Written by Garth Johnson, CEO auticon Canada
We had just leased office space in Toronto. We completed a press conference with Deloitte, an important new client in our first expansion outside of Calgary and Montreal. We had just had a brilliant autistic data scientist with a Ph.D. join our Toronto team. We were thrilled, to put it mildly. This was all in late February leading into early March, just days before a global pandemic would alter our course and bring Canada – and the rest of the world – to a crawl.
Some background: auticon is a global IT services company. Two hundred of our 300 international employees are on the autism spectrum – performing work for clients in data science, software development, and quality assurance. While autism has some unique and powerful benefits in technology, people on the spectrum often need some additional support. Changes in the environment (i.e., office space) or familiar routines can cause stress and anxiety and are often felt more intensely in the analytical, autistic mind. With the impending pandemic and lockdown, we were about to experience changes and pressures rarely seen in the modern world. I grew concerned about how our team would react.
In March, it was decided that our employees would work from home. There is a stereotype that all autistic people are introverts, so one might imagine working from home would be optimal. However, we knew this to be untrue and in due time, our colleagues on the autism spectrum started to show some signs they were struggling. We made concerted efforts to collaborate closely with our teams and their families to ensure that each had a functional home office space to perform their job. We made swift changes to our lengthy recruitment process (the traditional job interview process is a common trigger for anxiety among autistic candidates) and fast-tracked some candidates to onboard them in a physically distanced fashion that adhered to public health protocols. Our back-office teams worked tirelessly to adapt to managing the company remotely and provided support to the few struggling to make the shift.
As we all grew eager to return to the office and missed each other’s company both professionally and socially, we started having daily stand-ups over Microsoft Teams, held a Zoom party for a soon-to-be-married team member, and dedicated a specific chat channel to funny stories, memes, cooking, and music that appeared to improve morale.
One of the many cognitive strengths of autism is that it often brings a fresh perspective. Candid opinions, painful truths, and honest communication are valuable in life as in technology consulting. As a company connected but alone in three of Canada’s largest cities, we grew (and continue to grow) closer as a team. The pandemic forced us to think clearly and evaluate how we do business and communicate with each other. As CEO, I’ve discovered truths and strengths in my team that never surfaced previously. As a result, roles changed and evolved to incorporate these strengths. Our teams became more adaptive; we focused tactically on the needs of the business like never before as well as sharing the expertise of our team. Our colleagues on the spectrum published a video series offering tips to ‘neurotypical’ colleagues on adapting to working from home, addressing health, staying organized, keeping a schedule, and being responsive.
On the upside, a client in Calgary who had been stressed by the shrinking of the local economy had cancelled our contract and outsourced the project to an India-based quality assurance team. They recently called us to come back. They admitted they couldn’t find the quality of work that our team provided – and were willing to pay extra to get back on track with auticon.
We have found the fresh perspective that we needed.