Promoting the creation of an inclusive workplace – Open Access Government

During the COVID-19 pandemic, home-working increased rapidly in the UK, with 46% of working adults working from home by April 2020, and with 36% still continuing to remote work two years later. (1,2) Employers are thus keen to accrue the benefits of remote working including staff well-being, and productivity gains and many continue to advocate this new style of working. Whilst these new work arrangements might seem ideal, it is important also to consider that there are both positive and negative effects for those remote working and it is not necessarily an easy option for all. For example, workers with disability/ neurodiversity (WDN) have reported feeling lonely and experienced isolation during the pandemic more frequently than others. (3) Remote e-working may help employers to be more inclusive (4) and address some of the struggles experienced by WDN when facing office-based working practices. (5) However, adjustments and ameliorations are required to optimise remote working for all.

According to a recent survey, 52.1% of WDN (16-64 years) are in employment, which equates to 20% of the working- age population. (3) Unfortunately, two years on from the start of the pandemic, latest figures by the Institute for Employment Studies indicate that the employment gap is widening for WDN. (6) Reports are mixed as to whether remote working has aided or hindered this community of remote workers. As such, the author has gained funding* to initiate a qualitative research study ‘Remote4All’ to explore the key factors affecting remote WDN, and to provide guidance and impact policy in this area. The results of the ‘Remote4All’ project will be published later in 2022.

Different remote working definitions

There are many terms that describe remote working, e.g., homeworking, teleworking, telecommuting, agile working and flexible working. We define remote workers as individuals who use ‘technology to work remotely from the main group office at any time or place.’ (7) Not all roles can be undertaken remotely, and the proportions of time-spent working remotely may differ. Hybrid working is also a term that has emerged through the pandemic and relates to combining in variable proportions working from home, and from the main office. Many employers are adopting this ‘blend’ of working to gain the benefits from both on and off-site working. Managers need to consider the impact on those staff that are unable to adopt this more flexible style of working.

inclusive workplace
© Dragoscondrea

Positive and negative effects of remote working

Remote working has many benefits to individuals, including greater flexibility with open access to work at any time and for some the ability to work around personal/caring needs. (8) There are also negative effects though, including working longer hours (reducing the amount of time for recuperation from work) increased work stress/pressure, reduced communication with co-workers, and social isolation, especially in those remote working longer term. These issues can be further exacerbated for WDN. WDN may also have different preferences for how the remote working environment can be configured to best suit their needs. Whilst working remotely may have helped ameliorate some issues for them, it may well have exacerbated other challenges.

Disability and Neurodiversity definitions

According to the Equality Act 2010 (9), a person has a disability if “they (a) have a physical or mental impairment, and (b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” In the ‘Remote4All’ project, the definition is extended to the broader spectrum of Neurodiversity, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia/Developmental Coordination Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia. (10)

What can be done to support an inclusive work environment?

Remote working seems to be a mixed bag for WDN. For some it may have made life easier, reducing the com- mute to work and using technology more effectively, being able to factor in breaks and look after individual needs. For those needing personal contact to enhance their communica- tion with others, it may have increased the challenges. In consider- ing the downsides it is necessary to understand what can be done to support WDN. Creating an inclusive and empathetic environment can enhance and support remote workers’ well-being. This means being in touch with workers’ needs and ensuring that there is regular dialogue to reassess as necessary. A risk assessment and reasonable adjustments including appropriate IT equipment installed remotely may not always be forth- coming and these are essential for productive remote working, and importantly well-being. WDN may also prefer a blended approach to working so that they do not feel cut off from the office environment and the support this can provide. There- fore, we need to acknowledge and treat all remote workers as individuals to ensure their needs are fully met.

The future of work looks interesting

There is a distinct lack of guidance and policy for WDN. The ‘Remote4All’ project is interviewing WDN employees, employers and key stakeholders to identify creative ways to support and enhance remote working for this group. The project will result in guidance that will support employees and employers to better support the remote working experience.

Remote working is clearly here to stay and for many, it offers benefits for their well-being and work productivity. However, for this style of working to be optimised the negative effects need also to be fully considered and ameliorated. All remote workers require an individual approach and the purpose of the ‘Remote4All’ project is to help find out what type of environmental and psychological adjustments the WDN population of remote workers need. This will help employers create an inclusive and empathetic remote working culture for all.

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