Sub-networks are a growing trend within people networks. Sub-networks based around visual impairment or mental health are probably the most common but neurodiversity is coming up on the rails. To mark the launch of BT’s neurodiversity sub-network on 12th June 2018, we spoke to Robert Gibbons, a key player in this important development despite having not yet been at the company a year.
BT have been a member of PurpleSpace since the beginning. They have a long established disability network 'Able 2' and the neurodiversity network will come under the umbrella of Able2.
Robert Gibbons, pictured on the far right, joined BT as an advanced apprentice in technology services and operations in October 2017. ‘I accepted the job in June and then in July I got, at the age of 30, a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Starting a new job with a new diagnosis, I was asking myself: who should I tell, what should I tell?
‘The diagnosis was a surprise in some ways but not others. I always knew I was a bit different. In social interaction I could be slow on the uptake and take things literally but it wasn’t limiting my ability to participate. Nor had I struggled academically – although the traditional school system didn’t work so well for me. But when I sat down with a list of symptoms I ticked quite a few boxes. It was like “ah, that makes sense now”.’
As a curious new apprentice, Robert found himself on the BT intranet looking at the Able2 discussion forums. ‘I’d written about my experience of diagnosis and asked if anyone wanted to work on a factsheet about autism in the workplace’ he recalls. ‘A colleague asked me to write something more regularly - a blog on our intranet. People started sharing their stories. At that point it became clear there was a need out there and we started talking about a network.’
So how many neurodivergent employees do BT have? ‘It’s a good question but, like any organisation, we can’t really know. Some talk about their condition, some don’t, some don’t even know. In some of the technological areas, for example I’m sure there are people with undiagnosed conditions.
‘Blogging has helped me think more about the issues. Many adjustments that would benefit people with neurodiverse conditions actually benefit everybody. For example, the traditional job interview has nothing to do with the job. There’s research evidence that doing practical job-related tasks leads to better appointments and it’s certainly better for someone like me. And I think that applies for most young people. It’s about showing what you can do rather than talking about yourself which people like me find difficult.’
Robert also has that workplace favourite - the meeting or teleconference - in his sights. ‘I prefer Email, I find it quicker. It takes away all the body language and tone of voice stuff which tires me out. It takes the guesswork out of it.'
It’s important that neurotypical people understand the need for adjustments, he says. ‘For example, if I’m trying to work in a busy, noisy environment, I put headphones to block distractions. Some may see that as rude but it helps me concentrate.’
Robert has developed other coping mechanisms - ‘some I didn’t even know I had’. As a former paramedic, he reminds himself, when things get stressful at work, that nobody is going to die. ‘That’s a bit of a mantra. Nothing is as stressful as being in the back of an ambulance doing 70mph trying to resuscitate someone.’
Robert goes on: ‘The world is changing fast, so a neurodiversity network is very timely. It takes all sorts of thinking styles to make the world go round. We talk about thinking outside the box, well, why don’t we ask the people who are already outside the box?’
Robert puts it in the context of BT’s three values: personal, simple and brilliant. ‘I see it not as a list of three values but more as an equation: personal + simple = brilliant. If we can take the time to be more personal, we’ll find simple solutions that will help all people to be brilliant in the workplace.’
For Robert, PurpleSpace has been invaluable. ‘We’re in our infancy and can learn from others who have been on this journey. What works, what doesn’t. That’s how I’m learning about all these adjustments I’ve mentioned. We’ve had very useful contact with neurodiversity networks in other organisations, including one who has shown that people with autism can have higher work outputs than neurotypical people.
‘Within BT, we’ll be working closely with our carers’ network. Many have loved ones with a neurodiverse condition. There’s a lot of scope for mutual support.’
Robert concludes: ‘I can become very narrow-minded and focused. The joke in our house is that nothing is fixed until I’ve taken it apart and put it back together twice. I spent the best part of a day repairing a Kindle that had fallen down the toilet. It can make my wife despair but there’s always something new to do at BT and many areas in the business for someone who likes problem-solving.
‘I’m very grateful for the opportunity in the job and in the network. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything out of the ordinary, I just don’t like to be bored. In 20 years time I want to live in a society with no people networks because we just do it: we’re all just people.’ With Robert’s enthusiasm and work-rate, it might just happen.
Robert Gibbons is an Advanced Apprentice in Planning Dynamic Networks and has a lead role in BT’s neurodiversity network.
- BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies with three retail brands: BT, EE and Plusnet. Based in the UK, where it has 36% of the broadband market, BT serves customers in 180 countries. It has 105,800 employees, 82,200 of which are in the UK.
- BT dates back to invention of the telephone in 1878 and the UK’s first telecoms companies. The business was effectively owned by the nation from 1912 until 1984, first as part of the Post Office and then, from the early 1980s, as British Telecom.
- Robert is one of more than 2,100 new apprentices recruited across the BT group in 2017-18.
- BT’s Able2 network was started in 2004. The network now has around 300 members.
Spotlight on...is our series of deep dive conversations with an exceptional group of disability change agents. These disability network leaders, champions and allies talk to journalist Jim Pollard about their unique contributions and approaches to the narrative of building personal and business disability confidence from the inside out.
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