From her home in Beaverton, Ore., Jamie Davila leads a team of eight engineers in seven states for technology startup Ultranauts. Like millions of other people during these work-from-home times, she relies on popular communication tools like Zoom and Slack.
But Davila and Ultranauts also work remotely in ways that make them different from most companies. They follow a distinctive set of policies and practices to promote diversity and inclusion among employees.
All video meetings have closed captioning, for workers who prefer to absorb information in text. Meeting agendas are distributed in advance so people who are uncomfortable speaking up can contribute in writing beforehand. Employees are asked daily for feedback, like whether they believe their strengths are valued and if they feel lonely at work.
"The whole idea is to create a safe space that allows everyone to be heard," Davila, 36, said.
Ultranauts has been working for years on the challenges confronting so many companies during the pandemic, and probably beyond: how to effectively work remotely, make progress toward diversity and inclusion goals, and build a strong organizational culture.
The company, founded in 2013 by two former roommates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has had a remote workforce from day one. It was also founded to use the untapped talent of autistic people, who often think and process information differently from the rest of the population. Seventy-five percent of Ultranauts employees are on the autism spectrum.
So the small startup may offer lessons for corporate America in how to hire, manage and motivate far-flung employees, whose work and careers can suffer without the face time and hallway conversations of office life.
"Ultranauts' purposeful construction of a workplace that really supports people is extraordinary," said Susanne Bruyere, academic director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. "Its techniques and tools could absolutely be applied more broadly."
The business now has 90 employees, up from 60 a year ago. Its goal is to expand to 200 in two years.
The company insists its workforce is a competitive advantage. The edge, it says, is not so much that autistic brains are wired for computing tasks but that people on the autism spectrum are a diverse group.
One person may recognize patterns quickly, while another has a more measured cognitive style but arrives at different patterns and ways to fix code. The key lies in harnessing varied talents.
Meetings are recorded, transcribed and archived not only to accommodate workers who prefer reading to listening but also to foster a more open organization. That extends to the weekly meetings of the six-person leadership team at Ultranauts. The notes of those sessions, including the decisions made and reasons behind them, are published on the companywide Slack channel.
Ultranauts' leaders believe their style of wide-open, explicit communication could benefit any company. Ultranauts is giving away a valued homegrown software product, Biodex, as part of a test to see how widely its tools and practices might take root in the mainstream.
Each employee at Ultranauts has a Biodex profile that states the person's work, communication and feedback preferences. What is your typical response time to messages: a few minutes, a few hours, same day? If a colleague has constructive criticism, how do you want to receive the feedback: orally or in writing?
If Biodex trial runs with outsiders go well, Ultranauts plans to make it a free download on the Slack app store by the end of the year. Other Ultranauts apps, like its program for polling worker sentiment and well-being, would follow.
"We've built an engine that unlocks opportunity for people who haven't had a fair shot before," Anandan said. "But if we only do that for ourselves, it won't have much of an impact."