The following guidance is designed to help you to think about the needs of your disabled colleagues and accessibility and inclusion at every stage. It is not and cannot be comprehensive because each workplace is different.
Consult and involve your disabled workforce
Overarching all this guidance is one basic principle; ask your workforce what they need. Before making any changes (especially ones that are irrevocable) to your workplaces, consult the people who will be working in them. In particular, consult disabled colleagues about what they want and need in order to continue to work productively. Do not assume that all disabled people will prefer to work for home or that they cannot return to office spaces safely.
Do not just ask once; keep disabled colleagues in the loop on your thinking and consult them again as your plans evolve and the external situation changes.
Consider how your disabled workforce could experience changes in the following aspects of office working:
- Getting to the workplace
- Getting into and out of the workplace
- Getting around the workplace
- Getting on with work
- Getting together with colleagues
- Getting food and drink
- Getting to washing facilities and toilets
1. Getting to the workplace
Where are your offices located? Big, high-density, high-rise buildings in city centres are hard to make safe. You might be thinking of decommissioning such buildings or moving out when leases expire.
Some employers are relocating to smaller offices near where people live so that workers don’t have to commute into city centres. This might mean refurbishing or re-purposing some out of town spaces such as branches and shops. This is an opportunity to think about accessibility and usability of the space for disabled colleagues. You may well find that making the space inclusive and accessible benefits everyone and helps to make it COVID-19 safe.
Densely packed public transport like the London Underground is not only a horrible commuting experience but also a good way to spread diseases like COVID-19. How workers get to your offices and whether they can do so in a safe and accessible way is something that you will have to think about in the future.
Before commissioning or leasing a new building or asking workers to return to an existing building it is a good idea to survey your staff. Ask them how they want to travel to the office and what barriers or accessibility issues they might experience.
Some people will not want to travel on public transport, especially if they have a vulnerability to COVID-19. For others with a disability there might be no accessible public transport, e.g. a bus or train a wheelchair user can use to the new office. When thinking about where to locate your offices you will need to think about car parking spaces. These might be your own car parks or nearby local authority or on-street parking.
Remember, though, that if the parking is some distance from your offices, it might be difficult for people with mobility related conditions to travel the final few metres from their car to the building. If spaces are limited near to the building, consider reserving them for people with mobility needs. It might be possible to pre-book spaces via a smartphone (see below on the accessibility of apps) with priority given to people who have access needs that mean they need to park closer to office building.
You might want to take the opportunity to be more sustainable and to encourage cycling or walking into the office. If so, think about whether the cycle ride or walk is likely to be pleasant and safe given the nearby roads and pavements. People are unlikely to choose these options if they feel unsafe. Offices in towns near to facilities and within walking or cycling distance are of course going to be more attractive than those out of town on industrial parks for example.
Some people will not be able to walk or cycle and if there is no accessible public transport they will need to drive. You can build in electric car charging points to encourage the use of electric cars.
Enclosed and secure space to leave bicycles will encourage people to cycle and perhaps to use electric bicycles safe in the knowledge that they will be secure.
For some people and in some places, there might be little option but to use public transport. Allowing workers to stagger their start and finish times or to work for only part of the day in the office will allow them to travel at less busy times reducing the crush of people.
2. Getting into and out of the workplace
Architects and employers are keen to design offices with as few poorly ventilated and enclosed places as possible. With that in mind, many are creating larger stairwells and encouraging the use of the stairs where possible (obviously not in high rise buildings).
Lifts or elevators
You need to remember, though, that not everyone can take the stairs and so lifts cannot be removed altogether. Apps on smartphones or at door technology can make it easier to limit the number of people who are in a lift at any one time, but this might not be practicable if you have a lot of people in a building at the same time who all need to use the lift.
Consider phased working or staggered entry times so fewer people need to get into and around the building at any one time.
For larger buildings and greater numbers of employees you might need to limit the numbers who need access to a particular floor at any time.
Some workers might be willing to be relocated to the ground or lower floors. You will need to discuss this with the individual first. Do not assume that everyone with a mobility-related condition will be happy to be moved to a lower floor. If one of the benefits of coming into the office is to meet with colleagues, there is little point in being situated on a distant floor away from them.
Never have we appreciated the benefits of getting outside for a walk and being in nature more. Be careful not to trap your disabled colleagues in the building once they are there because it is too difficult to get in and out. Everyone should be able to step outside, see a green plant or tree and to have a break.
Depending on the climate where you are or the time of year, you could also consider outdoor meeting spaces or picnic areas.
If you have people coming into your buildings, you need to ensure that they can leave safely and quickly in the event of a fire or other emergency. You will need to develop PEEPs (Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans) and GEEPs (Generic Emergency Evacuation Plans) for everyone in the building including disabled colleagues. This means having a system of knowing who is in the building at any given time and that they can get out safely.
