By Rachel Murray, Head of Employee Health and Wellbeing at Bupa Global & UK
Over recent years, an increase in remote working has helped many companies explore what is possible in terms of providing flexibility while maintaining productivity.
This provides opportunities for greater accessibility, benefiting groups such as parents, those with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities. But in a more hybrid world of work it is important to keep accessibility front of mind, with organisations constantly challenging themselves to do better.
Leadership is key
Often the first step towards a more inclusive workplace is creating a culture of responsibility and accountability from the top. For example, at Bupa Global & UK we’re part of the government’s Disability Confident scheme which means that we’re committed to increasing understanding of disability and inclusion and diversity in the workplace.
And through our partnership with ParalympicsGB, our people can see that we’re working to take practical steps towards promoting greater inclusion in society as a whole.
By taking a lead on these issues at the highest level employers can lay the groundwork for empathetic yet productive conversations at work, focused on what improvements can be made, ultimately supporting the workforce as a whole.
Fighting ableism – both conscious and unconscious
Challenging ableism within the workplace is of the utmost importance, especially given that 1 in 3 people still think disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people.
Training and learning are valuable investments, so that line managers feel confident in speaking about disability, challenging discrimination and ensuring that disabled employees know how to ask for adjustments.
Meanwhile, peer support is also crucial. Developing networks and opportunities for disabled colleagues to connect, including online groups and meetings inside and outside of work, can create a stronger sense of belonging and awareness. For example, at Bupa, our ‘Be You at Bupa’ network helps to promote visibility and a sense of belonging for our people. Our aim is to educate and build awareness of diversity and inclusion in a safe, open space where everyone feels able to be themselves.
The office environment
As many people head back to the office for at least part of the working week, businesses can no longer lean on the accessibility benefits of home working. It’s important that companies are constantly checking that their accessibility credentials are up to scratch. This includes the physical environment such as accessible parking, desks and evacuation plans, but it also means thinking about flexibility, use of language and even work social events, to ensure inclusivity more broadly.
A good starting point is conducting listening sessions with disabled colleagues to understand any pain points and where improvements need to be made, and take an action plan forward, with responsibilities assigned to specific people.
It’s also important not to assume that people with the same disability will need similar solutions. Adjustments should be tailored to the needs of the individual, after careful consideration and the advice of experts and colleagues.
And for businesses looking to support their people, highlighting the support available is as vital as providing it in the first place. Effective signposting is crucial; this could be done via a workplace intranet, via dedicated, trained champions, as well as training days.
Remote work still presents challenges
With hybrid working comes time spent working from home. And although remote working can present opportunities for both employers and employees, it still requires businesses to carefully consider accessibility.
When staff attend the office less frequently it’s easy for disabilities to go unnoticed. This is on top of existing barriers and issues – Bupa research shows that 43% of people with less visible disabilities have kept them hidden from their employer due to concerns over how they might be treated at work.
When it comes to setting the standards for hybrid working, it’s vital that businesses look at the working world holistically, and not just in an office environment. This might mean signposting employees to the support available when setting up their home working space, providing specialist equipment or software or involving occupational health colleagues. And to get the best from your employees it’s important to be flexible too; making adjustments based on individual need – even if not mandated in company policies – will have a long term impact on employee happiness and productivity.
The charity Scope suggests that employers and employees with mental or physical disabilities should look to have a conversation to establish any additional needs around working from home – for example, ensuring there is space to work undisturbed, access to a computer, and that the right digital tools – such as Trello, Skype or Slack – are provided to help facilitate working with others.
Creating a disability-friendly workplace culture means going beyond just meeting legal requirements – it is about ensuring that disabled people are championed within the workplace. That’s a task that takes consistent reflection, strong leadership and an ability to react to change. But the outcome is invaluable – a workforce with greater diversity of outlook, where everybody feels comfortable and able to contribute their best every day.