The new era of remote working has opened up more opportunities for disabled workers, many of whom had previously been excluded from the workforce by being denied the flexibility they need
The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated, where possible, that people work remotely. Until now, working from home has been something of a taboo. Despite findings that flexible home working has significant benefits, shown as long ago as 2010 in a Durham University study, companies have been reluctant to adopt it, mistakenly believing workers will be less productive.
One group, in particular, has been campaigning tirelessly for flexible work: disabled and chronically ill people, who are often pushed out of traditional work due to their needs. COVID-19, however, has forced many employers to trial remote working and they have realised that it actually works.
If continued after the pandemic, widespread adoption and normalisation of flexible working, whether in terms of hours or location, would ease the burden on disabled employees and employers would benefit, too.
The real impact of flexibility
Lucille, 38, has a disability and says inflexible working means disabled people are left out of the workforce. “We find many career paths closed, but the lockdown has proved that home working can be a success in a huge number of cases,” she says. “This has huge implications not only for the chronically ill, but also for working families who struggle with childcare.”
Carrie-Ann, 33, who has cerebral palsy, works full time as a marketing manager for a national disability organisation and has a flexible schedule, even during “normal” times. “Last year, I requested a small change to my pattern of working hours, which was granted, and it really did change my life. I was sleeping better and feeling more productive and creative during the day,” she says.
An issue that often arises when flexible working is raised as an option for disabled people is perceived “unfairness”. But in recent months, remote working has been the norm, which means disabled people don’t have to feel like they’re being given special treatment.
Annie, 33, has fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis and has been made redundant several times because of her medical problems, with employers often denying her requests.
“Flexible working for everyone now is great in that it normalises it for disabled people,” she says. But she adds that the work-from-home experiment has been frustrating, as disabled people have been asking for flexible working for years.
“Having remote working forced on businesses has helped them see productivity improves, mental health improves and people enjoy the work-life balance,” she says.
Better for mental health and productivity
Experts agree. Emma Davies of the coaching company Essential Self believes the evidence points to what disabled people have been advocating all along that autonomy, communication and inclusion nurtures a happy work environment, which in turn promotes the growth of a company.
“Flexible working helps create positive wellbeing. Positive wellbeing reduces absence, presenteeism and stress, and improves outcomes such as focus, creativity and productivity,” she says.
Davies highlights that in 2017 Anglian Water said that for every £1 invested in employee wellbeing, it received £8 back. “So it’s good for profit and the economy,” she says.
Versatile working also benefits employers, improving work culture, increasing staff retention and boosting employee happiness, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2019 Flexible Working Survey.
Kira Nurieli, chief executive of conflict management company Harmony Strategies Group, concurs. “People like to feel a sense of personal agency, that they have power to decide what’s best for them. Allowing flexible working promotes the sense of individual agency so employees can know their hours were not forced from administration,” she says.
In addition, from a bottom-line perspective, allowing flexibility means individuals can choose to work based on where, when and how they’re most productive and engaged.
When employees understand the needs of their disabled colleagues, they can be proactive advocates and allies
Crosby Cromwell, founder and chief growth officer of Flexability, agrees. “If there is any silver lining to what we are experiencing this year, it’s a seismic shift in how work gets done. Employees with disabilities have championed the benefits of productive remote work for decades and are a resource on how to innovate from home,” she says.
“We believe to successfully make the shift to sustained remote work, companies need technology, talent and cohesive culture.”
Employers can help disabled workers
Achieving this shift isn’t difficult, either; it’s a matter of communication. Employers, bosses and business leaders need to first communicate with their disabled and chronically ill workers about their needs.
“When employees understand the needs of their disabled colleagues, they can be proactive advocates and allies for those needs in order for everyone to do their best work,” says Nurieli.
Most importantly, employers need to trust that individuals know their own needs better than anyone else and can set their schedule, within reason, and know what they need to function.
Carrie-Ann agrees: “I think all the ways it has benefitted me also benefit my employer; if I’m sleeping better, I’m more clear headed and productive. I plan my new hours around when I’m most creative so they can get the best out of me.”
By opening up flexibility to all employees, you both normalise the practice for disabled employees and send the message that you trust the people working for you. “Setting flexible working as the standard sends the message to employees that the entire culture honours individual strengths and agency,” Nurieli concludes.