As more and more businesses opt to change their environment to meet the needs of hybrid workers, we find ourselves with the perfect opportunity to create a more accessible workplace. Chris Jay, Managing Director of Bascule Disability Training, offers guidance on how to embrace inclusivity whilst building an office that suits modern day working…
During the pandemic, we discovered that most of our jobs could be done from our homes. This revelation led to many businesses adopting remote working policies, and some even questioning the necessity of having a physical office at all.
As home working boomed, some of the larger companies consolidated their property portfolios, and others reassessed the use of their traditional working environments. Of course, this movement became especially interesting for workers with disabilities, who for many years, had fought for the option of being able to work from home. Suddenly, employers were more open minded, and the remote revolution was well underway.
However, it hasn’t taken too long for the tables to turn. Employers are currently discovering that there are some negative aspects to permanently working remotely, and as a result, more and more are now looking for ways to lure staff back into the office.
A US report recently proved this when it revealed that 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, with some (30%) even saying their company will consider dismissing employees who don’t comply with in-office requirements.
A softer approach
In the UK, we appear to be employing a softer approach, by offering hybrid roles allowing staff to use a healthy balance of both the office and home. In fact, 83% of organisations now report having hybrid working roles already in place. Although, it’s clear that the office will still play a strong role in how these employees work, with over half (52%) of organisations stipulating that these hybrid employees be present in the workplace for a minimum number of days in the working week or month.
As a result of this balanced method of working, more and more businesses are now considering innovative environments to suit new working behaviours. For example, offices are being redesigned and reconsidered to better cater for today’s nomad worker, who is no longer permanently deskbound in one corner of the office. Employers are adapting by introducing ad-hoc spaces, café style touch down desks, collaborative areas, attractive comfort zones, and so on, ensuring the space suits a more transient behavioural pattern.
In fact, a CIPD report stated 44% of organisations are looking to implement a range of measures of support – most notably making their offices more collaborative and therefore suitable for hybrid workers. And a fifth (20%) of organisations are looking to place additional measures or make investments to support hybrid working in the next six to 12 months.
Now, during this time of transformation, and reassessment, we not only have an opportunity to completely rethink our workplace to best suit modern methods of working- we are also amidst a time when we can make sure our working environments best suit the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities.
The future of work for people with disabilities
Firstly, when we discuss the needs of people with disabilities, it is worth remembering that we are talking about the fastest growing minority group on the planet, one that accounts for nearly a quarter of the global population. In the UK, 16 million people (24%) of the population have a disability- so we are talking about a significant number of working adults.
Furthermore, the number of people with disabilities entering employment is growing. For example, there were 5.1 million people with disabilities in employment in the UK in Q2 2023, which was an increase of 320,000 on the year and an overall increase of 2.2 million since the same quarter in 2013.
A soaring number of companies are introducing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strategies, and a growing number of businesses adopting initiatives like the Valuable 500 and the Disability Confident scheme, as more employers are focusing efforts on recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities.
As the emphasis on diversity and inclusion grows, so too does the number of people with disabilities gaining employment- meaning the need for accessible workplace environments that allow people with disabilities to work, and crucially collaborate to the best of their ability, is certainly increasing.
Hybrid working environments and accessibility
Fortunately, an accessible environment that caters for hybrid workers can simultaneously be an accessible space, with just a little planning and extra consideration. Creating a successful workplace that meets the needs of transitory workers, who use the office on occasions, requires flexible and fluid features -which also happen to be essential requirements for accessible spaces. For example, equipment and furniture that is shared by numerous staff members on an ad-hoc basis, must be adjustable in every way, to ensure suitability for all.
Hot desks and ad-hoc working areas require furniture that can be adapted to users of all shapes and sizes, which also meets many of the needs of people with disabilities. For example- height adjustable desks will serve ad-hoc workers as well as wheelchair users who can use the adjustable desk as their other non-disabled colleagues do.
Adaptive seating solutions help people with physical disabilities to work in comfort and with support, with some models even making it easier for people with mobility issues to get in and out of the chair. They offer a solution suitable for all workers, whilst offering equal access to tools and working environments, if the right choices are made.
Of course, at times there may be staff with disabilities with specific needs and then bespoke workstations may be needed, but rethinking the workplace environment presents the perfect time to consider the needs of your staff and ensure all existing worker’s requirements are met.
Allowing staff to gain control
After long spells of working from their own homes, people have inevitably become accustomed to choosing and controlling their own environments. Home working has allowed us to select different rooms for calls or video meetings, (if they are available), according to background aesthetics, or noise levels. More importantly, we can adjust things like temperature to our own liking, or even match a room ambience to the task at hand. The options that homeworking offers are something many workers, especially those in hybrid roles, are now looking for in a modern workplace and therefore many offices are working to replicate this.
