In April 2019, our research found that flexible and home working were the most requested workplace adjustments for disabled people. Fast forward two years, and one pandemic later, we find ourselves on the brink of hybrid working, which is expected to offer greater flexibility over how and where we work.
The opportunity to rethink our workplaces is surely a positive – particularly for disabled colleagues who can now choose how they want to work without having to justify their need. But it doesn’t remove all the barriers, and may actually create new ones if decisions are made based on assumptions.
Having the flexibility to work in ways that make it easier to manage a disability or condition is hugely welcome. But this does not mean that all disabled people want to work from home all or even some of the time. Loneliness and isolation are very real issues, as is the loss of those chance conversations that spark ideas. And not everyone – disabled or otherwise – has the luxury of a dedicated workspace at home and the opportunity to separate their work and home life.
So employers need to consider accessibility just as much as they did before. Inclusive design still needs to be built into all workplaces to enable disabled colleagues to work as they wish. Increased home working must not become an excuse to overlook inaccessible workplaces. More positively, there is a real opportunity for businesses downsizing or relocating to get it right from the start.
Of course, accessible premises are only one part of the jigsaw. We also need to continue to build inclusive cultures. To do this, managers need to find out what disabled colleagues need from the organisation to be able to thrive in this new era.
We hear a lot about psychological safety, but as senior leaders, do we really know how it feels to share a disability or a difference? To create cultures where employees feel safe to share, managers and senior leaders must role model. Recent research by Accenture found that 76 per cent of employees are not fully open about their disabilities, as are 80 per cent of executives. Similarly, 67 per cent of executives believe they create environments in which employees with disabilities can thrive, but just 41 per cent of employees agree.
I have often talked about the more human approach to leadership that we have seen during the pandemic as we have let colleagues virtually into our homes. We need that honest approach to continue as we move forward.
We must also guard against a return to presenteeism and the creation of unhelpful new hierarchies simply based on where you do your job. The right to request flexible working should not be viewed as a privilege or an implied lack of ambition, but as a choice.
With workforces working in different ways, senior leaders may need to work even harder to ensure that disability inclusion stays at the top of the agenda. Hybrid working must not be an excuse to do less, as ‘out of sight’ becomes ‘out of mind’. Instead, hybrid working must be accompanied by inclusive hybrid cultures where everyone can bring their whole and most productive selves to work.
Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum