why is it important D&I strategies are grounded in metrics and data?

MR-C: A lot of organisations know that they want to work on D&I but don’t know what to do, so data is a great starting point. You go in, have a look at the data, look at company representation, look at progression of different people with different characteristics, see where the issues seem to lie, and then think of what the most effective targeted solution is. Or what is even the problem that we need to solve, to measure a baseline, and then come up with a solution. Or say we decide to support a company to set up an initiative such as a mentoring programme, how do you see the effectiveness of it? You need data to measure progress over time and to measure impact. A lot of companies do have D&I targets, and that’s a great way of speaking the language of other areas of business within companies. You might have a revenue profit target, here’s your D&I target to kind of speak the language of businesses and leaders. And obviously, you can’t set targets without having data in the first place, and then being able to measure that, so it’s really key. And for me, I think because of my background, data has been the number one thing that I’m always really focused on. We generally always like to complement quantitative data with qualitative data – so interviews, focus groups – which provide a narrative for the numbers. And it’s really important to look at those together to understand the picture.

JD: You touched on your background there, how did you go from qualifying as an ACA with the Big Four to working in D&I in the property services sector?

MR-C: Yeah, it does sound quite random, but it all does actually make sense when I think about it. I started off in PwC, in a team where it was a hybrid of tax and consulting, which is why I ended up doing the ACA as a part of the grad scheme. But most of the work that I did was around HR consulting, and in particular reward consulting. So, looking at pay for executive boards, but also all employee, and through that I was exposed to work around equal pay, then gender pay. That opened up the world of D&I to me, and I realised I was using the skills and tools that I’d developed but using them towards something that I really cared about, and the outcome I really cared about. I felt like I was doing something positive. When I realised I could specialise in this, that’s what I decided to do. When you look at the two points individually, it doesn’t make sense, but there is a string that joins it all together.

JD: I can absolutely see that string that you’ve just touched on. Did the ACA in particular help at all?

MR-C: Absolutely. Obviously, I’m not doing actual accounting in my job at the moment, but the ACA is so much broader than that. I’d say the skills, in terms of looking at business problems, identifying issues, coming up with solutions, and being able to critically think about business issues in general have really served me well. When you’re working with D&I with businesses, it is a business issue that you’re looking at essentially. There’s a lot of stakeholder management and senior stakeholder management when you’re working internally or externally with D&I, and when you’re talking to leadership there’s often a bit of hesitancy around progressing D&I because there’s a fear of the commercial implications of things, the cost implications. And I feel like being able to understand the finances of an organisation, having that financial fluency, really makes it easier to argue your case around why it’s important that organisations – and particularly the top layer of organisations – really take notice of D&I and take action. So, you may not think it’s associated but I feel like it’s been a real bonus for me in my career.

JD: Thanks again to Lydia and Meera for joining us today. It’s been great to have you both in the studio for such thought-provoking conversation. Diversity and Inclusion is a key pillar of ICAEW’s strategy as an organisation. If you’re interested in accessing the latest thinking on the subject and hearing from fellow students and members, then consider joining the ICAEW Diversity and Inclusion community. You’ll find the link in the show notes for this episode. Also, make sure you visit ICAEW Student Insights for ongoing support during your studies. On the Student Insights hub, you’ll find exam guides, tips and inspiring stories from students and recently qualified members. That’s all available at icaew.com/studentinsights. Finally, if you found this podcast useful, then make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. And let us know what you think by sharing the episode and writing a review on your podcast app. Thanks for joining us on ICAEW Student Insights, bye for now.

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