Remote for All: Time to Include People with Disability and/or Neurodiversity in the Remote Working Discussion

21 June 2022

After two years of living with the pandemic, discussions about the effectiveness of remote working are still at the forefront of debate. However, these discussions rarely focus on workers with neurodiversity and/or disability.

For many organisations remote working is here to stay for the longer term (at least in a hybrid form), but what does this ‘new normal’ of work look like for Workers with Neurodiversity and/or Disability (WND)?

Findings from the Institute for Employment Studies and the charity Leonard Cheshire suggest that the employment gap has widened for these workers during Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2021 it was proposed that about 71% of WND working population lost income, were furloughed, or were made redundant. The World Health Organisation endorsed remote working for workers with disability during the pandemic, to reduce their exposure to COVID-19, but it appears that this may have contributed to WND being victim to a “first out, last back” philosophy. In other words, during the pandemic, WND may have found it harder to continue their employment as compared to their neurotypical or non-disabled co-workers.

In our Remote 4 All (‘R4All’) Digit-funded project, we want to better understand the experiences and needs of WND in relation to remote work. We conducted a rapid literature review to identify the prominent themes emerging from academic, practitioner and media articles, and the gaps in our knowledge about WND and remote work. Here’s what we found.

Benefits of remote working for WND

First, the literature suggests that remote working can benefit WND in different ways. In particular, it allows organisations to gain and retain employees by accommodating their needs. For example, for some employees with physical impairments, commuting to work can be a big struggle, or even impossible. Remote working can be the only way for such individuals to complete their work. In addition, working remotely may remove overwhelming sensory distractions and reduce social communication demands (e.g. being able to switch off the video camera), which can be helpful for some neurodivergent populations.

Obstacles to remote working for WND

Although remote working offers opportunities for WND, it can also involve barriers to their enjoyment of flexible working. For example, Bosua and Gloet found that managers may not trust employees to be away from their computers/desks when remote working, leading to greater surveillance. This can be an issue for WND who require more breaks or a more flexible schedule. Further, employees – particularly WND – may become ‘invisible’ to their colleagues and managers when working remotely, leading to presenteeism, anxiety issues, or feelings of loneliness. In addition, managers may lack awareness about how to gain funding for reasonable adjustments for WND working remotely. Adjustments offered to WND can also trigger negative reactions from colleagues.

Technology has widely been lauded for its enabling role when working remotely. For example, technology can reduce verbal processing demands, with text-based communication allowing pausing and processing time between topics (a preference of some people with autism).

However, technology may also be the catalyst of inequality. This is because mainstream technology used in virtual work settings (e.g., web-conferencing tools) often fails to consider the experiences and needs of workers with neurodiversity and/or disability in its design.

Additionally, the American Community Survey in 2018 suggested that WND are less likely to live in homes with Internet access, which can be constraining to their employment prospects, supported also by more recent data.

Areas for improvement for remote Workers with Neurodiversity/Disability

The paradox, after reviewing the extant literature, is that whilst remote working seems to offer a means to increase inclusion for WND, employers, line managers and colleagues may lack awareness, knowledge and understanding of disability and neurodiversity and the reasonable adjustments that are needed. A lack of evaluation of workable remote working interventions and technologies for WND also seems to be an issue.

Greater insight is needed into the workplace accommodations that WND need or would like to see in place, and which would be the most effective. The employers’ perspective is also valuable as to what kind of workplace accommodations they can adopt to effectively support individual needs.

Our research to date has shown that greater insights are required into how remote working arrangements can allow WND to reach their full potential at work.

We want to understand whether current work environments support remote WND sufficiently, and how issues (including stereotyping, stigmas, and lack of visibility) can be tackled moving forwards. This knowledge is pivotal in guiding organisations, supervisors, policymakers and HR professionals to ensure that WND receive due attention and their needs are accommodated.

The ‘Remote 4 All’ team is currently conducting interviews with employees, employers, and key stakeholders to gain an in-depth understanding of challenges, opportunities, and experiences, which will then assist in developing a toolkit for employers and policy-makers. Our view is that employers, organizations and society have an obligation to create an empathetic and supportive environment, that considers the individual needs of all workers. This is essential not only to support people in being their most productive selves at work, but also to ensure that the physical and mental wellbeing of workers is preserved and promoted.

Workers with neurodiversity and/or disability have much to offer the working world, and it is now time to understand how this can be harnessed when remote working.

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