What can lockdown teach us about inclusive working?

Getty Image - Woman in wheelchair working at desk
Getty Image - Woman in wheelchair working at desk
Diane Lightfoot
by Diane Lightfoot
17 August 2020

The impact COVID-19 has had on our working lives is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum and a member of the 100% Human at Work network. Below Diane shares how organisations across the world that have responded to COVID-19 with speed, creating new ways of working and doing business differently in order to survive. 

As business plans have been tested, torn-up, and rewritten over the last few months, we’ve investigated how employers have set about supporting colleagues through such unusual and uncertain times? And as social distancing measures begin to ease, what learnings around inclusive working can we take into the new post-lockdown era? 

Business Disability Forum’s 300+ members employ an estimated 20% of the UK workforce and eight million people worldwide. We recently asked them to share advice about how businesses can work through the pandemic in the most inclusive ways possible.

Mental health awareness 

When it comes to mental health awareness our feedback showed that looking after the mental wellbeing of colleagues was the primary concern for most organisations. 73% of respondents stated that they had introduced measures to help employees manage their anxieties about COVID-19. Key areas of focus should include: providing mental health advice and support, managing staff stress, anxiety, and motivation, and supporting staff with existing disabilities and long-term conditions.

Business Disability Forum -  Workplace Adjustments image
Business Disability Forum - Workplace Adjustments image

Workplace adjustments for all

Workplace adjustments, such as assistive technology, specialist office equipment, and flexible working are vital in making the workplace more accessible.

We recently published ‘The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey’, which shows that adjustments help people stay in their jobs longer and can make them more productive. 

Lockdown meant that many employees suddenly found themselves working from home without their usual office adjustments in place. This presented particular challenges for disabled employees, such as provision and portability, set up of equipment, and the effectiveness and availability of adjustments.

The best businesses quickly developed practical responses to try and overcome these barriers, with over 60 per cent reviewing routine working hours to enable effective home working, as well as supporting colleagues with assistive technology. 90% felt positive that that this could lead to a lasting change in attitudes to flexible and home working.

Leading from the top

In 85% of the organisations questioned, decision making around the business response to COVID-19 was led by Chief Operating Officers (COOs) or Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). This included arranging internal communications, home working and putting in place adjustments.

Whilst the responsibility for supporting disabled colleagues to move to working from home was still primarily led by HR staff, it is encouraging to see senior leaders getting closer to the ground when it comes to understanding the issues which directly affect disabled staff. We hope that a greater personal knowledge and awareness of adjustments at the top will be a driver in bringing about lasting change.

Business Disability Forum - Workplace Adjustment Survey
Business Disability Forum - Workplace Adjustment Survey

100% human

When lockdown first began the message repeatedly shared was that “we are all in this together”, though as time went on it has become clear that our experiences are all very different. 

Disabled people are expected to be one of the groups most at risk of economic and social disadvantage in the fallout from COVID-19. Previous recessions have seen disabled people disproportionately affected and more likely to fall out of work. But disability is a very general term, and one which has often been misunderstood during this pandemic. 

Being ‘disabled’ and being ‘vulnerable to COVID-19’ are not  the same thing.  Not every disabled person is at greater risk from COVID-19, but some disabled people may be more ‘vulnerable in society’ because of the virus – for example, people with a visual impairment who are unable to guarantee social distancing. 

As the easing of lockdown begins, there is a real risk that these two things become conflated and disabled people are seen as a general health and safety risk, thus undermining their future employment prospects.  As organisations plan their return to work strategies, we urge them against labelling staff and encourage them to view all colleagues as individuals. 

It’s important in this transition phase that colleagues are asked about their specific return to the workplace needs, but not to assume responses or make it a question about disability.

Our  research has shown that we can all benefit from adjustments and the opportunity to work in a different way. Let’s ensure that the lessons learnt from lockdown working are not lost.

To learn more about the 100% Human At Work network and their efforts to create a better future of work – with support from Virgin Unite and The B Team – read more blogs from our content series.