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Back-to-office mandates excluding disabled workers

The push to get people to return to the office has ramped up as the pandemic has subsided. While some may argue it’s a smart move to better collaboration and productivity, those with disabilities stand to be negatively affected.

user iconJack Campbell 28 March 2024 Big Law
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Editors note: This article originally appeared on Lawyers Weekly sister site, HR Leader.

Research shows that the rise of remote working saw an increase in employment for people with disabilities. The pandemic led to an increase of people with disabilities joining the workforce by nearly 6 percentage points.

With the unemployment rate for disabled people more than double that of non-disabled people, accommodating these underrepresented workers is crucial.


Lisa Annese, Diversity Council Australia (DCA) chief executive highlighted how important remote and hybrid work models are for people with disabilities.

“Hybrid and remote working arrangements have always been an essential accommodation for people with disabilities because many workplaces were not designed with accessibility in mind. Remote work also removes transportation barriers and lessens the risk of sensory overload and other stressful factors for people with cognitive disabilities and neurodiverse people.”

Where Australia lacks

According to the chief executive of The Chooze Shop, Kerry Kingham, Australia isn’t doing enough to accommodate employees with disabilities. This is where employers must pick up the slack and work to develop an inclusive and safe work environment.

“In Australia, we're challenged around employing people with disability. And I think it's around the accommodations that we need to provide them,” said Kingham.

“If you've got a policy in your workplace where no one can have their headphones in during the day, if you've got someone with a psychosocial disorder or sensory overload, they may need to have noise cancelling headphones on all day. And then they'll be highly productive and highly efficient. But if you have that same policy applied because we have to make it the same for everyone, that's going to start changing your ability to hire people with those sorts of challenges.”

“If you have a building where you've got stairs and the lift is constantly out of order, you can't hire anybody that has mobility issues. If you're not prepared to put up braille, perhaps things on the toilet walls or lifts, you can't hire people with a vision impairment.”

It can be unrealistic to expect businesses with budget constraints to make these adjustments. For those who can’t afford these accommodations, remote and hybrid working is the smart move.

“You won't retain your staff if you don't include things like hybrid work or remote work. You won't be able to open yourself up to a wider talent pool if you don't make accommodations such as offering remote work for people with disability. So, it's just good sense,” said Kingham.

“My head of marketing is an absolute genius. I wouldn't have her five days a week if we didn't do this. I would have lost my head of operations when he moved to Tasmania. The person who has a psychosocial disorder would probably have said, no, I can't do this anymore. I can't commute. I can't do this. I can't do that because I can't leave the house today. So, I think that leaders have got to suck it up.”

She continued: “If you've got a leadership team that wants engaged, high-performing work [done], a leader [who] wants a high-performing workforce, they have to look at, what do I need to give them for them to provide me with that?”

The push to the office

Return-to-work mandates are ramping up. This could be a detrimental move for employers as exclusion comes to a head.

Annese explained: “The push to bring people back into the office could create unnecessary barriers to employment for people with disabilities. If a workplace can provide that flexibility, they have a responsibility to their employees with disabilities to provide the accommodations they need to do their jobs in an environment suited to their individual needs.”

“The push to bring people back to the office doesn’t only affect people with disabilities. Remote and flexible working arrangements are also an important part of workforce participation for those with caring responsibilities, which disproportionately fall to women. Allowing those with caring responsibilities access to flexible work options not only has the potential to increase workforce participation, but it would also go a long way in helping to reduce the gender pay gap,” said Annese.

Further than hindering workers with disabilities, these mandates could even damage organisations, said Kingham.

“They run the risk of having a real talent drain on their organisation. They'll lose staff, and they'll lose them to an organisation that is prepared to be flexible. And I think it will get to the point where at some point someone is going to challenge it legally and say, you're actually not making accommodations.”

“In Australia, we have the Disability Act, which means that we have to provide people with the opportunity to work in an environment that suits them, that supports them, that meets their needs. So, I believe sooner rather than later, someone is going to challenge this.”

It’s a balancing act

Accommodation is a balancing act. Employers will argue that the push to bring people back into the office is to boost collaboration and engagement. However, these aren’t mutually exclusive, and culture can thrive in a remote setting.

“Our entire team works remotely full time, and 50 per cent of my team has lived experience with disability. And one of them in particular, who's in a very senior role, she said, ‘I couldn't give you full-time hours if I had to come into the office,’ because there are some days where she's managing severe pain and it just wouldn't be fair on her or practical for her to do that in an office environment,” said Kingham.

“And in fact, she started off working with us part-time and was only able to do a couple of days a week which just wasn't feasible for a growing business and for the skillset she had, we really wanted to keep her. So, we actually had an office originally and then I got rid of it and said, you know what? We actually don't need it. Another girl has a psychosocial challenge, so for her being in her own space, feeling comfortable, feeling safe, helps her to manage her mental health much more effectively.”

Cultivating a remote workplace may take some effort and some thinking outside the box, but it is achievable.

“So, what we do is every week on a Monday, we have a team lunch online. Our team is very food-focused. And this is funny, by about 11 o'clock in the office, that hour between 11 and around 12-ish, there was no productivity. They were all obsessing about what they were going to go and get for lunch,” Kingham explained.

“I encourage people to put their laptops in the kitchen while they're making their lunch or do it at their kitchen table or whatever. And we sit and we chat for an hour, and we shoot the breeze, have a bit of fun.”

She continued: “With my senior leadership team, I obviously can't do it with the guy that's in Tassie, but we have at least one face-to-face one-on-one per month. And we take turns where we're meeting, so they don't have to come to me. Once a quarter, we do a team planning day where we all get together, and we try and tie that in with something that's happening in our sector, so the guy in Tassie can come up and spend it with us as well.”

These adjustments can help to create a healthy and thriving company that embraces people’s differences. It’s smart business sense.

Annese concluded: “What leaders need to recognise is that providing flexible working options is beneficial for everyone. It improves accessibility, mental health, gender equity, and performance. Research shows organisations that provide staff with the flexibility they need, including remote work options, see increased productivity, retention and profits.”

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