Hao2: the British startup built by an autistic workforce

Hao2, a small social enterprise that designs, programs and sells 3D ‘virtual office’ software, has a staff of 14, 12 of whom are on the autistic spectrum.

For the last three years, the Surrey-based firm has tapped into the unique qualities of its autistic workers in order to design products for remote working, including the “3D office,” where daily meetings are conducted using avatars around a virtual table. The cyber office is also popular with Hao2’s staff, who sometimes find face-to-face dealings uncomfortable, reports The Telegraph.

For Nicola Herbertson, CEO of Hao2, the complex needs of her workforce are what strengthened the development of the products she sells, primarily to public-sector clients looking to help those with disabilities or other barriers to access in finding work.

“The products and services that we sell we use as our business platform,” she told The Telegraph.

“We use a virtualised business model, we enable people to work flexibly in line with business needs and to work from home or wherever they feel able to be productive as possible.”

Hao2’s ethos possesses elements of Californian startup culture, where programmers may stay up half the night working intensely by themselves to given deadlines, rather than working set hours in an office.

“When we are setting objectives, we are focusing on the outcomes we need them to achieve and not necessarily how they achieve them,” she said.

“We’re not going to force them to come into an office. We make the requirement clear if we do need them in the office, but offer support if they need it”.

The UK’s National Austistic Society defines autism as a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.

People with autism may also be oversensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. The condition affects around one in a hundred people in Britain.

Autistic people may have an exceptional attention span and ability to memorise details, as captured in the public imagination by Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the 1988 film Rain Man.

These qualities are often overstated but are possessed to a higher degree by those on the autistic spectrum or with a related condition, Asperger’s syndrome.

“We have some incredibly creative designers who are able to design and create the most amazing 3D models and people who can program to a high level,” Herbertson said.

But her staff have often struggled to find employment. “When you’re excluded from society you can’t show what you can do,” she said. An employee who is sensitive to light will have their environment adapted for them by Hao2, or they may work from home, but many employers would not understand or cater for such a demand.

At Hao2, business is on the up, with a new contract in China the next venture on the horizon, and Herbertson is certain that designing her business around her autistic workers is essential to its success.

“It makes business sense because then they can perform well and you can make the most of their skills, she said. “That’s a no-brainer!”