TMCnet Feature
April 02, 2020

COVID-19 Is Preparing Workplaces For A More Accessible Future

Social Distancing Will Push Businesses To Rethink Access Tools

We are living in strange times. Across the country and around the globe, cities are shutting down non-essential businesses, states are issuing shelter in place orders, and students are all suddenly being homeschooled or taking their classes via video. Simply put, this is a disruptive and downright terrifying experience, and yet this crisis is also engendering enormous innovation. Jobs we once thought couldn’t be done remotely now have to be – and companies are moving forward with business as usual. Social distancing is helping companies reimagine their operations.

While going virtual may be a necessity in this moment, the real reckoning will come after the panic passes. As many disabled workers have pointed out, workers are now being granted access options that they have been denied for years. Technology may support social distancing, but it also should support broad worker access, and after this crisis passes, workers are going to demand it.

Understanding New Tech Offerings

In order to take our work lives online, businesses and their employees need to take the time to familiarize themselves with the available technology and to ensure everyone has the tools they need. For example, in the last few days there has been a lot of buzz about Zoom, a platform that can be used to host large meetings, but having a platform isn’t enough. It’s important to ensure that workers have remote access to servers, have sufficient internet connectivity at home, as well as quality video and audio capabilities. Most workers in remote-capable fields will have these tools, but businesses also have an obligation to provide these core tools to staff.

If widespread remote work is going to be successful, companies also need to be sure that they find a platform that meets their needs and that’s doing videoconferencing well. Many experts on the industry suggest that one reason companies have been slow to make this transition is that the supporting companies weren’t offering sufficient tools or were charging premiums to perform basic tasks. It also helps that businesses have already integrated a range of semi-remote tools, such as Slack, into their daily operations.

Recognizing Tech’s Benefits

Obviously, it’s of great benefit to companies that they don’t have to shut down entirely in the midst of this pandemic, but what benefits can remote work tools offer beyond this moment of crisis? As noted above disabled workers have long lobbied for better access options that would allow them to work from home, using their skills in fields that might otherwise exclude them. Many of these workers are unemployed or underemployed because of disabilities that don’t actually impact their ability to do skilled work; companies, especially smaller operations, simply resist accommodating them.

For businesses, though, creating access via remote work could also be beneficial if and when existing staff are injured. What happens, for example, if a worker is injured in a car accident, suffering broken bones or other injuries that don’t necessarily keep them from working, but do keep them from commuting into the office? By normalizing remote work and ensuring that all staff have access to the tools to work from home successfully, injuries don’t have to automatically mean time off.

In addition to meeting employees’ needs, enabling remote work can also be financially advantageous for businesses. Using these practices, injured workers wouldn’t have to use short-term disability insurance, or won’t need such coverage for as long. Offices also won’t have to waste money training a temp or overload other staff while injured workers are at home recuperating.

Becoming Remote Ready

If your business is still trying to navigate the process of becoming remote-ready, whether it’s because of COVID-19 or because you’re ready to accept that this is the direction work is going, you’re in for an exciting process. Luckily, there are enough companies tackling the problem of remote work at this point that the guidelines already exist and can provide a model for how your company should approach the process.

One key part of making remote work successful is creating a “video-first” culture. Being video-first – in other words, not relying on conference calls or chat platforms – encourages staff to be truly present with each other. It also demands a higher degree of professionalism. Yes, you really can have your staff work from home and expect them to get dressed in work clothes and put their best face forward. Video-first also helps defeat isolation, whether in this time of literal isolation or during day-to-day work from home operations.

Another important part of making the transition to remote work, whether full-time or as an extension of your office, is ensuring everyone has a firm grasp of the programs being used. This is a luxury that businesses making the transition in the midst of the current pandemic largely didn’t have, and why it’s important that digital access tools be made standard in all workplaces.

Right now, staff at all levels are being forced to learn how to use these programs under high-stress circumstances. Ideally this would be a much slower and easier transition so that all staff feel comfortable and confident with the tools at hand. It’s too late to make a gradual change now, which is why most companies are compromising and accepting a less-than-fully-formed version of remote work, but when everyone comes back together, businesses will have to rethink their remote work norms to create something more sustainable.

Making The Move

Remote work has emerged in several phases, from business travel to flex time to this current moment of crisis, and the good news is that all of the tools are there to make remote work possible. But the problem is that these tools were also available before the crisis, and most businesses didn’t take the time to learn to use them, except in the most cursory fashion. And a core reason they never learned how to do so is that by fully enabling remote work, by making it a norm rather than a beyond-reasonable accommodation, businesses feared having to diversify their workplaces.

One thing that our current, inaccessible workplace model fails to recognize is that most people want to work. Whether they’re temporarily injured or have a lifelong disability, work isn’t just about remuneration, but about connection, stimulation, and meaning. Enabling more people to be active and valued members of the workplace through the use of technology, then, is a vital step towards equality. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to realize that, but necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, maybe it’s also the mother of inclusion, readying the business world for a more accessible future.

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