Ubisoft is committed to building a more inclusive workplace, exemplified by the creation of several Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) over the past two years. These groups, led by employees on a volunteer basis, offer programs and support designed to enrich the lives of Ubisoft employees. An example of one such group is the Neurodiversity ERG. In just over a year since the group’s launch, Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity ERG has grown to more than 280 employees across 20 countries. Three of its global co-leads – Development Director Pierre Escaich, Associate Game Designer Aris Bricker, and Game Operations Director Diep Tran Ngoc – sat down with us to tell us how the ERG got started, the types of programs offered to its members, and the benefits of supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace.
What is the Neurodiversity ERG, and how did it get started? How did each of you get involved?
Pierre Escaich: I’m the founder of the ERG; I have a personal connection with the topic of neurodiversity. I’m the father of three children, two of whom have been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. By discovering what was happening for them, I started to understand that I was also on the neurodivergent spectrum; I have ADHD. So for me, this group is both personal and professional: it’s my life and the future of my kids.
In my 24 years at Ubisoft, I’ve been part of many teams, and found people can have negative preconceptions about neurodivergent employees – but they often bring above average in terms of creativity, hyperfocus, and innovation. Those skills fit very well with what we need to develop videogames, so to me the connection was obvious, and I wanted to do something with that. Additionally, when someone discovers they are neurodivergent, everyone has a different journey – the very basic principle of neurodiversity is that each person’s brain is as unique as their fingerprint – but you feel alone because neurodivergences are invisible, and you learn to hide and mask to be included in society and at work. So I thought it was important to open a safe space where people could come and share, and chat safely. This was around the same time the D&I department was created, and I started the group on February 14, 2021.
Aris Bricker: I’ve been with the ERG for about a year, because I joined right when it was announced, and now I’m one of the global co-leads. Before getting involved with the ERG, I was already part of neurodiverse movements, starting with content creation, getting involved with TikTok and Twitter. When Pierre’s internal article about the ERG came out, I was coming off a time of recent diagnosis, and was exploring what that meant for me with other content creators, and with some content of my own. I had always been part of D&I initiatives at every workplace I’ve been a part of, so I jumped in on this one right away.
A lot of my initial focus was ensuring a return to the office would have accommodations and be neurodivergent friendly – this was in July 2020, before it was clear we’d be home for quite a while longer. Now, I’ve helped organize Neurodiversity Awareness week at Ubisoft; I’ve hosted a panel on ADHD with a number of content creators, and that went very well.
Diep Tran Ngoc: I joined the ERG much later in the year; I had an acquaintance outside Ubisoft who knew Pierre and what he was doing with this group. Now, I’m the worldwide co-lead of the ERG, specifically for the gifted peer group. I was diagnosed in 2015, so it’s been a few years now, and I led a lot of groups and discussions for MENSA (the global high-IQ society) in France, covering topics like sustainability, dating, life-sized games, and sex education (including inclusivity topics). After a few years of that, I moved to Vietnam and came to Ubisoft, then I joined the ERG. Slowly, I put together some opportunities for speaking groups and discussions in the ERG, because I always feel like we can support each other, and share our experiences and difficulties at work in our daily lives. Now, I see we have other members jumping in to help organize, which is great; I see it’s moving forward.
What are the goals of the ERG?
PE: We want to grow awareness about the strengths neurodivergent employees can bring to a company. Neurodivergent employees bring different ways of seeing and experimenting in the workplace, like they are cameras in the video games we develop. There are some games where the camera is fixed, and you cannot move it, and as a result can only see a scene one way. Embracing neurodiversity means giving camera control to the player; this means you can see the same scene from multiple angles. And that’s what we want to advocate for: the freedom to experiment, to move the camera all around the scene, because you’ll be surprised how the very same work challenge might be perceived by people who are thinking differently than a neurotypical way.
AB: One of our goals is to be a resource for all Ubisoft studios and offices; right now we’re specifically working with the Paris studio, where they’re asking us how to make a more neurodivergent-friendly environment. While we’re building out our collection of resources, one goal is to make a one-sheet guide to help make the workplace better for neurodivergent employees – something very easily accessible to people who are totally new to the discussion of neurodivergence. We’re doing the work to bring information to people at a level they are able to easily understand, and it’s a long road, but it’s step one in D&I movements. ERGs are not just about bringing in people of different genders and ethnicities; this is another way we can be inclusive, and here are some very practical ways to do that. We want to make sure we’re educating – we’re not here to be combative, we’re here to collaborate.
DTN: We want to be proponents of empathy, collaboration, and open-minded mindsets to leverage the differences of each individual, to make people feel safe, and to give opportunities to share their own issues, experiences, and stories to build trust. We also want to spread healthy ways of communicating, which is key when applied well, making sure we are listening and rephrasing if needed. We also have an internal website full of resources to help Ubisoft employees learn.
What programs do you offer members? How do you make sure your programs are inclusive and beneficial for everyone’s unique brain?
PE: We’re still young, only one year old, so we are on our way to bringing more structure and organization. For the moment, we have one central hub for communications, and we have multiple sub-channels where we get organized and make things happen. As Diep mentioned, we created three peer support groups for the ADHD, gifted, and autism communities at Ubisoft. It’s amazing! People join, and then they share, ask questions, look for support from their colleagues – and it comes instantly, whether you’re in the States, Europe, or Asia, you have people coming together to support one another.
For the coming year, we’re targeting an awareness celebration week in October, where we’ll invite external speakers to present on neurodiversity topics, like we did last year with Judy Singer, the Australian sociologist who originally coined the term neurodiversity. We also decided to organize a community month in April for our 260 members, where we’ll get together in live meetings and chat in our online channels. The main topic for that month will be neurodiversity inclusion at work at Ubisoft. We also have another project Aris is starting to work on.