3. Getting around the workplace
A tidy space with no boxes, papers or extra clutter is easier to clean and keep clean. This will benefit anyone who uses a wheelchair or crutches as well as people with sight loss as there is less to trip over or bump into. Clear signage with good colour contrast will help everyone get to wherever they need to go and find whatever they need quickly and without having to touch things.
Tidy, clutter-free spaces help everyone feel better too. They might have particularly positive impacts for people with mental health conditions and neurodiverse conditions.
More space between office furniture will enable people to maintain social distance while moving around the workplace. It will also benefit wheelchair users and anyone who walks with aids such as crutches.
Pre-pandemic the touch screen was everywhere. These are now being removed. It is possible to use lifts, coffee machines, doors all with contactless cards or via an app on a smartphone.
Making as much as possible touch-free will help to make it COVID-19 safe and easier to keep clean. This might mean heat sensors for taps and doors. Remember however to locate these sensors low enough for wheelchair users or shorter people to use them and to have a work around if someone cannot wave their hand in front of a sensor.
If you are going down this route remember to build in accessibility into the design of the app. Can it be used by people using assistive technology or voice commands? Is it clear with good colour contrast and generally useable? Ensure any such apps are accessible and inclusive. Any technology which is designed to be used by everyone must have accessibility features embedded from the outset and be user tested by people with different types of disabilities to ensure that they can use it.
If you are going to use facial recognition, think about diversity and inclusion at the design and build stage, whether you are buying an off-the-shelf app or commissioning something tailormade for you. Some systems do not work well for people from some racial backgrounds. Think in advance about people who wear a veil or other headgear. Some people with sight loss will wear sunglasses indoors. Will the facial recognition technology still work for these people as well as for people with facial disfigurements?
If the system you choose is at the door rather than on an app what height will it be at and can it be designed to move up and down for people of different heights and wheelchair users?
4. Getting on with work
Office desks have shrunk over the years, from 1.8m to 1.6m to now 1.4m. Think about having larger desks so that there is more space between colleagues working together. This will also provide extra space for assistive technology and can be helpful for wheelchair users and people who need somewhere to keep their crutches or a stick.
Hot desking might have to become a thing of the past unless you can ensure that each desk is thoroughly cleaned in-between users.
Consider introducing a system of reserving a desk in advance. Allowing people to reserve the same desk space might be beneficial. Think about reserving desks solely for the use of a person who has their assistive technology built into a particular computer or for someone who keeps a particular keyboard, mouse or chair that is an adjustment for them in that space.
Bringing your own device
If employers want to reduce the number of people who touch a particular keyboard, mouse or touch screen, they may need to allow people to bring their own devices into the workplace. Some employers have been reluctant to do this because of security concerns, but during the last year many of these security issues have had to be resolved as so many of us had to work from home. Now is the perfect opportunity to choose the device that works best for the individual e.g., one that a disabled person can use. Some might prefer a touch screen or an iOS system – can you accommodate this?
However, beware of being too prescriptive and issuing rules that apply to everyone – e.g. everyone must bring their own devices into the workplace.
Some employees will not be able to bring their own device into work. For example, someone with sight loss might need a very large screen and will not be able to work on a laptop or tablet that they can carry. Other people might need to print material out onto paper to read it.
5. Getting together with colleagues
Interaction with colleagues is what most workers have missed while working from home. This means that the offices of the future will need more meeting space and fewer cubicles or hot desks for solo working which can be done at home.
Completely sealed office spaces heated and cooled through air conditioning units might have to be a thing of the past. Offices of the future will need windows that open. When designing these, think about how to open windows and whether you want individual workers to be able to do this. If you do, then this has to involve as little touch as possible as well as being possible for disabled workers who might have dexterity related disabilities, sight loss or who cannot reach the windows or do not have the strength to open and close them manually.
Apps on smartphones might be able to help if you plan to allow individual employees to open and close windows as they use spaces. See ‘Touch Free Technology’ above.
Whether you decide to let individual workers open and close windows or if you are going to regulate when windows are opened and closed centrally e.g., a window will open 15 minutes before a room is booked for a meeting and again for 15 minutes after the meeting booking ends or all throughout a meeting think about temperature.
Some people have disabilities that make them feel the cold more. You will need to talk to individual workers about their needs and think about what you can do to regulate the temperature for them -e.g. allow them to wear more clothes or have individual heaters by their chairs.
Whenever workers leave a space or finish using a piece of equipment it will need to be cleaned before it can be used by others.
Can you digitise cleaning? Perhaps you plan to have an app whereby workers can notify Facilities that they have finished with a desk, room or piece of equipment so that it can be cleaned before it is available to someone else to use. Again, such apps must be accessible and inclusive. See ‘Touch-free Technology’ above.
