Disability, neurodivergence and remote working: what employers need to know…

21 November 2022

Remote working can polarise opinion. For some it is an opportunity for uninterrupted concentration and productivity; for others it can be isolating and lacking in boundaries.

However, despite thousands of articles debating the pros and cons there has been little research exploring the experiences of Disabled and Neurodivergent Workers (DNW)*. Our new Remote4All research project started to close this gap. We interviewed 24 employees with disability and/or neurodivergence, 5 employers, and 8 stakeholders, to better understand how to encourage “remote4all” work cultures. Our research highlights some of the benefits and challenges that these groups face.

Disabled and neurodivergent employees’ experiences of remote work

Workers often reported that remote work opportunities presented a positive intervention.  In particular, remote work allows some DNW to be in employment when this may otherwise be difficult. For instance, working regularly from home may help individuals on the autistic spectrum by limiting difficult in-person social interactions and providing greater control of their environment:

“I can message my colleagues, whereas in an office I’d find it hard to approach people. I find it easier to present virtually and have massively increased my skills in this area. I have been able to get to know my colleagues better as I type better than I speak.” (Participant on the autistic spectrum)

Often, ameliorations help to make the experience more effective, according to individuals’ needs. When specific needs are not considered, remote working can trigger serious difficulties. For example, work life balance could suffer for individuals with ADHD, and for those with sensory impairments:

“I found it almost impossible to ever switch off. I think I had about a three-month period where in all honesty I was working probably about 7:00 am till 10:00 pm almost every day. (…) I just had this strange nervous energy, because I could see my computer screen, I felt like I should always be working.” (Participant with ADHD)

Disabled and neurodivergent workers reported that being offered a flexible and tailored approach to remote work can help them to attend to their needs whilst being able to remain working:

“It’s quite handy to have flexibility. For sure ’cause, I gotta go through like flare ups. So, I never know when it’s going to happen, so I like to think my workplace would have had that flexibility.” (Participant with a disability)

Overall, we found that the employees stressed the importance of employers understanding and listening to their individual needs, to make remote working accessible and optimal for all.

So, what can employers do to promote Remote4All?

Having identified what workers need to work well remotely, we also took on board the good practices and suggestions of our employers and stakeholders. We came up with 4 ways in which employers can help to make work Remote4All.

1 Develop an inclusive, compassionate work culture, and remote working policy, that considers everyone’s needs

Stakeholders advised that the pandemic ‘put remote e-working on the map’, offering many opportunities for DNW but at the same time also ‘creating real challenges’. They suggested the need of an overarching policy on remote and flexible work, to be properly and intrinsically inclusive for all (whatever the specific disabilities and neurodivergence may be).

“the first thing is definitely you need to have a good policy and overarching policy which defines clearly borders both for management and employees. (…) but that general policy needs then to be able to be tailored to specific situations where then it’s a more a bilateral negotiation between the manager and the specific individual.” (Stakeholder, international)

2 Focus on recruiting and developing talents and skills for DNW

Employers indicated that remote working can provide increased accessibility and the ability to recruit the best talent from anywhere in the world, because distance and commuting obstacles are reduced (commuting can be especially difficult for DNW). They underlined the need to rethink recruitment, career development and training processes for DNW, to optimise access. Although technology can be a great means to enhancing inclusivity, it is essential to ensure that people have skills to access this, to gain the full benefit from remote working.

“(…) I think something that helps people identify their strengths…, so, some questioning around strength-based skills. So, you know again, you know, if, for people with autism, for example, I think it’s very, their level of creativity and ability to bounce between ideas is really massively underrated” (Participant from public sector organisation)

“(…) a challenge of remote working is that you might be given this software, but suddenly that training that you might have had face to face pre pandemic is now on the whole being delivered remotely. And actually although currently the research is suggesting that it’s not impacting on the quality of the training – and I don’t think it is – there’s obviously some people that would still prefer it to be face to face”. (Stakeholder, UK)

3 Start early with personalised advocacy and support from on boarding/induction onwards

Employers in our sample highlighted the need to really understand the challenges that DNW face, and the importance of advocacy/support from the beginning of their employment.

“It’s a bare minimum [that] people shouldn’t have barriers to doing their work, so we need to remove those [barriers] in the physical and the digital workplace”. (Participant from private sector organisation)

Promoting self-awareness through coaching was suggested to be very important, particularly for DNW who might not be fully aware of their own potential. Understanding and agreeing on what reasonable adjustments are, is not always considered straightforward, as people’s needs can be complex and greatly varied.

4 Define and understand the important role of line managers

The role of line managers was suggested to be pivotal to promote inclusiveness and to help identify appropriate support for disabled and neurodivergent remote workers. Hence, training and guidance for line managers was considered a key priority.

“…so, it’s more the adaptations in place are quite often more about education and awareness of your team, your manager and maybe some coaching to support you or your manager.” (Participant from private sector organisation)

Overall, employers provided good case studies on how they were supporting DNW remote workers; however, they also realised there is more to do to develop a greater understanding and tailored approach for this group.

Next steps

To help employers foster Remote4All work environments, we are next planning:

  1. The production and dissemination of an animation, to share our key research findings.
  2. Working with the key informants to produce an inclusive Remote4All toolkit.
  3. Establishing a network for employers and stakeholders to enhance the knowledge of DNW and to share best practice for inclusive remote working practices.

In conclusion, our research suggests that it is pivotal for organisations to understand the individual needs of DNW. But it is equally important to see and to support their talents, enabling this group of remote workers to thrive. Employers and employees can work together to co-create a trusting and inclusive environment with the most suitable work arrangements, supporting both individual needs and that of the business. We hope that this will promote a compassionate Remote4All work culture.

*Please note other terms are used in other contexts and internationally.

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