There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for change. Certainly, there have been terrible consequences, but in the midst of this, there have been some positive outcomes. Not the least of these is the widespread adoption of remote work because of social distancing guidelines, which has proven to open new avenues to increase productivity; reduce overheads; and, in many cases, improve employees’ job satisfaction.
Perhaps most importantly, it has proven that remote operations are both practical and accessible in many roles. This means that businesses have access to a more diverse potential talent pool and candidates with disabilities can contribute without restrictions, opening up full-time opportunities to the 82% of disabled Americans who are part time or underemployed, not to mention that those from traditionally marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds now aren’t restricted from careers due to the cost of commuting or having to uproot their lives.
That’s not to say that remote work guarantees inclusivity and accessibility. There are still challenges your business needs to focus on to ensure workers are supported. Let’s look at some of the more prevalent issues surrounding the subject.
Provide Support and Resources
One of the most difficult aspects of working from home is being separated from support systems in-office employees may benefit from. As such, you need to be proactive in ensuring your workers have access to adequate resources. This should include considerations for any difficulties and disabilities they have, along with the general hurdles all remote workers face. Where possible and practical, go beyond the basics.
As a business leader, you are likely to have some idea about what equipment, processes, and skills each role requires. However, your workers will have personal insights into how working from home presents additional challenges and what they need to thrive. You should, therefore, not simply dictate resource allocations to them but rather reach out and engage in a dialogue that is predicated on gaining an understanding of the situation and working together to find solutions.
Where employees are experiencing physical, mental, or emotional disabilities, talk to them about their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Let them know their expectations of reasonable accommodations that allow them to perform their role extend to their work-from-home environment. Refer them to the workplace policies in your employee handbook that outline their rights and the procedures for requesting accommodations. Direct them to the safety and health standards section, and encourage them to alert you to any aspects of their new operations at home that need to be reconsidered for safety reasons. Keeping the dialogue open and constructive ensures your workers feel included and empowered to succeed.
Too often, employees who request accommodations—including the ability to work from home in the long term—are viewed as disrupting the business or their team. This not only makes those workers potential victims of discrimination but also acts as a barrier to forging strong bonds across the organization that boost productivity and innovation. Therefore, to create a truly positive and inclusive work culture, there needs to be a spirit of empathy throughout the company.
This begins by educating the entire workforce. Provide them with diversity training that accounts for the needs of all workers and how to act accordingly, and make it clear how behavior that perpetuates negative stereotypes about colleagues with disabilities who work from home constitutes microaggressions that cause damage to the victim and disruption to the workplace. Additionally, talk them through how such seemingly subtle actions result in their colleagues feeling invalidated both as professionals and as human beings, and help employees recognize their own biases and how to utilize empathetic soft skills to address these.
It’s also common for employers to dismiss requests for accommodations because they seem too expensive or may cause disruption to operations. While there may be an immediate financial imperative to limit actions, first take the time to consider it from your employees’ perspectives. Even if their requests are truly beyond practicality or the budget, take an empathetic, solutions-driven approach. Communicate that you recognize their needs, and take the time to talk about your perspective and how you can move forward together, especially if the requests are denied because they are unreasonable, which is possible.
Flexibility is among the most valuable tools at your disposal to boost inclusivity and accessibility. It sends a distinct message to employees, the industry, and the general public that you are not just acting on your legal responsibilities but that you value the contributions of your staff and are keen to work alongside them.
This means you need to work with all departments in the company to understand where activities can be made more agile and what the limitations are. This gives everyone a clear idea of what is achievable and where improvements need to be made. It will also be helpful in a post-pandemic world, allowing you to introduce a permanently remote or hybrid working model to all employees, not just those who have disability challenges, ensuring a culture of equality is present throughout the business.
Indeed, this flexibility needs to extend to how you operate your talent development program. True accessibility and inclusivity must provide routes for progression to all employees, regardless of their background, personal challenges, or where they operate from. Look into how your program currently functions with in-person workers, and adapt it to suit the procedures of those working from home. If learning programs or certification needs to be undertaken, look into providing eLearning courses. When mentorship opportunities arise, create a system through which remote project management and video communications software can be used.
Your remote employees are just as vital to your organization as those in your office, and they deserve to have access to the same opportunities as their peers. Be mindful of the level of support you can provide, and foster empathy throughout the organization. Alongside a commitment to flexibility, both you and your employees have the chance to make your organization a more accessible, diverse, and innovative place.