Developing Inclusive Return-to-Office or Work-From-Home Policies

A collage of three different in-office and at home work environments.

Image Description: A collage of three different in-office and at home work environments.

Developing Inclusive Return-to-Office or Work-From-Home Policies

It is morally imperative that companies adopt inclusive return-to-work and work-from-home policies, including physically accessible workspaces and technologies, flexible work options, and awareness training.

Apr 20, 2023

As the world moves toward a more remote and hybrid work environment, it is important to consider the impact these changes have on professionals with disabilities. 

Return-to-office or work-from-home policies can present unique challenges for these individuals, and it is essential for organizations to develop inclusive policies that address the challenges they face.

Let’s examine why developing inclusive policies is so vital, the challenges professionals with disabilities encounter in the workplace, and specific policies and accommodations organizations can implement to be more inclusive.

Understanding Inclusion & Accessibility

With so many organizations willing to transform their policies in the wake of the so-called “remote work revolution,” this is a good opportunity to make shifts toward other more accessible and inclusive workplaces, as well. Don’t let the interests and concerns of professionals with disabilities get overlooked during this time of change.

Remote work has been an incredible boon for professionals living with disabilities, eliminating physical barriers, providing a more flexible schedule, allowing for customization of the work environment, and ultimately, leading to improved job satisfaction and performance.

For instance, many of these professionals encounter significant transportation barriers during their commutes. This includes the travails of wheelchair access on public transit or moving around towns lacking sufficient accessibility infrastructure, such as sidewalks, ramps, or automatic doors. Similarly, professionals living with epilepsy or other so-called “invisible disabilities” are frequently hindered by the risks and anxieties associated with traveling. 

Remote work options enable all employees to contribute to organizations and become gainfully employed while bypassing the many features in society that remain inaccessible and exclusionary—thus, helping to bridge the associated unemployment gap

Additionally, work-from-home options give employees with disabilities greater control over their work environment, something vital for professionals who routinely encounter unanticipated health challenges that require accommodations. That could be professionals with autism who become burdened by excessive auditory or visual stimuli in an open office space, or professionals with ADHD whose ability to focus is dramatically undermined by workplace designs that don’t take their needs into account. 

For people with disabilities, face-to-face communication can pose routine challenges, as well. Those with speech impairments, such as stuttering, may experience distress or frustration when faced with certain trigger words. Additionally, the social stigma they encounter in person can be draining.

“People who stutter, or those who have disfluent speech, we know exactly what we want to say, it just may potentially take us longer to say it,” notes John Moore, a marketing strategist who has lived with a stutter most of his life. “It comes down to being stigmatized. People with speech difficulty get stigmatized for being less intelligent, less educated, and less capable.”

Alternatively, remote workers who predominantly use text-based communication such as chat and email find it easier to communicate with colleagues and clients, making it less strenuous or anxiety provoking for them. Furthermore, in distributed team settings, they tend to encounter lower levels of bias or discrimination, as well.

Becoming an Inclusive & Accessible Employer Requires Flexibility

One key element of accessibility and inclusion is flexibility.

In order to accommodate the wide range of abilities of team members and prospective employees, a truly inclusive workplace will offer remote working options without demanding all employees work from home. An inclusive employer will do what it takes to have working environments that meet the needs of employees who thrive in both remote work settings and more traditional office environments. 

When office spaces are created with a generic worker in mind, they do not adequately cater to the specific needs of individuals, especially those with disabilities. On the other hand, remote work opens up new possibilities for people to customize their workspaces to suit their unique situations.

For example, remote work provides a sense of security for individuals with severe allergies or immunodeficiencies, as they do not have to worry about being exposed to hidden threats in the workplace.

Moreover, offering greater accessibility options allows employees with disabilities to establish work setups that align with their autonomy and support preferences. This enables them to have more control over the type of assistance they require, whether working from home or in an office setting. 

“I've learned every blind person has a different relationship with independence, and with what it means to be supported,” remarks Will Butler, former chief experience officer at Be My Eyes—a free app that connects low-vision and blind people with sighted volunteers—now working in corporate communications and accessibility at Apple. He was declared legally blind at age 19. “Some people are radically independent, and some people love connecting with other people in order to have their needs met. And I wouldn’t judge anybody on any point in that spectrum.”

For a variety of reasons, some employees are shifting back to the office, becoming “office-first” workplaces again. Keep in mind the challenges that brings to professionals living with disabilities. Reflect on the ways they have benefited from remote work flexibility. Before establishing new return-to-office policies, take the time to consult with disabled team members as you ideate over what your organization ought to look like. 

