Infinite Colors: Supporting Neuro-Diverse Experiences in the Workplace

Infinite Colors: Supporting Neuro-Diverse Experiences in the Workplace

In summer 2019, the Infinite Colors employee resource group, or CREWS (Cockroach Employees Who Support), was launched at Cockroach Labs. It is an employee-driven initiative, and its mission statement is to raise awareness and share resources about the challenges and opportunities of neurodiversity in the workplace.

By neurodiversity, we refer to the variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense. It encompasses at least, but is not limited to, traits over-represented in ADHD, autism, dyscalculia ("numbers"), dyslexia ("words"), dyspraxia/DCD ("movement/coordination"), mood disorders and Tourette's syndrome. Note that folk often experience neurodiversity without being formally diagnosed, sometimes without even being aware of the existence of possible labels. Neurodiversity is experienced by an individual as a degree of divergence from their local group on traits related to meta-cognition, sociability, learning, emotional regulation, attention, mood and other mental functions.

Towards its awareness goal, the group members facilitate respectful conversation and lift taboos on neuro-atypical traits and behaviors.

Team members share how they feel welcome and accepted, often without masking:

Knowing that there is this type of space is very reassuring.
It feels like a place where I can be open about who I am.
(Senior Product Designer)

This is the first place I have worked at where this is a topic that is OK to talk about. You know how companies typically make space for visible handicaps or differences. But we have invisible differences too! It was important to me to see the company acknowledge this explicitly by promoting the CREWS group.
I felt this was the first time I can be accepted for who I am.
(Senior Staff, Product Management)

It provides me comfort.
Knowing that there are others like me, sharing similar experiences and struggles. It is a community I did not expect. Knowing that other folk are different is cool.
It makes me feel safer.
(Engineering Tech Lead)

The existence of the group's Slack channel, and the existence of the CREWS group signifies the acknowledgement by Cockroach Labs that neurodiverse individuals exist.
It makes me feel more comfortable, when I express to my coworkers that I feel low on energy or forget to do something.
It feels nice not to be held to standards that I cannot meet.
I like the comfort it gives me that I can be myself without fear of reprisal.
(Site Reliability Engineer)

It is nice to have a space to talk about neurodiversity.
I value the ability to have this type of conversation. It makes it easier to connect.
I also liked how the group gave an opportunity for my coworkers to share something about them that we couldn't talk about otherwise.
(Senior Staff, Product Management)

It makes me feel happy, safe and grateful to be at an organization that allows for spaces like this.
I am happy that our org acknowledges and recognizes the beauty in neurodiversity, without any sense of stigma. In my experience, in my particular role, I am expected to always be "on" and presenting, which can be wonderful as I love what I do. However, the flip side of that comes with knowing that I sometimes am required to put up a facade, as the concerns about stigma are still there. I think we’re growing as a society past this fact, but it’s something that is fairly unavoidable.
With this group, I feel comfortable and supported, knowing everyone is kind, honest, sharing and caring. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be part of such an organization.
(Account Executive, Sales)

I got to know people I work with at a more personal level. This means a lot to me.
(Technical Support Engineer)

Image Credit: "Art of Communication" by somethingzenzn(Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 license)

Meanwhile, Infinite Colors also maintains a corporate library of resources that includes guides and tips on how to optimize one's workplace, develop positive work relationships, advocate for one's diversity, avoid burnout, and guide peers and managers towards understanding and accommodation.

Team members share how they see Infinite Colors fostering recognition and accommodation for different ways to be human on the workplace:

It is a space where I can see different types of folks & appreciate those differences.
(Senior Product Designer)

From a business perspective, we are thereby enabling our co-workers to perform better.
I am grateful about how the company makes onboarding materials available on video, which helps me learn better. I was impressed by the willingness to produce training videos without background music, thereby acknowledging how certain folk would feel over-stimulated otherwise.
Making the CREWS’ resources available, and making all the staff aware of these issues, also makes us able to better serve neurodiverse customers!
(Senior Staff, Product Management)

It gives me somewhere I can participate and ask questions, where there would be stigmas having these conversations elsewhere.
(Engineering Tech Lead)

