Supporting employees with disability through new ways of working

Ensuring your employees can participate equitably in this new world of work 

For many organisations the COVID-19 pandemic has seen significant changes in how, when, and where their employees work. The sudden shift to remote or flexible work arrangements and the need for physical distancing to protect colleagues and customers is presenting opportunities and challenges, especially for those with disability. 

Organisations that have been able to implement flexible working options for their entire workforce, not just their employees with disability, are reporting greater agility and reduced disruption in the face of this unprecedented global event. This is not possible for all organisations, particularly those with employees working on the front line with customers and the community – hospitals and healthcare services, banks and financial services, supermarkets and suppliers, and essential government services. These workplaces have had to consider how they can best support their customers while maintaining the health and safety of their employees 

As people’s homes may now be doubling as their workspace it is important that they are able to access the same adjustments they may have had in place when they were in the office, or any additional adjustments they may require, in their new working environment. 

“What’s the environment that I need to work successfully at home?  Liz Parkinson, Victorian Public Sector Commission 

What is a workplace adjustment?  

A workplace adjustment, also known as a 'reasonable adjustment' or 'accomodations', is a change to a work process, practice, procedure or environment that enables an employee with disability to perform their job in a way that minimises the impact of their disability. This includes when employees are working from home. 

Workplace adjustments allow a person with disability to: 

  • Perform the essential requirements of their job safely in the workplace 
  • Have equal opportunity in recruitment processes, promotion and ongoing development 
  • Experience equitable terms and conditions of employment; and  
  • Maximise productivity. 

By supporting your staff with changed ways of working and / or the equipment they require, you are ensuring the continued productivity and safety of your employees with disability. It is also worth noting that employees without disability would likely benefit from access to their required office items as well.  

Key learnings from AND’s Member Discussion Forum 

“There’s a lot to learn from each other; I’m inspired by the amount of flexibility and planning that organisations are showing right now and the amount of goodwill out there to make things work” – Suzanne Colbert, AND CEO 

Keri Le Page, IBM, Liz Parkinson, Victorian Public Sector Commission, and Kate Halpin and Nick Giustino from Specialisterne Australia shared their experiences at the first of AND’s series of Discussion Forums – 'Supporting employees with disability through new ways of working'. The session highlighted the importance of: 

  • Acknowledging that things are not as easy as they may have previously been and that this may be a challenging time to be working. 
  • Employees having access to the accommodations and adjustments that they need to do their job safely and effectively at the moment – this could be their computer, chair, desk, or their whole workstation. 
  • Continually checking in – are the initial adjustments working? – and providing the opportunity for people to access different adjustments as they settle into this new working environment.
  • Allowing people to become comfortable with the new technology platforms – Nick Giustino from Specialisterne advises to “have patience and allow time for practicing with new technology”.
  • Trying to maintain the things you normally do via a virtual environment – Employee Resource Group meetings, team meetings, afternoon teas, catch ups, and after work drinks. As Keri Le Page from IBM advised there is an opportunity “to help people feel connected when they can’t be connected”. 

Kate Halpin from Specialisterne Australia identified specific considerations to engage your team as they work remotely in this new environment:  

  • Consider asking “What is your preferred communication method as we work in this environment?” and “What is your preferred way of working in this new environment?" (e.g. daily one-on-one catch ups via phone, email or Teams).
  • Consider how you will provide feedback to your employees to let people know how they are progressing.  
  • Consider how your employees are maintaining their wellbeing in this environment – are they eating well, taking regular breaks, and leaving the house for fresh air and exerciseKate advised that “we really need to be checking out for people’s wellbeing as well”.  
  • Provide necessary details to mental health services such as Lifeline, Beyond BlueBlack Dog, and your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as some employees may feel more comfortable speaking with a professional.  

Kate has put together an information sheet with further questions to engage your employeesWhile the information sheet speaks to supporting employees with autism, the questions are also relevant to your broader team. 

Practical tips for Managers, Supervisors and Team Leaders

Managers and supervisors play a key role in working with employees to identify and implement workplace adjustments so that they can continue to work safely and effectively in their role.  

  • Ask all employees what they need: Regardless of where employees are working from, or what employees need to continue to work, open questions such as: ‘Is there anything you need to continue to do your role’‘Is there any equipment you need?’ or ‘Is there anything getting in the way? are helpful and encourage interaction. If employees have a Workplace Adjustment Passport, it might be good to ask how those requirements are being met at this time 
  • Communicate regularly: Proactively reach out and keep in contact with employees including providing updates on information and resources. Set up regular face-to-face meetings through online platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype, ensuring that everyone can see or hear the meeting.  Remember to ask beforehand if people require any adjustments. Be mindful that the uncertainty of the pandemic may heighten stress so ensure you are supporting your employees and your own mental health during this time.
  • Set up communication protocols: With a number of communication options available it is a good idea to set up some basic protocols for communication. These can also take into account preferred methods of communication. Basic things such as how tasks will be allocated, guidance on using email verses chat options, when telephone conversations are appropriate will help everyone and allow adjustments to be considered.  
  • Ensure employees have access to information: Where working arrangements or work environments have changed, ensure that all employees can access systems and have the equipment they need to do their job. This may mean delivering equipment to employees working from home to make sure they have their workplace adjustments. 
  • Support: Ensure that employees have a copy of your Workplace Adjustment Policy and any key support contacts such as Human Resources 

Practical tips for Employees and Teams 

Here are some practical things that you can do as a colleague, supervisor or a person providing customer service.  

  • Ask what a person’s preferred method of communication is. With a move to different communication platforms revisiting this question may support everyone. 
  • For people who are hard of hearing or who are deaf – ask what their preferred method of communication is. Some examples include SMS or chat function, TTY phone, book an interpreter, or send an email.  
  • Make sure any documents sent are accessible. 
  • Ensure meetings are accessible. Ask what people need beforehand so there is time to organise things (e.g. captioning) and send out an agenda before, and notes after, the meeting. 
  • For people who are blind or who have low vision, ensure that equipment is available to support their participation, such as screen readers at home. 
  • Check in with other team members and make sure that they are aware of ways to access support for their mental wellbeing.

What if my organisation doesn’t have a Workplace Adjustment Policy? 

The development and implementation of a formal Workplace Adjustment Policy is a best practice approach that supports an organisation in being inclusive to employees and customers with disability. Keep in mind that, while your organisation may not be prioritising recruitment right now, a Workplace Adjustment Policy can also be used as an attraction and retention strategy in the long term. 

AND can help you to develop a Workplace Adjustment Policy. At AND we believe that an effective Workplace Adjustment Policy is the foundation of an inclusive and barrier-free workplace. It maximises the retention of existing employees who may acquire disability, and facilitates the employment of skilled and talented candidates with disability. It also supports the seamless transition to flexible and remote work, particularly relevant in these uncertain times.  

To discuss how AND can help you develop, or review your current, Workplace Adjustment Policy, Procedure, or Passport, please contact us.