How Covid-19 has driven accessibility innovations in employment

How does social change happen? Sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, and sometimes by accident. No-one expected a global pandemic to be the catalyst for a change in working life, but that is what happened this year.

A young woman in a pale blue denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up sits at a table, writing in a notebook. She is surrounded by work items including a laptop, watch and coffee mug.

Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought huge cultural and economic changes that will have long-lasting impact. There’s no denying that there are challenging times ahead, but there are opportunities too: a chance for long-term changes that will benefit wider sections of society.

We have been forced to ask questions about the way “things are always done”, and that’s a positive thing when it comes to social change. This year’s national and local lockdowns have had a direct impact on employment patterns, and brought about changes that access citizens have long known are both possible and mutually beneficial.

Remote working

Suddenly, working from home became the norm for many people in office-based jobs, with 4 out of 10 New Zealanders doing so during lockdown. After everyone got used to it, employers began to realise that it actually works. There’s evidence, too, that working from home has a positive impact on productivity – another reason for continuing with this approach long-term.

There are pros and cons to working and living in the same place, but for many access citizens having the option to work from home – at least for part of the working week – provides a great balance which supports improved outcomes for all. Although 70% of access citizens need no additional assistance in the workplace, having control over your working environment is a life-changer for many people, whether you need to manage your mental health, your energy levels or your exposure to external stimulus.

For some people, this means the difference between being unable to work and actually getting a job. Up to now, there have been few job openings that allow you to work from home. As employers become more amenable to remote working, this could immediately open up employment prospects for people who have previously come up against barriers to getting work. That is a positive social change but it’s good for business too, because it also opens up your pool of talent.

Flexible working

Location is a major aspect of flexible working, but it’s not the only one. It could also include flexible working hours, part-time working or job-sharing. As lockdown lifted, there have also been discussions about split working (partly from home and partly from the office) – suggestions which might not have been considered before.

Three years ago, the Maxim Institute wrote: “Flexibility gives people control over how they work. They can adapt it to their abilities. That’s a big incentive and enabler to get people with disabilities into work.”

Finally, those conversations are actually happening. The pandemic has made us all realise that we need to be more flexible. When the old “normal” is no longer possible, it is remarkable how quickly the world adapts to different ways of doing things.

Appreciating our differences

When everyone has to work more flexibly, we see a levelling-up of opportunities which means, potentially, more equality. At the same time, we also see an appreciation of differences and a recognition that different people have different strengths.

While many workers may struggle with the uncertainty in our current situation, there is one group of people who have the adaptability and resilience that we all now need. Flexibility, problem-solving and innovative thinking are well developed and second nature skills for access citizens. They are also critical skills for 21st century businesses and organisations. Diversity is not just good for business – it’s essential.

Time for change

The new ways of working forced on us by the pandemic have shown that doing things differently is not just possible, but positive. Now it is time to seize the day.
Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero says: "Now is the time to have the conversation around how we increase the participation rate of people with disabilities."

Dr Paula O’Kane from the Work Futures Otago Group, which carried out the New Zealand Remote Working during COVID19 survey, says: “Let’s recreate the norm.”

As Be. Lab founder Minnie Baragwanath says: “We have an opportunity to rebuild a better New Zealand, and ensuring that our workplaces welcome and enable access citizens to thrive is essential to us building a future-proofed and world-leading economy and business community.”

Are you an employer looking to improve accessibility for your staff members? Contact our One-Stop Shop team for advice.

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