The articles shared by the group have broadened my mindset.
(Senior Product Designer)

I never got to meet my co-workers in person. Also, I am not very good at Slack communication. So it is hard for me to participate in activities that are not directly related to my work. However, I really like receiving all the links pasted in the groups' Slack channel. I read all of them.
(Site Reliability Engineer)

In tech, there is a stigma about engineering, that it's supposed to be hard to relate to engineers. What the CREWS group does for me is that it provides a different and more helpful framework for understanding what it means to work with different personalities.
(Senior Technical Writer)

With the rapid move to a remote-first workplace, it was hard to evaluate whether the communication interface we choose with coworkers makes sense for them.
I liked how the CREWS group shows and explains how different folk communicate and relate to each other. It gives us guidance on how to have these conversations.
For example, it really made me understand the value of asynchronous and/or silent meetings. It helped me appreciate that we need alternative meeting formats for folk who don't function well in large groups, or feel overwhelmed by mostly verbal discussions.
To me, the CREWS group is all about making it easier to work with each other.
(Senior Staff, Product Management)

In our industry, it is the difference between folk that relates the most to who we are, the one that most defines our interface with each other and with the world. I can't remember ever having a conflict with someone due to their country of origin, race, gender, sexual preferences or skin color. But I did experience struggle due to differences in interpersonal dynamics.
Understanding differences in thought patterns and communication styles is key to social success and engagement, and is under-appreciated. I think it is huge, and it often feels too ancillary relative to other things. I feel like building a taxonomy of these differences will be super beneficial to our community.
(Software Engineer)

I believe the entire group deeply cares about neurodiversity and mental health. This is important in my life. I feel safe, respected and supported, and I find this to be a unique work experience.
I am glad to see, hear and read about other folk's experiences, as well as discuss various topics.
One thing that made my day was the request last year to provide a quiet space during the yearly company event. I found it amazing to realize and learn how important this is, and that the company cared enough to accommodate the request. Nowadays, when I have guests, I am mindful to make spaces that work for them, and I am aware that there should be a space for everyone to feel comfortable.
(Account Executive, Sales)

Image Credit: Ice Forest Waterfall by boldfrontiers

In fact, Infinite Colors also receives executive sponsorship from Peter Mattis, CTO of Cockroach Labs, and some of its members have senior roles in the organization. Through their support, Infinite Colors has been able to influence both the daily experience of the staff and the organization's processes.

For example, resources are being developed for managers on how to best coach, support and supervise reports in the context of neurodiversity. Infinite Colors' mission and resources are now also introduced to every new hire. The corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion projects actively seek input and insights from its members.

Teammates reflect on how they see Infinite Colors developing this organizational impact:

Knowing that the company is promoting a blog post on this topic, and knowing that many co-workers are eager to share their experience, is a direct confirmation that this is not just one person's pet project.
(Site Reliability Engineer)

[When I started], I wasn't sure whether a company this size already had employee support groups. I think it's a good investment from leadership to support this type of diversity.
(Software Engineering Intern)

Image Credit: Autumn Welcome to Sherando Lake by boldfrontiers

Infinite Colors already accompanies team members throughout their tenure inside Cockroach Labs.

Eventually, we expect its mission and materials to become public, as we know that it has a general positive impact on our ability to recruit talented and diverse staff:

When I applied at Cockroach Labs, I chose this position over other offers with better titles or better compensation, because I was impressed by the company's commitment to fairness and balance. I feel that sharing about Infinite Colors in public will help others like me appreciate CRL better and generally help with hiring. The existence of the CREWS group really helps to shine a light on and bring awareness to neurodiversity.
(Senior Staff, Product Management)

Personally, fostering bonds within our teams bumps my energy to another level. I find that having the CREWS group makes for a very exciting workspace, it makes us more open and curious, and thus able to know each other better. I am excited to be a part of that.
(Senior Product Designer)

It was an exciting experience to discover the group's Slack channel on my first day at work. The group caught my eyes on the corporate wiki, which I was browsing ahead of my first day.
Overall, I found the existence of the group gratifying!
It was a welcome addition to my first days at the company.
(Software Engineering Intern)

I was in the process of applying to Cockroach Labs; I remember a line in the company's materials that mentioned embracing neurodiversity. This struck me as very progressive, and it made a good impression very early in the application process.
(Senior Technical Writer)

Image Credit: Sam's Organic Universe by boldfrontiers

On a day to day basis, Infinite Colors does not project itself socially like your usual workplace community: its members do not seek or organize regular meetups nor do they display their affiliation conspicuously.

