Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the Business Disability Forum, reveals how the organisation is helping businesses to support their disabled employees during the COVID-19 lockdown and how the lessons learned will support different ways of working in future.
How do you make adjustments to enable disabled employees to work from home, what if their job can’t be done remotely, and how do you document coronavirus-related absences?
These are just some of the questions that companies have been asking at the free weekly webinars run by the Business Disability Forum. The organisation is a non-profit organisation offering advice affecting disabled people in the workplace and as consumers.
In response to the COVID-19 lockdown, it launched the webinars, which are held every Thursday from 10-11 am. They offer practical advice on how to interpret Government guidance and meet the needs of disabled employees at this difficult time.
There’s also a free online toolkit to help organisations understand the rights of disabled employees and how to keep people safe. This is particularly important, given that some disabled people have conditions or take medication which may make them more susceptible to infections. It also offers advice on looking after the physical and mental wellbeing of all employees.
This has gone down so well that the Canadian Government asked to share it in their own country and translate it into French.
“Businesses really want to know how they can make adjustments, about how to manage remotely,” says the forum’s CEO Diane Lightfoot. “A lot of the questions are also around wellbeing and spotting the signs that people are not coping as well as they could have done, that is not the face-to-face way that comes through normally.”
So far, the webinars have covered issues such as assistive technology, helping people to become acquainted with features they already have but haven’t or didn’t know how to use.
One of the FAQs was when to furlough people and what to do if it’s impossible to do a job remotely. “Some of the advice is that maybe they could do different tasks, at least for a period of time,” Lightfoot suggests. “Something that can be done remotely, like updating resources or populating an information hub.
“And then there’s the big thing around how to document absences around coronavirus, particularly for people who have a compromised immune system or who have a disability. Our advice is always to record disability-related absence separately from standard sickness absence. But we’re also recommending that organisations document COVID-19 absences separately.”
That means disregarding the maximum number of sick days anyone can take before HR policies kick in, especially for those who may have to self-isolate for 12 weeks.
Maintain regular contact
Lightfoot recommends that companies should have mechanisms for keeping in regular contact. She says: “One suggestion, and indeed one we’ve implemented in our organisation is establishing a daily meeting on Microsoft Teams, on a video conference, at the start of each day.
Although we’ve added focuses for each day, the main purpose is a chance for people to check-in, to say how they’re feeling and share with other people what’s going on for them.
“Being able to see familiar faces, hear familiar voices, particularly for people who are isolated or living alone, having that connection has been really important. We make it voluntary to join, but just about everybody does. The feedback has been that people felt connected and looked after.”
If people suddenly stop taking part in the calls or if they don’t look their usual selves on video and are not communicating in their normal manner could be an indication that all is not well.
Because the Business Disability Forum has always offered remote and flexible working, its employees are equipped at home with the equipment and technology they need.
This is not the case for those who have never worked from home before, and therefore don’t have the right set up or dedicated space. Lightfoot says it makes good business sense for companies to invest in sending employees their special ergonomic chair or large screen monitor so that they can work effectively.
“Interestingly, some of the feedback from people who always work remotely is that they now feel more connected because everyone has to work differently,” she reveals. “I hope that one of the positive legacies of this is that there is far more acceptance, and even promotion, of flexible working. So that when a disabled employee, or anyone who needs to work differently, asks that of an employer, the reaction will be more positive than it has sometimes been.”
Learn from good practice
On the wellbeing side, it was important when connecting with employees to encourage them to take breaks, get fresh air if possible and to eat and drink properly. Getting into a routine is essential.
“Particularly for people who depend very strongly on routine,” Lightfoot stresses. “So, for example, typically people with autism might struggle with a complete change to routine. Having a conversation with a manager which can help them to structure their day in a way that breaks it down and makes it more manageable, can be helpful.”
She argues that now is not the time to push disability down the agenda but to learn from good practice. In other words, the lessons learned from working remotely during the pandemic should be shared among the entire workforce.
“Remember that supporting disabled colleagues doesn’t have to be difficult; it’s about having a conversation. If what’s happening now is an opportunity to start reframing that conversation so that it’s not about making ‘adjustments and special arrangements’ for the few. It’s about everyone having to work differently.
“If we can then reframe those conversations about productivity and productivity tools and what you need to do your job well, that should have a lasting impact on organisational culture. This will benefit everybody, but particularly disabled employees.”