- The pandemic demonstrated that flexibility supports job opportunities for disabled and neurodivergent people.
- The return to pre-pandemic ways of working threatens disability employment and neuroinclusion.
- Supporting flexible work requires better management practices.
- Case studies illustrate how organizations can be successful while supporting employees with flexibility.
Disability is an often forgotten aspect of diversity and inclusion at work. And one of the saddest ironies in the history of work is that the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the death and damage, might be the closest the workplace has ever come to disability and neurodiversity justice.
A study by the Economic Innovation Group showed that while the initial pandemic-time job losses impacted disabled workers more than non-disabled workers, the recovery in employment was stronger for disabled people. Disability employment was higher by 2022 than it has ever been since 2010. Much of this improvement in disability employment can be credited to working from home and the overall increase in flexible working, including flexible schedules and various forms of hybrid work.
Working from home and flexible schedules are crucial to providing job opportunities for many disabled and neurodivergent people. Yet for decades, these essential and free accommodations were usually deemed “unreasonable” and “undue hardship on the employer.”
Then, the pandemic made “unreasonable” accommodations available to most office workers—overnight. And yet, despite the benefits of flexible work for productivity and well-being, many employees are now being pushed to return to pre-pandemic ways of working, with the required office "face-time" and one-size-fits-all schedules. This could jeopardize the small uptick in disability employment.
The pandemic's effect on work opportunities for disabled and neurodivergent people might be similar to the WW2 effect on women's employment. During that time, women were welcomed to enter occupations previously closed to them. And then, at least in the U.S., women were told to return to "their place" in the kitchen or entry-level clerical work. Now, 80 years later, even though women are significantly better educated, they still make much less than men, and there are still major gender representation gaps in "prestige" roles.
Will the tiny uptick in disability employment during the pandemic be as good as it ever got? It does not have to be.
Justice is Flexibility
The pandemic experience dispelled the myth that remote work is "impossible." It also demonstrated that justice for many marginalized groups is much more attainable than many had previously envisioned. For example, remote work supports the well-being of Black employees and mothers of young children.
Losing flexible work would be a major step back for many groups traditionally excluded or disadvantaged in the workplace. But there does not need to be a loss. Intentionally building on what was learned about flexible working during the pandemic and thoughtfully implementing remote and hybrid work can revolutionize the workplace. It can increase productivity while empowering employees and boosting a sense of ownership and engagement.
Flexible work benefits both workers and organizations. Both general population research and my study of best practices in disability-supportive organizations demonstrate the win-win nature of flexibility.
Flexibility matters to employee well-being. The Future Forum report indicates that fully in-person workers are most stressed, least happy, and least productive. Fully remote work has the best outcomes, with hybrid work in between. Other types of flexibility also matter—working from home increases satisfaction by 65 percent and changing one's schedule by 62 percent.
Well-being matters to organizational outcomes. The analysis of 25 years' worth of data demonstrates that employee satisfaction and long-term stock returns are positively related. In a study of BT (formerly British Telecom) workers, happiness increased sales performance by 12 percent.
Flexible work is also environmental justice. In many cases, employee activism is focused not just on flexibility but on minimizing the environmental impact by eliminating commuting for those who can work from home.
Justice is Better Management, Too
Fully unlocking the potential for flexible and remote work will require effort and change in organizational habits and letting go of outdated management approaches. This includes training managers in effectively facilitating human-centric work, evaluating performance with a focus on outcomes, and using valid measurement rather than eye-balling the office face-time. The reward for management that is both more flexible and more objective can be a significantly increased talent pool and a much happier workforce.
The gains in disability justice do not need to be lost. Organizations can thrive flexibly, and flexible work is disability justice. My research and cases studies on companies that thrive while providing flexible employment opportunities to disabled and neurodivergent workers demonstrates that it is also a win-win for employers and all employees.
An earlier version of this post also appears in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter.