Remote Working Is Here to Stay—Now Let's Make it Accessible

Following an intensive period of remote working, more and more workplaces are considering a hybrid model. But what does that mean for people with disabilities, and how can companies work towards accessibility for all?

No matter where you normally call work, there’s a good chance you’re currently reading this from home. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 88% of organizations worldwide required or encouraged their employees to work from home. And while a new normal has emerged in the world of work, remote working isn’t going anywhere. 

That’s why accessibility has to be a priority. 

A report by the World Health Organization estimated that 15% of the global population have some form of disability, whether visible or not. Creating solutions for the perceived majority of your workforce isn’t enough—any remote working initiative must consider accessibility. 

Remote working isn’t a new concept, but the scale of its implementation in the wake of COVID-19 is unprecedented. Unsurprisingly, there have been teething issues: 62% of remote workers in the UK want employers to provide better technology to communicate with their colleagues. 

But that figure doesn’t illustrate the many reasons why employees are asking more of their employers. At the core of those reasons is accessibility.

The Importance of Inclusivity and Accessibility

Inclusivity is an active choice you make as a company. That choice—to have processes and policies in place to ensure underrepresented groups thrive—will affect your every business decision. 

Inclusivity covers more than accessibility, but the two concepts are inherently tied. When we develop strategies by only considering the world from a singular perspective, however open-minded we try to be, we’ll inevitably fall short. That’s where an inclusive, accessible approach to work reaps dividends. 

In an extensive report of over 50 organizations, Deloitte found that companies with inclusive cultures were:

  • 2x as likely to meet or exceed financial targets
  • 3x as likely to be high performing
  • 8x as likely to achieve better business outcomes

Making the goal of inclusive, accessible workplaces solely to achieve better business outcomes would miss the point. Rather, these statistics emphasize how well employees respond to companies that respect each and every individual. It doesn’t matter if the majority of people in your business have the space to be themselves—if it’s not universal, then your employees will become disengaged. 

Understanding Accessibility Terminology

At Workday we believe listening intelligently is the first step towards an accessible workplace. But if you don’t have the words to understand the conversation around accessibility, then how can you make employees feel heard? Before we discuss how to ensure your remote working approach is accessible, it’s important to define the parameters.

Defining Accessibility

Put simply, accessibility is making experiences open to all. An accessible workplace will have wheelchair-access embedded into all architectural decisions, in the same way an accessible website will integrate smoothly with screen readers. 

Defining Inclusive Design

If accessibility is the goal, inclusive design is the methodology. Inclusive design means considering the full range of people using your product or service, and tailoring it to each individual. This may involve utilizing different processes on a case-by-case basis.

Remote Working: A New Normal

The past year has seen the necessity of remote working options increase across the board as countries have entered lockdown, but that change has been a long time coming. In our Employee Expectations Report 2020, 99% of employees said they would choose to work remotely some of the time. Flexible working is here to stay.

However, since the decision to send employees home was made during a time of crisis, allowances for disabled individuals weren’t always in place from the outset. Now, as we move forward, we have to consider the differences inherent to working from home, and how we can ensure this change is a positive one. 

The Issues Raised by Remote Working for Accessibility

Accessibility shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. Rather, it’s about your business meeting the needs of your employees. You should view each of the below points as opportunities for growth in your company, rather than a chore.

Remote working represents a chance for greater equality and freedom of opportunity for those with disabilities—if businesses take it. Freed of the limits of a physical work space, employees can approach work in a manner that’s attuned to their personal needs.

1. Limits of Home Working Spaces

At the crux of accessibility is the need to avoid assumptions. Just because someone has the means to complete their work in an office, doesn’t mean they do at home. Consult your disabled employees, put them in positions to action genuine change, and create comprehensive request forms that give everyone the opportunity to access what they need. This isn’t limited to desks or office equipment—consider the needs of neurodivergent employees too. 

2. The Restrictions of Technology

Technology has the potential to create a level playing field for your employees, but only if your company puts time into understanding and researching the necessary solutions. That might cover software to reduce background noise in calls for the hard-of-hearing, or technology to provide keyboard accessibility for virtual whiteboard tasks. The important part is providing space for your employees to express their needs. 

3. The Danger of Assumptions

Without a direct face-to-face connection, people often assume that the person on the other end of an email or a Slack message matches their own life experience. That’s where assumptions become a problem. Rather than requiring you to purchase software or equipment, this step is about raising awareness levels, and encouraging staff to consider how the needs of those they’re working with might differ. That can either be through training days, or regular and reliable feedback opportunities. 

The Benefits of Remote Working to Accessibility

Accessibility doesn’t end at ensuring voices and experiences aren’t sidelined. It’s about promoting equal opportunities by truly taking advantage of the tools available to us. Together, we can create a world of work where inclusivity is the default. 

1. Removal of Physical Barriers

This is the most obvious benefit, but it’s an important one. Whether it’s the ongoing lack of wheelchair accessibility throughout offices, or the difficulty of commuting on tightly-packed transport for people with social anxiety, the ability to work from home on a flexible basis is a game-changer. That’s part of why global engagement scores around remote working increased by 6% last year—even during a pandemic. 

Global engagement scores around remote working increased by 6% in 2020.

2. A Reduction in Prejudice and Bias

Tackling ingrained exclusionary biases requires more than a digital workspace—biases need to be addressed at their root cause—but it’s a start. Workplace communication platforms give everyone a level playing field. There’s never been a greater opportunity to meaningfully give every voice equal footing, and to give everyone the tools to present themselves on their terms. 

3. More Recruitment Opportunities

By making remote working a priority, you open the door to a much wider pool of talent. Whether due to physical access, the need for regular support/breaks, or neurodivergent pressures, remote working is a fantastic solution to office-based issues. This benefit will be felt across the board, since recruitment won’t be dictated by geographical location. Not only that, but you’ll also reduce attrition due to disengagement.

Creating an Accessible Future for Work

The cornerstone of inclusive business strategy is simple: catering to the specific needs of one individual has positive impacts across the board. A key principle of inclusive design is solve for one, extend to many. That’s why accessibility isn’t design for disabled people—it’s just good design. 

The first step forward is simple: listen to your employees. This is a new world of work for all of us, and a one-off employee engagement survey won’t cut it anymore. We need to listen to employee needs on a day-to-day basis, ensuring that each employee’s voice is heard, even when they’re not in the office.

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