Yet, our feeling of purposefulness is real and we are excited to share when prompted:

Sometimes I get anxious to share more personal things. But at the same time I think it's good to have this opportunity to talk.
(Senior Product Designer)

This group has a meaning for me that I cannot easily explain to others.
I am a member of this group but I don't actively participate.
I am still deciding how and what I would like to share.
I think it is an inspiration to others that this group exists.
It makes me proud.
(Senior Staff, People Operations)

I find that caring about these issues makes it possible for everyone to equally participate. In fact, I find that acknowledging and promoting this group elevates us as a team.
Personally, fostering bonds within our teams bumps my energy to another level. I find that having the CREWS group makes for a very exciting workspace, it makes us more open and curious, and thus able to know each other better. I am excited to be a part of that.
(Senior Product Designer)

Just the existence of the CREWS group is good!
At the same time, I like that we are taking stock of what folk experience from it.
(Engineering Tech Lead)

It's interesting to consider that when folk mention the other CREWS groups in informal conversations, Infinite Colors is not as often mentioned. Perhaps some more education is needed internally for understanding what neurodiversity is about.
(Senior Technical Writer)

Unfortunately due to societal norms we can be made to feel that we have to fit in a certain mold, when in reality we should be celebrating our diversity. We are all unique, smart, capable, and wonderful people - and great at our jobs, nonetheless! This makes us who we are at our workplace - better salespeople, better engineers, better marketers, better educators; our neurodiversity also makes us who we are outside of work - wonderful friends, siblings, children, parents, volunteers, citizens. We often need that reminder, which is why Infinite Colors is so great.
(Account Executive, Sales)

As a person who identifies as a cis-straight-male, I feel my privilege so I find it is my responsibility to learn about differences around me and help spread their message. Also personally I feel I have a right to help when my co-workers can use my help, at a humane level. I feel that is my responsibility too.
So I was truly thrilled when I heard I had the opportunity to join the group. I found it fruitful. This may sound a bit selfish, but it gave me new ways to assume my responsibilities in a positive way. It makes me feel I can make a difference.
(Technical Support Engineer)

I like that we think about neurodiversity and inclusion.
Culturally, we already seem comfortable approaching diversity from the perspective of external attributes like gender, race, skin color. However, I think we can only reach a true depth in inclusivity when we also consider the differences in how people think. It helps us better understand the world, and helps us build a better society.
(Software Engineer)

Image Credit: Golden Essence of Llanberis by boldfrontiers

For most folk, the year 2020 has been straining. Neuro-diverse individuals have been particularly challenged, having to balance their differences with all the changes happening around them. We are still learning the new normal.

Yet, in a way, these struggles also opened the door to new ways to connect: neuro-diverse folk were suddenly more able to support their teammates by teaching them about workable strategies to maintain balance, coping with change and mental health. They were also able to accompany and support journeys of self-discovery. This gave us new opportunities to learn more about each other and strengthen our bonds. Infinite Colors gave words to these conversations and gave them a context.

Through this shared collective experience, we created a new way to foster belonging. We were able to make Cockroach Labs a more welcoming and inclusive workplace today than it was a year or two ago. We are proud of this achievement.

We wish to further this mission though, and for this we also need to regularly meet new perspectives and new experiences of neurodiversity. We hope that you will share yours, and consider joining us.

Colophon:

We are also grateful to the numerous contributors who contributed to this blog post, including but not limited to: Angela Wen, Joe Lowinske, jordan ryan reuter, Piyush Singh, Raphael Poss.

Header Image Credit: Color Me Rainbow by SubhadipKoley

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