Using work simulations as a major part of the hiring process, making captions available for video meetings and providing a flexible workweek are all ways New York City-based Ultranauts creates an inclusive environment.
“All of these [strategies] fit into creating a more universal workplace … so that a truly diverse group of people can collaborate and perform at their best,” said Rajesh Anandan, who co-founded the quality engineering startup in 2013 with former MIT roommate Art Shectman.
About 75 percent of Ultranauts’ more than 90 employees are on the autism spectrum. They work at all levels of the organization: leading engineering teams, running recruitment and serving as members of the senior leadership team.
“We started our company with the intention that neurodiversity, including autism, could be a competitive advantage for business,” Anandan said. “We fundamentally believe if we’re able to bring together different brain types, different thinking styles, different processing models onto the same team and focused on the same work, we can do better, we can solve more complex problems.”
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability. Many people on the autism spectrum have different ways of learning, paying attention or reacting to things. An individual with ASD, for example, may avoid eye contact, want to be alone or have trouble adapting to a change in routine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An estimated 5,437,988 (2.21 percent) adults in the United States have ASD, affecting 4,357,667 men and 1,080,321 women, according to 2017 CDC figures.
Anandan had worked with people on the autism spectrum prior to starting Ultranauts and said he saw how they “had to struggle in a world not designed for them” or had been overlooked in the workforce.
He said he and Shectman set out to find individuals on the autism spectrum who had the strengths they were looking for in a quality engineer, such as systems thinking, logical reasoning and pattern recognition. Six months later, “we saw these new hires were performing at a level that was noticeably better than people who were doing this work for years.”
The company is not alone in appreciating the traits of people with ASD. Leading organizations such as Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase and EY seek out these individuals because many “have the capabilities businesses need,” according to The Autism @ Work Playbook (ACCESS-IT, The Information School, University of Washington, 2019). The playbook, a distillation of best practices, was created by a team led by Hala Annabi, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School.
Annabi’s research team compiled the playbook after studying how Microsoft, SAP, JPMorgan Chase and EY established their Autism @ Work programs, including looking at their key organizational strategies, employment models, and hiring and onboarding practices.
“Every company culture is different,” the team writes in the book’s introduction. “So is its approach to recruiting, interviewing, onboarding and developing talent. However, we’ve found that many of the core questions and building blocks are similar.”
The strategies Ultranauts uses can foster inclusiveness at any organization, regardless of its employee demographics, according to Anandan. For example, instead of relying soley on interviews and past work experience, the company uses job simulations and tests for all roles and job candidates to more objectively assess skills and competencies—not just for those on the autism spectrum.
It’s an approach similar to what other tech companies have incorporated. Instead of a phone interview screening or lengthy in-person interview, Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Academy assesses candidates over the course of two to four weeks, using a combination workshop and interview before asking candidates to demonstrate their skills.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Cognitive Disabilities]
“By adjusting our hiring practices, we are able to recruit from a new talent pool—a talent pool that is rich with mad skills,” said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer and head of Microsoft’s disability employee group, on the company’s website. “We’re hiring these folks because they’re amazingly talented individuals who are going to help us do amazing things at Microsoft.”
The length of time for job simulation tests depends on the role, Anandan said. Candidates without previous work experience who apply to technical roles undergo a paid weeklong work simulation.
Anandan thinks his company’s hiring approach is a more objective way to assess talent. Using a combination of technical assessments, work simulations and structured interviews, the candidates on the spectrum that Ultranauts hired have achieved a 95 percent success rate, according to Anandan.
“We were forced to consider [this] because we were recruiting from a talent pool where there was high unemployment and underemployment,” he said. Basing hiring decisions on previous work “wasn’t going to be a meaningful representation of job potential.”
The company uses other practices for inclusiveness, such as sending out meeting agendas and allowing employees to ask questions or make suggestions prior to the meeting. Video calls are captioned, and employees may opt to participate using WebEx chats.
“If you’re going to process [information] differently, it’s less likely you’ll respond in real time” during a meeting, Anandan explained. By using these strategies, “we’re not losing out on those contributions.”
Workplace flexibility is the norm at Ultranauts, a completely remote business with employees spread across 25 states.
“You can have a salary and not have to work full time,” Anadan said. “There is no evidence a 40- or 50-hour workweek is optimally productive for humans. Why isn’t it 60 or 30 [hours]? Why is it five days? In our case, if we were rigid, we would miss out on teammates who are amazing at their jobs but might find it overwhelming or unproductive” to work a typical workweek or workday.
The company also uses a biodex—a kind of “user manual” in which each employee indicates his or her preferences for receiving positive and negative feedback. Does the person prefer to receive feedback in writing or in person? Is it best received in the moment or at the end of the day or week? Having this information, Anadan said, allows a supervisor to be more thoughtful and effective with individual employees.
He was quick to point out that these approaches are not about accommodating one group of employees.
“Nothing we do is solely for neurodiversity. It will not work … and likely [would] create resistance from other groups. The solution has to make it better and fairer for everyone,” he said.
“All of this is … simply creating a system where all employees can contribute.”
Other SHRM resources:
Viewpoint: Putting Autism to Work, SHRM Online, February 2020
Accepting Autism, All Things Work, October 2019
Employers Don’t Understand the Work People with Disabilities Can Do, SHRM Research Finds, SHRM Online, October 2019
Autism at Work: Hiring and Training Employees on the Spectrum, SHRM Online, August 2019
Autism Hiring Guide, SHRM Online, October 2016