AB: We have local chapters that meet regularly, too. They work on initiatives that are local and specific to their studios or business offices, and can then connect with other locations to see what they did and learn from them. Currently, I’m heading the initiative within our ERG to explore the connection between neurodiversity and games. This includes both designing games that are more accessible for neurodivergent players, as well as making characters and experiences that they can relate to. It’s a combination of accessibility and diversity efforts in making it more playable and ensuring representation is there as well. We want to push boundaries – it’s not just putting an ADHD or OCD character in a game, but working on what it’s like to experience neurodivergence.
DTN: This type of programming can also be a good thing for recruitment and retention – external people who want to join Ubisoft know they will be heard. What we do helps improve the daily lives of our members, because they can share any challenges they’re facing with our peer support group and we can share ways to address them. It makes people feel supported in their issues, and it’s helped us and our members because they made connections, either one-on-one or with the group as a whole.
What mischaracterizations or stigmas do you find people have when you bring up the topic of neurodiversity? How do you help people overcome that, both at an organizational and personal level?
PE: A typical misconception is that someone who is neurodivergent, with dyslexia, for example, isn’t making enough effort to write emails and presentations without misspellings. However, the reality is the opposite – someone who is dyslexic will put in extra effort to read and write, so saying otherwise is not good feedback. Instead, managers should say “I can see it’s not easy for you. Can we talk about it?” There’s always a reason, and it’s important to note identifying as neurodivergent isn’t an excuse; it’s an explanation. It’s important to pay attention to the individual, clearly identify the skills and talents they have, then ask what work environment they need. Then we can start accommodating, and if you offer the right work environment to each individual, you’ll get amazing results.
DTN: For gifted people, we’re often perceived as impatient, or going too fast and not adapting to the people around us. For example, when we foresee issues arising, people label us as being negative, which isn’t the case. It’s mainly because we foresee the possible issues as well as the good outcomes, but then when you raise a concern about something that hasn’t happened yet, the team might get angry and feel like you’re blocking the project or innovation. But really, it’s a way to say, “I see those problems, now let’s talk about how we can prevent them.” And sometimes there are communication issues; sometimes our brain works much faster than our speech, and people don’t understand what we’re saying, so we need to sometimes focus and rephrase to make sure people understand. One other stigma is that being gifted means you believe you’re much smarter than anyone else, which is absolutely not the case! Awareness about what it truly means is what helps people overcome all of that.
AB: I think one important thing to call out is that these are the sorts of things that show up on performance reviews. I’ve had different external symptoms as a result of my neurodivergence, and they show up on a performance review as “sometimes you do this in meetings” or “you’re too quiet, you don’t answer our questions,” and things like that. At Ubisoft, it’s being brought up as a way to grow (not necessarily a negative), but that’s not always been the case. I’ve been very lucky in that they’re bringing it to me as an area for growth, and then I can come back and say I can work on this, and try to get better. But there are medical, chemical, neurochemical reasons why there will be a certain point where I will not be able to overcome these challenges on my own, and I would rather we adapt these meetings and situations so I can work my best.
Change does start with people speaking up. The more vocal people get, the easier it becomes. And people now know I will be outspoken about these kinds of things, so I can bring it up and speak directly with people and say this could be a result of neurodivergences. These are invisible things you can’t physically see, so there is an element of trust that has to go into that; you have to build rapport.
How has Ubisoft supported your ERG?
PE: Without the D&I department being created, this group wouldn’t exist, simple as that. When we launched, it was great to see so much support from all over the place; I don’t remember anyone closing the door or refusing to answer a question or email. There’s a general attitude within Ubisoft to welcome everyone without question, and that results in really strong support. Now that the D&I department is getting structured, we’re looking forward to seeing that support continue to grow and excited to continue growing the ERG for the long term. The topic of neurodiversity is fairly new – the term first came to be at the end of the 90s – but it’s not a trend for us, it’s life. The challenge is to create structure for our community on a long-term basis. If we do it well, we’re contributing to making Ubisoft an even more inclusive place to work.
AB: The reception I’ve gotten from Ubisoft has been very positive. One of the initiatives we had last year was working with HR to build a survey to send to employees about plans to return to the office, what sort of things Ubisoft can get so the office experience is as good as it can be – either physical items or policies. That was a good, collaborative effort. The D&I office in particular has worked really well with us; if we bring up any sort of issue we’re trying to work on, they are very responsive and there to work with us. Even on a personal level, anytime I asked to have any sort of conversation, it’s met with lots of respect and enthusiasm.
What advice would you give someone at another company looking to start a neurodiversity ERG?
PE: Don’t be afraid. Do some work in terms of networking – you need support. Don’t start alone. Something that I think is very important as well is to spend some time thinking about the link between the group you are about to create and the business you’re working for. You’re going to use that information in presentations and arguments; it’s imperative to show how the ERG is supporting its community and what that brings to the company.
AB: The benefit of neurodiverse employees is that they do things differently, and that brings a lot of diverse perspectives and work styles. So if someone is trying to start a Neurodiversity ERG, you have to allow them to operate differently on a business level; they might not meet or communicate in ways that are considered “standard,” but allowing for unconventionality lets them express themselves to the fullest and work to the fullest and be their happiest.
DTN: What I see as really effective is when you share your own vulnerabilities, your own issues, your own story, and your own experiences – that’s when you see the most responses and engagement, even in peer support groups. By now, for the gifted peer group meetings, I don’t need to share; I just give a theme, and the community speaks and shares – even an hour isn’t enough sometimes. Empathy and collaboration are key to show you’re a human being, with your own flaws and qualities.