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Disability and flexible working – a new opportunity?

In the second of his #O2Opinions series, David CornwellHead of Solutions at O2, investigates the complexities of working with a disability, and how flexible working has helped. 

Regardless of how else we remember 2020, I really hope that we look back at this year as the time when businesses embraced flexible and remote working as an effective, long-term workplace strategy for a digital workplace

I recognise that remote working doesn’t suit everyone. However, I read a Forbes article recently that prompted me to think about ways in which flexible working helps to diversify the workforce and, in particular, opens up opportunities for people with disabilities. The article highlighted many of the challenges that people with disabilities face at work on a daily basis, many of which could be made easier if organisations embraced flexible and remote working.  

The benefits of disability and flexible working seems obvious, when you think about it. So why hasn’t it happened before now? I believe that there are still two obstacles to overcome:

1. Technology

Barely a year ago, meetings were very different before the option of hybrid working. They were held in the office, or somewhere convenient for most attendees to get to, and you wrote off half a day in your diary. I always felt sorry for the person who couldn’t be there in person, who joined the meeting over a telephone line from home. They weren’t always able to see the slides that I could see, and their opinions were often sought as an afterthought. It was almost as if they weren’t there.

A lot has changed. Digital collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype for Business have shown that meetings can be conducted effectively, without the need for people to meet in person. It has been hugely beneficial to my personal productivity, but when many of us return to our workplaces, it would be such a missed opportunity if we reverted to how we conducted meetings before.  

2. Culture

The technology is important, but so is the organisation’s workplace culture. It’s time for senior leadership teams to make the status of office and remote workers equal, and make permanent the changes that they have had to adopt this year. If they do, then they will be able to recruit and develop a truly diverse and digitally enabled workforce that better represents the customers that they serve.

I wanted to find out more about how much difference widespread remote work for disabled people would make. So I spoke with a couple of my colleagues. Jo Dowdall is an accessibility specialist and wheelchair user, who has lived with multiple disabilities since she was eight years old. And Chris Stephenson is Head of Complex Solutions in O2’s business division, who suffered a cardiac illness a few years ago resulting in a stroke that left his mobility impaired. They’re amongst those who are flexible working these days, so I starting by asking Chris how hard it had been to reach this point?

“From the start, I had great support from my immediate line management and the Senior Leadership Team. The stroke affected my right-hand side – my arm and hand. Losing my dominant hand was challenging, and my handwriting (now left-handed) was slow and difficult to understand. Even logging into a PC was a problem – you try pressing ctrl-alt-del one handed! IT didn’t get why I needed a light, touchscreen device, but the business stepped in (once I had investigated who could support me) and a device was sourced.”

So it’s the combination of technology, policy & culture that’s important? 

“Technology has to deliver clear benefits both for the user and the business. The problem is that people sometimes don’t see the disability, because they are not always visible, and they don’t comprehend the impact it has on day to day activities. It takes support at the top table to help shape policies and decision making for an organisation to have a truly inclusive environment to work.”

I questioned Jo on the same theme. 

“Yes! As Chris said, it’s hard for others to comprehend the impact that your individual disabilities might have on your activities. So you need to feel comfortable sharing your needs with your manager and asking for help. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, but because of the flexible and encouraging policies and culture at O2, I’ve found it a lot easier to be specific and honest when asking for a new piece of technology or some flexibility with HR processes.”

I talked with Jo and Chris for some time, and discovered that both felt they would be unable to work effectively, or even do their job at all, if an employer wasn’t willing to offer flexible working policies or support them to work remotely. Jo even felt that it would affect her health, which would be likely to deteriorate quickly.

Despite their respective challenges, Jo and Chris are both remarkably positive and optimistic about flexible working opportunities for disabled people. I asked them what advice they would offer someone with a disability who finds it hard to get to work, or who isn’t currently working because it doesn’t seem possible. Chris says:

“Employers should look beyond the disability, and consider the value a person can bring to the business. So focus on what is possible – what you can do – rather than on what you can’t. Create a value proposition that maximises your strengths. Think about areas where you may be lacking but always focus on the positives, ‘I can, and this is what I am going to do.”

Jo is just as upbeat: 

“Try not to get discouraged. There are many companies that support employees with disabilities. Try looking for jobs at organisations that have signed up to the Valuable 500 – because they have committed to putting the topic of disability on the business leadership agenda.”

I think we have a real opportunity here – as well as a duty – to make remote working and flexible working permanent for those it suits best. Is your workplace as diverse as your customer base? Does your workplace culture need to evolve, along with the technology you’ve embraced this year? I’d love to talk with you. You can connect with me via LinkedIn. 

Share your thoughts using #O2Opinions .

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