Last reviewed 17 July 2020

The threat of coronavirus has turned our usual way of working on its head. Laura King suggests what organisations should take into account to ensure that any changes are inclusive to all.

The speed at which businesses have responded to the threat of the coronavirus is testament to how agile corporations can be when required. However, while the need to make decisive and rapid changes has kept businesses operating throughout the crisis, in some cases it has also left certain groups of people behind.

Those who rely on lip-reading, for example, will find it harder to communicate if everyone around them is wearing a facemask, or if the images in the video conference keep freezing. Those with visual impairments might be unable to see new posters, arrows, or other visual aids designed to designate “flow” through an office or “safe” spaces; and those who would normally use assistive technology might struggle if the laptop they have been assigned for working from home has not been properly set up.

Times are rapidly changing — but this does not mean that diversity and meaningful inclusion should become an optional “nice to have”. An inclusive and diverse workplace is also a sustainable one: after all, social justice is a hallmark of a progressive society in which everyone, including organisations, can flourish.

Organisations also have a perfect opportunity to continuously re-evaluate their position. With regular reviews of Covid-19 risk assessments, and the continuing need to adapt and respond to the changing demands of the crisis, organisations have a chance to do better, be innovative, and to truly adopt effective practices towards equality.

What does the law say?

Despite the huge shift in how the world looks, employers’ responsibilities under the Equalities Act 2010 have not changed. Indeed, some have warned that businesses may face a raft of disability discrimination claims if they do not treat certain members of staff fairly during the coronavirus crisis.

To help organisations make sound decisions, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has issued guidance, including general advice for employers, as well as what reasonable adjustments should be made for those with protected characteristics.

In essence, employers should make sure that any decisions they make do not directly or indirectly discriminate against employees with protected characteristics (including age, disability, race, or sex).

Organisations are also required to provide reasonable adjustments to remove or minimise any disadvantages that those with disabilities may have. Reasonable adjustments could include:

  • changing general policies, eg allowing employees with protected characteristics to work from home if they are at a greater risk of catching the virus

  • making sure any Covid-19 workplace adjustments are also appropriate for a disabled member of staff

  • providing disabled members of staff with the equipment they need to continue to do their job.

What does the Covid-19 secure guidance say?

The Government addresses this requirement for equality in its Covid-19 secure guidance. The guidance for offices and contact centres covers equality in section 2.3. Here, there is an emphasis on organisations understanding the requirements of those with protected characteristics as well as what considerations, measures and adjustments are needed under the legislation.

Who else is affected?

Although many who are likely to be finding life more difficult during the pandemic will have protected characteristics (eg those over the age of 70 or expectant mothers), others will not. For example, although employers have legal duties to ensure the health and safety of all employees, some who are identified by the Government as “vulnerable” or “extremely vulnerable” are not offered additional protection under the Equalities Act. This might include those with lung conditions, heart disease or diabetes.

In addition to employees with a higher risk of illness, there will also be individuals who may not self-identify as being disabled but who are finding the changes to their working conditions difficult to manage. One example might be a neurodivergent person who is finding the change in their routine very disruptive. Another example might be individuals who are finding themselves more anxious or stressed.

How to approach inclusivity

All this brings us back to the start: as a people, we are varied and diverse. Offering a flexible approach and accommodating diversity will make an organisation more resilient and more sustainable going forward. Furthermore, many of us will have had our eyes opened to a world in which we are vulnerable and unable to do the things we would like to do. During this period of change, organisations have a chance to use this collective experience to build a better way of working.

Here are three issues an organisation should consider to adopt a more inclusive approach.

Do the new working arrangements uphold equality?

This means making sure that the measures adopted as part of the Covid-19 response provide an equal footing for everyone.

Consider, for example, video meetings. Can the “chat” function be automatically read out for those who are visually impaired? Can subtitles be used and participants muted to avoid sensory overload or to help people who rely on lip-reading? Can transcripts be produced afterwards, and is it possible to circulate briefings and slides beforehand?

In the re-jigged office, think about whether those with a disability can still access a suitable desk and handwashing facilities? Can everyone get to work safely?

One way of checking that measures that have been adopted are inclusive is by working with charities and not-for-profit organisations such as Business Disability Forum.

Are you communicating properly?

Not only does this mean having regular contact with staff and understanding and responding to individual requirements, it also means making sure that any official communications sent out can be understood by everyone.

For example:

  • visual aids should be talked through for those with visual impairments

  • webinars and meetings should be checked to ensure they are fully inclusive

  • people should have a choice about how they receive information.

Change the culture

Many people, regardless of their previous experiences, are now trying to navigate a new world with limitations and additional dangers. Sadly, this is not a new situation for some, and there is much that can be learnt from those who have already lived this experience.

In this period of adaptation, there is an opportunity to ask what is working, try new things, take risks and implement change. Here, giving people with protected characteristics an opportunity to influence this period of transformation will be crucial in ensuring a more inclusive future.

Conclusion

Organisations are changing how they operate and what their workplaces look like. These adjustments have the potential to leave some behind — especially those who are already disadvantaged. However, with any change comes opportunity and now is the opportunity to create policies that are more inclusive, as well as to foster a culture that is more considerate towards our differences.

  • Before opening up a workplace, a Covid-19 secure risk assessment should have been undertaken. Re-evaluate these in light of inclusivity by working with employees, staff representatives and disabled charities to ensure that best practice is being adopted.

  • Obligations under the Equalities Act have not gone away; check that every step taken by the organisation is in line with its requirements.

  • Use this time of change to adopt progressive practices. Most workforces will be varied and include people with differing needs and situations. Building an inclusive culture and adopting inclusive workplace policies will make the organisation more robust over the long-term.