Small businesses are readying themselves for the easing and eventual end of COVID restrictions, including welcoming back employees to the workplace. Life may be returning to some form of ‘normality’, but the needs of employees, particularly disabled employees, may have changed.
Parma Sira, Business Disability Forum’s Small Business Disability Adviser, offers tips on making sure your business remains accessible to disabled employees.
A difficult year
The first national lockdown, back in March 2020, signified the start of a difficult and unpredictable year for many small businesses. In their report on the impact of COVID-19 on the UK small business sector, Simply Business estimated that 234,000 SMEs had already ceased trading by September last year, with many others relying on government support, such as the Furlough Scheme, to survive.
Many businesses that continued to trade throughout the pandemic did so by adapting and making wholescale changes to the way they operate; this often meant instructing staff to work from home or moving their focus to online and contactless business models.
The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, and the reduction in infection rates, give the business community reasons to be confident that the end of restrictions will happen as planned and that they can soon finally welcome back their customers and sorely missed employees to their premises.
The needs of disabled colleagues
Even though the ending of restrictions suggests a return to some normality, small business owners will need to be mindful of the safety of returning customers and employees. They will need to consider the needs of disabled colleagues, in particular.
Sobering data published by the ONS, in February, found that 6 out of 10 people who have died from COVID-19 were disabled. By creating covid-safe environments at work, businesses can help ease the worries of their returning disabled colleagues, and create a culture of support that will enable them to thrive in their roles.
Here 8 tips for small businesses to consider as they prepare to welcome back employees to their premises:
Consult and involve disabled employees in your decision making
Before making changes to workplaces, consult the people who will be working in them. Speak to your disabled colleagues about what they need in order to work productively and do not assume that all disabled people will prefer to work from home or cannot return safely.
Consider making home working arrangements permanent
Commuting to places of work can be particularly difficult for some disabled people and people with long term health conditions. Consider offering staggered start and finish times or making home working arrangements permanent for colleagues that wish to work in this way.
Understand the impact of Long COVID
For some people, COVID-19 can cause long term symptoms that can affect someone’s ability to perform work tasks; this includes fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain and problems with concentration. Businesses need to be prepared to implement adjustments and adapt sickness policies to help all staff experiencing the long term effects of coronavirus.
Reduce shared equipment
As a society, we are now much better versed in reducing the spread of the virus; as such, common practices such as hot-desking and sharing computer equipment might need to be consigned to history. Consider allowing colleagues to bring in their own devices, but remember that this may not be practical for some disabled colleagues who need specialist equipment, such as large screens.
Offer car parking
Some people will not want to travel on public transport, especially if they are vulnerable to COVID-19. For other disabled people, there might be no accessible public transport, e.g. a bus or train service that a wheelchair user can use to their place of work. When considering the journeys your disabled employees make, think about accessibility and car parking spaces. These might be your own car parks or nearby local authority or on-street parking. Consider access to charging points for electric vehicles too.
When spaces are limited, consider reserving them for people with mobility needs. It might be possible to pre-book spaces via a smartphone with priority given to people who have access needs that mean they need to park closer to the office building.
Colleagues who need assistance
Some employers might have had informal processes in place pre-pandemic, where colleagues who needed assistance being guided to a washroom were helped by co-workers. This is no longer likely to be a safe solution. Some disabled people might have support workers who can still guide them and help, if needed, with using toilets and washing facilities. Employers will need to ensure that the support worker can come into the office at the same time as the disabled person and continue to guide and support them.
If an employee does not have a support worker, employers may need to support them to make an application for such help so that they can return to the office.
Arrange Workplace Assessments
With your employees returning to premises after working from home, arranging a new workplace assessment to determine if the reasonable adjustments made pre-COVID are still effective is advisable.
This will also be useful when the disabled employee has found a particular way of working effectively whilst away from the office and would like to continue working this way in their place of work.
Contact the Smarter London SME service
Smarter London SMEs is a new free service launched by Business Disability Forum and funded by City Bridge Trust. We offer tailored and confidential advice to all SMEs operating in and around the London area on supporting disabled colleagues and welcoming in disabled customers. Get in touch to find out more.
Parma Sira is small business disability adviser for Smarter London SMEs. Find out more at https://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/our-services/smarter-london-smes/ or email Parma at firstname.lastname@example.org