Inclusive Return-to-Work & Work-From-Home Policies

Remember: Inclusion is about ensuring everybody has a voice at the table where important decisions are made. 

So, as you redraft work-from-home policies and develop return-to-work protocols for team members, you want to keep accommodations front of mind. Look for ways to equitably implement rules, expectations, regulations, and norms so that each of your employees can flourish, regardless of disability status—enabling them to be both productive and experience a high quality of life. 

Here are a collection of policies to consider implementing as you create a more inclusive and belonging work culture:

  1. Physical Accessibility: Ensure that the physical workspace is accessible for all employees. This may include installing ramps, accessible restrooms, and height-adjustable workstations. Make sure that all areas of the office are accessible and can be navigated by employees with mobility, visual, and hearing impairments.

  2. Technology & Infrastructure: Make sure that employees with disabilities have access to the necessary technology and infrastructure to perform their job duties effectively. This may include providing assistive technology, software, and hardware, as well as ensuring that all online platforms and software are accessible.

    “Just give me a screen reader or speech-to-text software, and I'll do the same work. It's really not a big ask,” says Crystal Preston-Watson, a senior digital accessibility analyst at Salesforce who is visually impaired.

    Noting how accommodations are often handled differently between disabled and non-disabled professionals, she asserts: “It's the same as someone asking for a second or third monitor. I'm asking for a screen reader. You're asking for these accommodations. I'm just asking for the tools to do my job. People in different roles need different tools to do their jobs. And that's the same thing for disabled workers.”

  3. Communication: Verify that all employees have access to effective communication, regardless of their abilities. This may include providing sign language interpreters, captioning services, or assistive listening devices. In a remote work setting, make sure that all video conferencing platforms and other forms of online communication are accessible.

    Policies for making virtual meetings more accessible include flexible video and audio options, limited chat feature use, descriptions of what’s happening on screen, real-time captioning or relay services, and recording of all virtual meetings.

    Additionally, team “access checks” are a great way to be confident professionals with disabilities have better access during virtual meetings—further emphasizing your dedication to greater inclusion and accessibility.

    The Disabilities @ Work Senior Manager in Salesforce’s Office of Accessibility Jessica Roth says access checks are a common practice on her team, ensuring “that your video and audio are clear for everybody.”

    By demonstrating this level of respect, colleagues are more likely to seek out additional opportunities for inclusivity during the workday. They might ask questions such as: "Are there any other barriers that team members face that impede their participation?" or "What kind of accommodations can be made?"

  4. Flexibility: Again, consider offering flexible work arrangements that accommodate the needs of employees with disabilities. This includes both telecommuting options and flexible office schedules that allow employees to manage medical appointments, unanticipated health concerns, and other obligations.

  5. Training & Awareness: Make certain that all employees are trained in disability awareness and familiar with the policies and procedures in place to support employees with disabilities. Encourage open communication between employees and management to address any concerns or issues that may arise.

    The more your organization demonstrates an authentic approach to accessibility and inclusion, the more likely employees will be to speak up and seek out necessary accommodations.

    For instance, Joanna Del Orbe Mejia, a Disabilities @ Work Program Associate at Salesforce diagnosed with Crohn’s disease expresses that while she feels incredibly supported by her manager, meaningful change comes often through training and awareness, and that can take some time.

    “We’re gonna get there,” she says. “It’s having training and education on what disabilities are and how you can be an ally so employees can feel included, like they have a voice, their ideas are taken into consideration. I feel like after that education, all other things will fall into place.”

By implementing these policies, you can create a more inclusive work environment that accommodates the needs of professionals with disabilities, promotes diversity, and ensures equal opportunities for all employees.

Successful Businesses Embrace the Moral Imperative

Managers and business leaders clearly have a moral imperative to foster more accessible and inclusive return-to-work and work-from-home policies, but a business case can be made for them, as well. 

Successful organizations and industry leaders are wise enough to understand the impact their commitment to inclusion and accessibility have on their businesses, for financial and non-financial reasons, including attracting talent and adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). 

“The failure to empower people with disabilities will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies that don’t offer remote work options to those who would benefit from such accommodations,” observes psychologist Gleb Tsipursky. “They are limiting their talent pool and harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy of violating the ADA.”

Ultimately, workplace inclusion for professionals with disabilities is about creating a sense of belonging where all team members feel supported and empowered to reach their full potential. By striving for greater workplace inclusion, organizations can build a more diverse, equitable, and productive workforce that supports all employees, regardless of their abilities.

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, dedicated to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about developing inclusive return-to-office or work-from-home policies, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

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