There is a great urban legend about the moment the BBC resumed normal television programming in 1946, after the Second World War. Just before picking up precisely where the channel had left off in 1939, the announcer said: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…”
Is it just a legend? Sadly, yes. But the real announcement, by early presenter Jasmine Bligh, was far more understandable and human for viewers still dealing with the aftermath of the war. Addressing viewers who were able to tune in for the first time in seven years, Jasmine said: “How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?” Neither were unreasonable questions given how drastically the world had changed in such a short time.
The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey experienced its own interruption – the four year gap between the 2019 and 2023 surveys was originally supposed to be two, as some of you will remember. But just under a year after we published the first survey, COVID-19 had become an unprecedented crisis and many workplaces shifted entirely to remote working – often over the course of a few short days.
Every process – and especially the processes behind workplace adjustments, diversity and inclusion, and employee wellbeing – had to be redesigned. And, as we talked about in our previous blog on hybrid working, many of those changes are here to stay.
So, we pushed The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey forward and specifically looked into how the pandemic had affected disabled employees, as well as managers, in terms of work and workplace adjustments.
Ways of working during the pandemic – a mixed experience for disabled employees
The pandemic-driven ‘new normal’ was, as might be expected, a very mixed experience for disabled employees and their managers, ranging from extremely stressful and isolating to empowering or even, as one employee put it, “revolutionary”.
Much of this was to do with home working, one of the most commonly-requested adjustments prior to the pandemic, becoming the default overnight. Despite the circumstances of the change, the response from disabled employees was very positive – 72 per cent reported finding their conditions easier to manage, and one called the move “life changing”. As one respondent put it, home working “became an option for me that had never been there before.” This change, for now, looks permanent, and the vast majority of respondents to the survey reported working at home regularly.
Virtual meetings also offered many employees adjustments to participate more fully in meetings than before, because accessibility features like auto-captioning were readily available where other adjustments, like sign language interpretation, were not before the pandemic.
But what about other adjustments, especially those in place before the shift away from office-based working? For many disabled employees, the move to home working meant losing access to their adjustments – often for very long periods. “I was sent home immediately,” one employee said. “But my equipment was still at work. I didn’t get what I needed for 6 weeks.” Another employee was off work for 8 months while waiting for adjustments to her home working space.
Workloads, communications and virtual meetings also rose for many employees, often unsustainably, and many found the boundaries between home and work disappearing. “They kept piling on work and responsibilities that sent me into autistic shutdown/meltdown,” one employee reported. They received no adjustments for their conditions, despite requesting them. “There were no boundaries (WhatsApp messaging all hours of the day, expectations not to take breaks), no work/life balance (contacted on evenings and weekends to do work) and it was a toxic environment.”
Wellbeing efforts by organisations were well-intentioned, but were often disjointed and failed to keep pace with the realities of working life for employees. “[My] workload doubled,” said one homeworker. “[There was] no extra support – just many, many emails about wellbeing which I had no time to look at!”
Managers of disabled employees were also under pressure from the huge shift in working styles. Of these managers, 52 per cent reported that their employees needed different adjustments while working from home. Many spoke of difficulties of managing people with communications moving entirely online. There was a significant toll on wellbeing. “I did well at supporting others,” said one manager, “but that came at a cost to me.”
Adjusting working patterns after the pandemic – and lessons for employers
As restrictions on daily activities eased, employees and managers faced a new challenge – the question of what working life would now look like. Some leaders were keen to return their workforce partly or entirely to traditional office and face-to-face working – as were as many managers and employees. For others though, the return to the office was a source of anxiety and dread, and meant having to give up a way of working that had been “life-changing” for their careers and health. Many respondents also said that their organisations hadn’t yet found their ‘new normal’, or that it was unclear when – or if – they would be asked to return to the office.
Our key bit of advice for employers comes from recognising that the widespread change in attitudes to home working was a positive outcome of a very difficult period, even if it is not for everyone, nor always suited to the way an organisation works.
As such, we would recommend that employers:
- Ensure managers know the difference between a home-working policy and home working as a reasonable workplace adjustment. Sometimes this will mean making an adjustment to an organisation’s home-working policy, and sometimes home working will be requested or discussed as part of a workplace adjustments conversation outside of the home working policy.
- Equip managers to consider the wider implications of different working arrangements long term. They should also ensure they are observing where changes are difficult, emotional, and stressful for employees so that they can have supportive discussions and put the right arrangements in place wherever necessary to make transitions as easy as possible for employees to go through.
Employers should also – if they haven’t already – make sure they learn from the experience of the pandemic. Organisations had to take swift, unprecedented action in the early stages of the pandemic, without any protocols for moving adjustments or arranging new adjustments at short notice. As we have seen, many employees experienced barriers to working well from losing their adjustments or facing long waits for what they needed. Employers should therefore review what worked well and what needed to be better to know how to react if such a crisis ever happened again – even if we understandably hope that it will not, at least for some time.
In the end, many of us might have heard more than enough about the pandemic, but for inclusive businesses, the response isn’t over just yet. Far more than the “rude interruption” we might have hoped it would be for workplaces, the pandemic has marked a sharp “before and after” line for disability inclusion – for better and for worse.
You can read the full chapter on the workplace adjustments during the pandemic on page 68 of The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023, and, if you are a Member or Partner of Business Disability Forum, the resources on Workplace Adjustments and Remote Working and Managing Remote and Hybrid Workers within our People Manager Toolkit.