Could flexwork be key to an inclusive workplace?

Potential 'barriers' to accommodating people with disabilities may break down with more people working from home

Could flexwork be key to an inclusive workplace?

The current forced home-working experiment amid the COVID-19 pandemic offers employers such as those in the financial services sector a chance to reflect on this way of working. Along with significant cost savings, could flexible working be the key to an inclusive workplace?

Surveys worldwide show millions of employed people are working from home because of the coronavirus situation. As jobs requiring higher qualifications and experience are more likely to provide home-working opportunities, many employers are offering this flexibility to new starters in the short to medium term.

And just 10 per cent of financial services employees — including those in banking, investment management and insurance — have had a negative home-working experience, according to a 2020 Deloitte survey, while 70 per cent rated their experience as positive. Additionally, more than three-quarters of respondents felt they were as, or more, productive working from home.

A recent two-year study, conducted by Nicholas Bloom, a professor in the economics department at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, showed that when employees are given the ability to work outside the office, it has a significant impact on both productivity and employee retention.

Breaking the barriers
As for the merits of diversity, businesses with a diverse workforce are up to 35 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. However, while diversity and inclusion cover age, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, disability can be overlooked.

Although regulations have been introduced, and more employers are convinced of the virtues of recruiting people with disabilities, some organizations have considered these workers as “risky hires.” An issue that often arises when flexible working is raised as an option for disabled people is perceived “unfairness.”

But since March, remote working has become the norm for many, which means people with disabilities don’t have to feel like they’re being given special treatment. Indeed, since the COVID-19 outbreak, disabled workers have taken to social media to express their frustration at how employers who had previously denied them the reasonable adjustment of working from home are now making this option a priority for all of their staff.

The flexibility to adapt hours and to work from home could be life-changing for employees with physical impairments, especially for those who are affected by the fatigue of getting into an office. This is especially true in large cities where public transport is the norm. Commuting for disabled people can be exhausting and painful, and the removal of this additional barrier can pave the way for increased productivity and employee happiness.

More than lifts and ramps
A workplace “disability” often evokes images of ramps, lower-positioned urinals and elevators. However, an untold number of people have disabilities — from OCD to lupus — that aren’t necessarily helped by something like a designated parking spot. Very few workers who identify as disabled are wheelchair users and only a minority of people (17 per cent) are born with impairment; most acquire an impairment during their careers, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

With the mandatory rules on masks for shops and public transport, the term “invisible disability” has become more widespread. Blindness, deafness, mental illnesses, learning disabilities and illnesses such as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and diabetes fall under this category. Employers may be slow to realize that employees suffer some disabilities, particularly hidden ones, and the challenges that office environments pose to those affected. 

For those workers with neurodiverse conditions including autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia, the environment is crucial. These workers can avoid sensory distractions and set up their workspaces at home the way they want — which is often impossible in open-plan office environments. Whether it is a desk by a window or listening to music to help with concentration, individuals can choose to work based on where, when and how they’re most productive and engaged.

Only time will tell…
The new era of remote working has opened up more opportunities for workers with disabilities, many of whom had previously been excluded from the workforce because they were denied the flexibility they need. Being able to work from home also helps workers who may (or may not) have disclosed their unseen disabilities to their employers.

Only time will tell if the flexible working trend continues in a post-COVID world. One thing is for certain, however — offering flexibility will be key to attracting and retaining highly skilled disabled workers, while employee motivation and productivity increase.  


Andrew Welsh is CEO of recruitment services firm Meraki Talent in Edinburgh, U.K. For more information, visit

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