We’re all working flexibly now. That is the dominant narrative of the post-pandemic workplace, but while flexible working is a preference, it may already be a necessity for disabled workers. For example, the commute may prove tiring for people with energy-limiting conditions or overwhelming for others. So, the shift to flexible work could create opportunities for disabled workers and give employers access to a broader talent pool.
However, that depends on reasonable adjustments moving from workplace to home.
It requires a tailored, individual approach that doesn’t assume flexible working is synonymous with reasonable adjustments. We’ll explore what a shift to flexible working means for disabled workers. Plus, how can employers embrace flexibility without losing sight of how to create a truly diverse experience for disabled employees wherever they might be?
Disabled workers’ right to reasonable adjustments is enshrined in law under the Equality Act 2010, which lists 9 protected characteristics. Pre-pandemic requests weren’t always granted. For example, the UK Disability Survey found fewer than half (48%) of disabled workers ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ their employer makes sufficient reasonable adjustments.
Fewer than half of workers believe their employer makes sufficient reasonable adjustments
Robin Christopherson, head of inclusion for AbilityNet, agrees employers have been resistant to flexible working. “Employees with disabilities or impairments have been calling for flexible working for many years now and not always finding their employers amenable to that.”
TUC spokesperson Alice Arkwright agrees. “We had anecdotal evidence that many disabled workers would have liked to have worked from home, but those requests were being denied,” she said.
Yet, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst with all employees demanding flexibility. Of those who quit in 2021, 21% said they did so because of a lack of flexible working.
In addition, almost three-quarters of workers (70%) want flexible work options to continue. Among UK workers, there is a strong preference for hybrid working (59%) compared to 18% who wanted to work full-time in an office and 23% who want to work fully remote.
Disabled workers are more likely to want to work at home, a TUC report found. “Just over 90% of those who could work from home during the pandemic wanted to continue some form of home-based working in the future,” said Arkwright.”
Fortunately, the pandemic means flexible working is more acceptable. “The pandemic has shifted flexible working to an accepted way of working for everyone, including disabled workers,” said Christopherson.
Morgan Lobb, CEO of VERCIDA Group, which focuses on workplace agrees. “There’s been an increase in the number of positions advertised as flexible and hybrid,” he said. “I was looking at some statistics online from Scope, and the number of people with a disability in work is up by 1.3 million over the last five years,” he added.
There are definite benefits of home working for disabled workers. The TUC report, for example, found:
However, home working presents challenges, too, says Christopherson. “Because of the swiftness of the first lockdown, many people’s adjustments were left in the office. The TUC agrees, “The last 18 months have been dominated by discussions about flexible working [but] the experiences of disabled workers have largely been absent from these debates.”
“The last 18 months have been dominated by discussions about flexible working [but] the experiences of disabled workers have largely been absent from these debates.”
The TUC found that many lacked the equipment to do their job such as a desk, chair or computer (34%). Others experienced difficulties participating in online meetings (9%) and lacked the specialist software they needed to do their jobs (7%).
A lack of proper equipment negatively impacted disabled workers’ mental health. Workers whose mental health had worsened because of working from home were twice as likely to say they lacked adequate office equipment and three times as likely to report lacking the software or computer programmes needed to do their jobs.
“People with disabilities will generally want to have access to certain tools. The tools give them back certain elements they need to get back onto an even keel. For example, a disabled person might use Jaws or Dragon to communicate effectively,” said Lobb.
An individual approach to flexible working is vital, and we can’t afford for flexible working to become a “catch-all” for disabled workers. “I think there shouldn’t be an assumption that because we’ve seen this shift in hybrid working, we’ve solved all the problems,” said Arkwright.
“Working from home is very popular amongst disabled workers, but we’re seeing some employers don’t necessarily implement it in the best way for disabled people. Employers still have a requirement to provide reasonable adjustments when someone is working from home,” she added.
We can’t afford for flexible working to become a “catch-all” approach for disabled workers
Flexibility goes beyond home-working, and employers must consider all types of flexible working. “For some disabled workers, it might be adjustments in working hours that they need, especially for those who can’t work from home. So, we must ensure that those things are still happening as well,” said Arkwright.
Arkwright added: “Flexible working covers a huge range of different options. And adjustments for disabled workers include a huge range of different options. So, it could be hours-based flexibility, changes to break patterns, different start, finish times, part-time working job shares and things like set shift patterns for others.”
There are clear benefits of flexible working for disabled and non-disabled employees For employers is an opportunity to widen the talent pool and to recruit the best candidate regardless of location.
“It’s difficult to accommodate everybody’s needs, and that’s where the technology piece comes into play,” said Morgan Lobb. “If we use it to our advantage, then we can have a wider audience available to us where we were restricted by geography.
However, to create a truly inclusive environment, goes deeper and requires an inclusive culture. “We can employ people from all over the country. Where I want to get to as an organisation is also creating a sense of belonging,” said Lobb.
“We want to design a place where people feel that they want to be and belong in a group because human interaction is very important,” Morgan Lobb, CEO of VERCIDA
It also means ensuring that the workplace is accessible for people that want to go to an office. “There could be things at home preventing us from doing our jobs such as an abusive partner, or a sick pet or personal arguments. “We want people to have an accessible environment that they can use. We want to design a place where people feel that they want to be and belong in a group because human interaction is very important,” Lobb added.
“There’s been studies about how people, when they meet each other, and they shake hands, unknowingly people within one minute of shaking hands with an individual smell their hand. We give off pheromones that we use to communicate with each other.”
The pandemic has shifted the debate on how, when, where, and how long we work. It’s a welcome change for all workers, and disabled workers arguably make it easier to ask for adjustments that were already a legal right. However, there is still work to be done.
For example, employers need to offer flexibility within their job advertisements, says Arkwright. “We think employers should put possible flexible working options in job adverts. That would normalise flexible working. So, people would know before they apply for a job.”
She added, “Making flexible working the default is important because it reduces the stigma, normalises it and just makes it easier for everyone to be able to work flexibly. We know that many people don’t feel comfortable asking for reasonable adjustments because of fear of negative consequences or being turned down.”
However, it’s also important for employers to recognise that someone can need a reasonable adjustment at any time. “It can happen at any point during an adult’s working life,” said Lobb. “Most disabilities, for example, are acquired during working life, very disproportionate to the number of people born with a disability.”
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