Neurodivergence and Remote Work

I’m seeing an influx of people talking about “everyone back to the office!” with responses like “lol, I moved. When should I expect the travel itinerary with accommodations you’ve booked?” I too have moved. I too would respond this way. I too believe if I am able to do my job well remotely, it shouldn’t friggin’ matter if you’ve spent millions of dollars on a state of the art office. Your poor investment is not my problem.

This is the prevailing thought for many and, again, I share it, but what isn’t discussed too often is the massive benefit neurodivergent people get out of a fully remote work situation. It is much easier to be more productive when we don’t have to mask for long periods of time. It drastically improves quality of life when we actually have energy at the end of the day which normally would have been expended white-knuckling through our natural responses to, for example, Terry coming over for some water cooler chit chat while we’re focused on something or the air conditioner blowing frigid air on just one part of one shoulder. Or how we can’t make any clicks or noises or other more obvious tics that help soothe the growing stress of the environment because… it would fundamentally change others’ views of what we are capable of handling.

Let’s unpack that.

What is Neurodivergence?

Generally, when people talk about neurodivergence (ND), they contrast it with “neurotypical” behavior. There is no agreed-upon, defining line between what is neurotypical and what is neurodivergent, but what is often epitomized as neurodivergent linked to stereotypical autistic quirks. Things like

  • Aversion to certain sensory stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, textures, flavors, etc.
    • Dislike of t-shirts with a seam at the end of the shoulder or only wearing ones without tags
    • Noise level that neurotypical people find acceptable or don’t notice being disruptive (too loud or not loud enough) for neurodivergent people
    • Gagging at the smell of a bonfire
  • Readily apparent behavior (ie. “tics”) that is done periodically to soothe one’s growing mental discomfort.
    • Twitch of the arm, fingers, legs, neck, facial muscles, etc.
    • Making of nonsensical sounds or audibly reciting a mantra whose meaning matters less than the repetition itself
    • Toussling hair or scratching some spot, regarless of if it itches
  • Fundamentally different perspectives, values, and methods when seeing the same objective circumstances
  • Hyper-fixation or extreme interest in one specific topic for a given period of time (maybe life-long, maybe for a few hours)

These are some of the common patterns neurodivergent people seem to follow, many having their own reasons for each behavior. It means those with Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD or ADHD), and more are commonly considered neurodivergent. Why does this matter? What does this mean for neurotypical people?

We just think differently. Our brains are built differently. There are cases where this is a massive benefit compared to neurotypical people. Some of us see patterns more easily when others only see chaos. Hyper-fixation especially pays off in knowledge-based work like programming, information security, and similarly technical career paths. You even see some hiring managers (perhaps unknowingly) paying homage to this with the expressed desire of a “T-shaped” engineer. They’re referring to someone who is a good generalist, but also knows a metric crap-ton about at least one specific area of expertise.

I am neurodivergent. I was diagnosed with ADHD from an early age. Even now, I’m the textbook definition of a person with ADHD.

What is Masking?

Neurodivergent people may go undiagnosed with ASD, ADHD, or other labels for years. Maybe they never get diagnosed. Until they get that diagnosis and become comfortable publicly having one of those labels, it is often reinforced at an early age to “act normal.” For those of us with ADHD, it was to “stop fidgeting in [our] seat.” It was to otherwise hide our behaviors that weren’t neurotypical, almost like putting on a mask over our true selves so we could go about life uninhibited by public perception. But it’s exhausting.

Masking takes energy to suppress what behaviors come naturally. Anecdotally, I see a lot of neurodivergent people also identifying as introverted.

I, for example, mask to put on a kind face, actively listening, and expressions on my face that empathize with the person speaking. Though I genuinely feel that empathy, kindness, and desire to actively listen, it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it might for others. I consciously do it. And it takes energy.

What Does This Have To Do with Remote Work?

When someone like me is masking, it takes effort to maintain that mask just like it does to carry in the 743 bags of groceries mom came home with all in one trip. It’s difficult at first, but pretty manageable if you’re quick to finish unloading the groceries (or whatever task is required), but as time goes on, you increasingly need a break. It starts to wear on you, marking your arms with the indentations that are painful, and making you irritable if people distract you from just finishing that task. But it’s a muscle. The more often you do it, the easier it becomes to maintain it until the task is complete. The less often you need to take a break, get a better grip, and continue on. But it’s still friggin’ exhausting.

Face-to-face meetings require masking. Masking is like carrying in those groceries. I’ve gotten fairly good at masking, but it still takes energy that would be better used on absolutely anything else. When working in an office, I need to keep my mask on all day. Basically every single moment unless I find a private spot (e.g., bathroom stall) to take a break and get a grip again. With remote work, it’s anytime that I’m not actively on camera in a meeting.

This means that energy throughout the day that would have been spent making myself behaviorally presentable to society could be repurposed. Maybe I have energy at the end of the day to play with my kids, or to put up those curtains I’ve had on my to-do list for months, or cook dinner instead of get takeout for the 4th time this week. This means I have energy for a deep-dive on a given topic and can lean into my hyper-fixation for the benefit of my team.

Why You Should Care

Companies would not get this much productivity or benefit out of me if it were in-person, regardless of how awesome of a company it is to work for or how acceptable it is for me to go about my day without masking (I’d still wear a mask, regardless). I wouldn’t be nearly as mentally and emotionally present for my wife and kids if I had to use that energy to not get on someone’s to-fire list.

Remote work has made me that much more successful. So why go into the office if you can do your job better remotely?