Providing such an array of environments with varied conditions also creates a more inclusive workspace. For example, consider employees that are neurodiverse. An environment that offers a space that is quiet, soothing, and designed for lone working will also be useful for their needs if an office becomes over stimulating. With further consideration this environment can be aesthetically designed to be calming.
Some organisations are not only creating, but mapping out the conditions that their spaces offer, allowing staff with disabilities or other needs, to benefit from that information. Zurich has designed a sensory map that explains where cool, warm, comfortable, naturally light, busier, quieter spaces are. The map even highlights eating zones and where certain spaces may have food odours, or busy movement all of which help neurodiverse employees, those who are pregnant, managing depression, anxiety or experiencing menopause. Once again, this information not only benefits inclusivity, but it also offers all staff the control they have become accustomed to from working in their own homes.
Finding the right space
Another popular workplace design model that supports hybrid working, (and is also inclusive), is offering micro-environments that are activity based. These are suited towards various different tasks at hand, rather than approaching all tasks from the same stationary desk. These include areas such as collaboration zones, quiet booths, ad-hoc desks, meeting spaces, privacy spots, focus booths, pods, lounge and comfort areas and recreational environments.
As well as providing a more diverse range of micro-environments for each task, the choice of conditions in these spaces will help many people with disabilities. For example, a person with a disability that causes stress, exhaustion or anxiety can utilise quiet areas that have acoustic furniture, soundproof panelling and walls, all of which also offer workers the perfect space for concentration.
Some people with disabilities are prone to higher levels of anxiety, so an area that offers a space designed to address noise, would be welcomed. Plus, any staff members that have mental health impairments or suffer from stress can also utilise such zones.
If you wanted to be creative, you could go one step further and introduce rest spaces, or even sleep pods that promote naps. Some organisations are tapping into the research that says sleep can not only boost productivity, but also improve focus, attention and vigilance. Such dedicated environments and approaches could also benefit those with disabilities that cause exhaustion such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, MS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and so on.
To build on your inclusive spaces, it’s advisable that you communicate with existing staff with disabilities. What are their preferences? What is working for them, and what isn’t? How could you improve? The feedback you get will be a good source for inspiration on your path towards an inclusive space. It is also a great time to audit your existing features, for example do you have rooms with hearing loops, do you know how they work? Have you educated reception staff about those with service dogs? Have you completed Personal Emergency Evacuation plans (PEEPs) for those with mobility impairments?
Of course, it goes without saying that creating inclusive spaces does not suggest that people with disabilities should be limited to working within these areas. Instead, the idea is that you create equality across all locations, tools and features so choices are available to every person that works in the building.
Awareness around design
Building a workplace for the future can easily embrace the needs of all staff members, with consideration for everyone’s needs, but the most important aspect of inclusivity is having a general level of disability awareness. When redesigning, having awareness and consideration around the simple things like light switch and plug point height, obstacles, layouts to accommodate wheelchairs and turning points, mixed height surfaces and storage, the width of doors, the positioning of chair legs on new tables, floor surfaces and lighting- will make a huge difference.
And whilst you may not think you currently have many staff with disabilities- a new environment will certainly change things. It’s also worth remembering that 80% of all disabilities are hidden and 43% of people choose not to tell their employers. A more inclusive office will demonstrate your support, pave the way for a change in culture, improve disability disclosure, and certainly increase potential staff members with disabilities wanting to work for your business.
To improve on that further, you could enhance workplace culture through user-led disability awareness training, from the top down, across all divisions, to show that your culture is as inclusive as the working environment that you provide.
Reap the rewards
By embracing disability in the workplace, you allow inclusivity to become a fundamental component of your brand. You improve understanding, team cohesivity and empathy across your workforce. Furthermore, you can achieve some of the goals of the wider business, by potentially appealing to a customer base with the annual spend of £274 billion per year and attracting a whole new and untapped pool of talent.
The future benefits of inclusivity are vast.
Chris Jay is an accomplished training facilitator, public speaker, commentator and writer on the topic of disability awareness. Chris provides training for a broad variety of businesses from finance and banking, to organisations in the education sector including schools and universities. Bascule provides training that enables people to be understanding and aware of disability and the needs, challenges and unique life experiences of people with disabilities.
Prior to launching his training company, Bascule Disability Training, Chris worked as a Training Facilitator and Project Manager for the disability awareness charity- Enable Me, where he developed and delivered training programmes for businesses, universities and schools. He was later appointed as the Executive Chairman of the charity.