Internet and wireless connections
If people are going to be able to meet in larger spaces or even outside you will need to ensure that there are good, reliable internet connections. This might be particularly important for deaf colleagues who rely on sign language interpreters. In future, sign language interpreters might be accessed more often via a screen than being physically present at a meeting. This will only be possible if there is a good internet connection.
The hybrid meeting
It is likely that in future we will all be in hybrid meetings. This means that some people will be in a room together – socially distanced and others will join remotely on screens. Ensuring that everyone has a similar and inclusive experience of the meeting can be tricky.
Ensure that people are trained on how to chair hybrid meetings, for example by ensuring that people in the room do not start side conversations or are so quick fire that those joining remotely cannot keep up. Those joining remotely on the other hand need to be discouraged from using the “chat” function to talk to each other separately. Listening, watching a presentation and reading chat simultaneously is difficult for almost everyone and can be impossible for some people with neurodiverse conditions.
People in the room will also need to be discouraged from shouting to be heard as this increases the spread of infection. If they are speaking quietly or while wearing face masks, they will need individual microphones. These could be lapel mikes that for their sole use.
6. Getting food and drink
Whether or not organisations re-open canteens will depend on how many people they expect to be in the building at any one time, and if the canteens can be redesigned so they are no longer be self-service where people help themselves from communal bowls with the same utensils.
Smaller staff numbers might allow for a more bespoke service. Staff could be allowed to pre-order their food from their smartphones and have it delivered already plated with their cutlery either to their desks or a well ventilated and spacious eating space. Contracts might also be negotiated with local takeaways, restaurants or sandwich shops so that food is not cooked on site any longer.
This system could benefit disabled people who struggled with traditional canteens. Wheelchair users and people who use crutches can find balancing plates on trays and carrying them to tables difficult. People with sight loss can also need assistance to use canteens, requiring someone to tell them what’s on offer and to negotiate their way around the food stations and to tables.
The coffee/tea round
It may no longer be possible for one person to get or make a round of hot and cold drinks for their colleagues. Hot drinks machines can be programmed to be operated from an app on a smartphone. See above about making such apps accessible and inclusive.
Contracts with local cafes might allow staff to order drinks via their phones that can be delivered to their desks or a collection point.
You will need to think about how people with limited mobility, sight loss or disabilities that affect their dexterity will extract the drinks from the machines or collect them from collection points and transport them back to where they are working.
It may not be possible to allow staff members to use a communal kitchen to make drinks using a kettle, sink and fridge. However, it is possible to have hot water taps operated by sensors to replace kettles. Communal fridges for milk and cups and mugs are more difficult to keep clean. Workers could be allowed to bring in their own mug and drink of choice and be allowed to use the hot water tap. The location of this tap needs to be considered as if it is too high some people will not be able to use it, e.g. wheelchair users.
Despite water cooler conversations being a staple of office life that so many have been missing, it may not be possible to retain a communal water cooler with taps that everyone touches. Instead, a cold-water tap operated by a heat sensor is the most likely replacement. Again, think about the location and height of such taps to ensure that everyone can use them.
If a disabled colleague is unable to use the taps or drinks machines and carry their own drinks, you will need to find alternatives as disabled workers must have access to water and hot drinks. A delivery service whereby drinks are ordered via a smartphone and delivered to their desk might be a solution. A less sophisticated one is to ask everyone to bring in their own water and store and dispose of it themselves.
See the section above on getting into and around the building. One inside you must not trap workers, particularly disabled people, by making it too difficult and time consuming to get out again via lifts and doors. Everyone should be able to get out for some fresh air, a walk or to buy their own food and drink from local cafes and shops.
Eating at your desk
Some employers were trying to discourage eating at desks for the good reason that everyone needs a break. However, COVID-19 has made canteens and lunch clubs difficult. You may have to allow people to eat at their desks with food delivered to where they work.
Do consider alternatives. If the climate allows or at certain times of year you could provide a covered open-air setting for people to eat picnic style.
7. Getting to washing facilities and toilets
Colleagues who need assistance
Some employers might have had informal processes in place pre-pandemic, where colleagues who needed assistance being guided to a washroom were helped by co-workers. This is no longer likely to be a safe solution. Some disabled people might have support workers who are still able to guide them and help, if needed, with using toilets and washing facilities. Employers will need to ensure that the support worker can come into the office at the same time as the disabled person and continue to guide and support them.
If an employee does not have a support worker, employers may need to support them to make an application for such help so that they can return to the office.
Employers will need to think about whether and when it will be safe to re-open showers. If these are enclosed spaces with no windows this might not be possible for some time. Employees who needed the showers, perhaps because of a disability that causes them to sweat or overheat will need to be informed about plans to re-open shower rooms.