One of the many conundrums foisted upon employers in 2020 was: “how do we manage disability in the workplace when for so many of us, the workplace has changed?” With a proliferation of homeworking that many would not have imagined pre-COVID, remote working is for many of us it seems, here to stay.
At Business Disability Forum, our 400 Members and Partners represent a huge cross section of UK and global business, employing an estimated 20% of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide. We provide them with a wealth of practical advice and support, thought leadership and networking opportunities so that they can share what works – and what doesn’t! Unsurprisingly over the past 16 months, much of our members’ attention has been aimed at supporting colleagues through a period of change, whether that be furloughing staff, shifting to homeworking, adapting to new roles or hours… Being able to describe the past year as ‘unpredictable’ became one of the few reassuringly predictable aspects of it.
In supporting our members, we have found that these changing times have only gone to add greater resolve to many of those recommendations that we would have prescribed pre-COVID. Where employed in fact, these practices have allowed management to act with agility to adapt to what has been at times an uncertain path.
So how do we foster a disability-inclusive culture? It begins with current teams. More precisely, it starts with supporting, developing and retaining disabled employees, wherever they are based. The cornerstone of ‘how to do this’ can be distilled to: Ask, listen, learn, act. It turns out that everyone carps on about communication being vital because, well, it is just that! Take the time to learn about current staff and be transparent in what you are doing, why and where you want to be. Transparency goes a long way in getting colleagues on board so reflect honestly on where improvements can be made. Then stick to your commitments. Effective employee networks are a valuable resource, but they are not delivery agents. Theirs is to feedback, yours is to act.
Re-framing discussions and examining language around disability can be an excellent way to signal your intentions and to build confidence. Language is important. People believe strongly in their identity, how they feel it defines them and to what level it should. These considerations can be enough to stall progress in a workplace culture that is afraid to get things wrong. Our Inclusive Communication Toolkit provides guidance on making sure disabled colleagues are included in what you are communicating whilst our People Manager Toolkit can empower your managers to more confidently communicate. These are after all positive discussions and go beyond disability. Shouldn’t we be asking all of our employees ‘How can we help you to work to the best of your ability?’
Inclusion doesn’t mean pigeon-holing. A person with a disability is more than that. Educating staff and changing workplace culture to ensure that disabled staff belong is key to fostering an inclusive culture, and this can come most powerfully through stories, positive role models, from the top of the organisation down. Inspiration and relatability through intersectionality brings experiences to life. Similarly, that is why our Training Team work with our members to identify where training will have the most impact and where other resources or tools might offer greater value.
A final enduring impact of this period of uncertainty has been around mental health and now, as some offices open and others will remain permanently closed: how do we support the mental health of disabled staff? In some ways, this takes us back to that first point: Ask, listen, learn, act. More than ever we need to foster a culture of openness, listening and understanding. Whilst managers do not need to be mental health practitioners, there is an increased responsibility on all of us to be mindful of the emotional impact that the pandemic and the circumstances it forced upon us has and will take. So as we move forward, tentatively and some of us in new roles, organisations or homes, there is an even greater onus on employers to check-in with staff, to listen, and where needed to act.
Like our Mental Health Toolkit, through other resources such as our Disability Smart framework, Business Disability Forum helps organisations to assess and develop their strategies around disability inclusion. For all the challenges of the past year and a half, our members have shared so many positive stories. Adaptability it would seem, is still one of our greatest strengths. On Tuesday 24 August I am delighted to be a part of Dods CPD-certified ‘Managing Disability at Work’ event where, along with many other valuable contributors I will be sharing in greater depth how the experience of the past year has provided examples of how employers can foster a disability-inclusive culture both in the office and remotely.
Daniel will be speaking on ‘Fostering a disability-inclusive culture both in the office and remotely’ at the Dods D&I ‘Managing Disability at Work’ online event, taking place on Thursday, 24 August 2021. Find out more about the Dods D&I event here