Could working from home make the UK workforce more inclusive?

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The coronavirus pandemic and UK lockdown mean we’re all adapting to a new way of living. And while this has been difficult, there could be some positive aspects to our “new normal” in the future – especially in the world of work.

Paralympian Liz Johnson once heard a statistic on the news that made her angry. The UK’s disability employment gap was being reported on, and it was high.

The disability employment gap refers to the difference in employment between disabled and non-disabled people, and the most recent ONS data from June 2019 showed that people with disabilities have an employment rate that is 28.6 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.

“It made me rage,” Johnson tells Stylist. Her anger that day spurred her on to co-found The Ability People, a consultancy organisation staffed entirely by people with barriers to conventional working environments. 

Johnson, a three-time Paralympic medalist who won gold in Beijing, was born with cerebral palsy. She co-founded The Ability People with recruitment professional Steve Carter back in 2018, and the organisation currently has 14 team members working remotely, united in their goal to make the world a more authentically inclusive place.

Could increased working from home lead to a more inclusive workforce after coronavirus?

While Johnson notes that there is currently an increased awareness and better understanding of living and working with a disability than in previous years, she says we still have a way to go before we reach that authentic inclusivity.

“In everyday life people are constantly making assumptions about what you are capable of doing, or how you should look to do something,” she tells Stylist. “That is exhausting, even if you are somebody who is comfortable with what you’re doing.

“You come up against it every day, that unconscious bias or that presumptuous attitude, and it’s sometimes so ingrained or low level or subtle that you become so used to it, and you don’t even recognise it for what it is.”

But now, Johnson is hoping that the way workplaces across the UK – and the world – have adapted in the face of coronavirus could pave the way for a much more inclusive workforce going forward, especially after lockdown has lifted and businesses begin to operate again. Once we start returning to work in our “new normal”, things could look quite different.

This could start with company’s hiring processes becoming more inclusive, as they might be able to offer more opportunities for staff or prospective staff to work from home.

“People have seen that it’s relatively easy to set up and facilitate working from home,” Johnson says. “As soon as the majority required it, companies were able to set up working from home in two to three days.

“The key is for us to use this as a learning tool. I hope it will make people appreciate that working from home is practically possible, but I don’t want those who have had a negative experience to say it doesn’t work and that companies should stick to what they were doing before. People are able to adapt, and if something is your norm then it’s going to be easier to do.”

Liz Johnson, co-founder of The Ability People.

So what would be Johnson’s dream scenario for a more inclusive future of work?

“We would individualise things and normalise difference,” she says. “Employers would trust the individuals they’re working with and be in a position to empower them to optimise their resources and energies, and maximise positivity.”

Johnson believes that the process of applying for flexible working, such as working from home, shouldn’t be an “arduous process” that makes employees feel like they’re “losing a battle”. Here in the UK, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working if they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks or more.

“That’s not just for people who are disabled,” Johnson adds. “There might be someone who has spent the last six weeks working from home and realised that their children have gotten a lot out of having breakfast together. So they might want to have breakfast with their family every day and start work at 10am.

“We need flexibility and adaptability so that people don’t feel restricted by their jobs, but empowered by them.”

Images: portraits courtesy of Amy Mace, other images courtesy of Unsplash

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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