Feature Story

Virtual Reality: A Key To Workplace ‘Neurodiversity’ and Innovation

New technologies can unleash the full potential of workers who benefit from varied training methods.

Neil Milliken remembers how problematic job applications can be.

“Online forms are difficult, but they are better than paper forms,” he said. “I was the person who would take four to five forms because I knew I would make a mess of the first few.”

In their search for new talent, business leaders often overlook workers like Milliken, who is dyslexic, which causes difficulty with note taking, short term memory and sequencing. Dyslexia is one of many challenges that fall under the broad heading of ‘neurodiversity’ — and neurodiverse workers present employers a group with great skills and enormous potential.

Neurodiverse people affected by Asperger’s, autism, and other social issues are largely excluded from the recruitment and hiring process. Given their struggles with social interactions, these individuals may not wow an interviewer. But many possess the kinds of talent and intelligence that would benefit any team.

Milliken, now head of accessibility and digital inclusion at digital services firm Atos, believes technology holds the key to enabling neurodiverse workers to do incredible things. And one of the most promising technologies is virtual reality (VR).

Best known for its potential in the entertainment industry, VR creates a three-dimensional virtual environment, immersing the user in a seemingly real experience. The rise of VR in corporate training—witness Walmart’s rollout of Oculus headsets to every US store—puts in place infrastructure for unlocking the potential of a more diverse workforce. New studies show that VR simulations could be a boon for neurodiverse groups by allowing their talents and skills to shine without the pressures of face-to-face, real-time social interactions.

Removing Obstacles to Performance

Dr. Matthew Smith, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Medicine, sees virtual reality as a way for students and trainees to practice interview discussion topics in a nonjudgmental setting.

“In addition,” he said, “they get to have several layers of feedback so they can learn in order to perform.”

Smith believes repetitive practice is the key to VR’s potential. Young professionals can practice at their convenience, in a low-pressure setting, without needing someone to play the role of the interviewer.

Virtual reality is a fast-growing market, with many potential applications in training, remote experts, and so on. In 2021, the augmented and virtual reality market is expected to reach $215 billion, compared to $17.8 billion in 2018. One slice of that market could be from companies looking to accommodate neurodiverse team members.

Looking past the interview process, how will an autistic employee interact and make decisions with coworkers, and business leaders? VR can continue to support their social and professional growth, creating opportunities for practice interactions in ways that would otherwise be highly challenging.

“Technology-based interventions provide the opportunity for repetitive feedback which could be very beneficial for enhancing communication in the work setting, between an employee and a customer, co-worker, supervisor, or even in a team meeting,” Smith said.

Post interview, Milliken suggests a job trial as a viable avenue to explore whether or not a potential candidate is a good fit. It is a win, win situation because the candidate doesn’t feel pressure to succeed, and the employer gets to assess the work being accomplished.

The Diversity Payoff

Studies have shown that diverse companies succeed in many ways, and with their wider perspectives often outpace more homogenous competitors. Innovation in particular benefits from diversity. The neurodiverse talent pool is another way to gain valuable perspective, along with different ways of thinking.

Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, told Connected Futures that people’s brains solve problems differently. Men and women, old and young, introverts and extroverts — whatever the divide, all have much to offer. It’s imperative, Davidson argued, to bring those diverse voices to bear when solving a problem or reaching a decision.

“It’s not always the loudest person in the room who makes the best decision,” she said. “Often it’s the opposite.”

Milliken added technology has a role to play, but people do too. Individuals who fall on the autistic spectrum are rarely the loudest in the room. So, it’s up to leaders to support their creative voices.

“I think when you’re in a team environment,” Dr. Smith said, “there is a mixture of dynamics between participants — some have a stronger voice than others. It’s really the job of the group facilitator to provide more inclusivity for folks that don’t have as strong of a voice.”

VR can go a long way toward supporting that goal, Smith added.

Business leaders looking for more diverse teams and new innovation cannot afford to miss out on any potential source of talent. By addressing the needs of the neurodiverse talent pool with solutions like VR, they can cultivate an even more inclusive work environment. And gain competitive advantage along the way.