The below article is written by Diversity and Inclusion Architect, Toby Mildon. Before establishing his own D&I practice Toby served as D&I Manager for Deloitte and the BBC. Below he shares fascinating insights, from growing up with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and how he never letting it dampen his ambitions to achieve the dream of working for large organisations.
One of my favourite things about the Equality Act 2010 is the provision of reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. Reasonable adjustments are designed to “remove or minimise disadvantages experienced by disabled people”. However, I believe that reasonable adjustments should be made available to all employees so that everyone can have the tools they need to thrive in their job. Using the word Reasonable also confuses people – let’s just call them Workplace Adjustments or smart working. A disabled employee may need flexibility in when they start working because rush-hour commuter traffic makes things particularly difficult for them (and let’s be honest who enjoys commuter rush-hour anyway) but this is no different to a working parent who needs to drop their kids off at school and start after 9 AM. A very simple question we should ask each and every employee is what is slowing you down or preventing you from thriving in your job? In other words, what are the speed humps or roadblocks in your way? And (as your employer) what can I do to remove these for you?
“Working from home in 2019 is not a benefit. Stop putting it on jobs specs, it should be a given.”
I spend a lot of my time on LinkedIn hearing what people have to say about equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. There was one particular thread that became incredibly popular a couple of years ago. This particular post has had over 500 comments and has been liked by over 11,000 people. The post begins “Working from home in 2019 is not a benefit. Stop putting it on jobs specs, it should be a given” and ends with “And the truth is, flexible working isn’t forward thinking anymore. It’s just something that nowadays, for most organisations, should be the norm. At least if they want to get the most from their employees”.
Fast forward to 2020 and 2021 we have seen many employers embrace flexible and agile working due to the pressures of working through the pandemic. I really hope that this can continue beyond the pandemic.
Throughout my career (which started in circa 2003 at British Airways) I have been lucky to work for businesses that have embraced flexible working. However, I know that there are many organisations that don’t embrace flexible working (or certainly don’t go over and above the legal requirements). And even in those organisations that do embrace broader agile or smart working, it is often limited to where you work (for example, the ability to work from home occasionally) and not so much when you work or even how you work. And this flexibility might not be consistent across the whole organisation and made available only to a few. I believe that introducing workplace adjustments for everybody will allow us to move beyond flexible working towards greater freedoms in other essential areas for making people more productive and happier in their work.
The term Reasonable Adjustment can cause some confusion and throw up some objections.
People often jump to asking, well what does “reasonable” actually mean. If somebody needs to work from home five days a week, is that reasonable? If somebody needs to wear noise cancelling headphones in the office, is that reasonable? If somebody needs an ergonomic chair (that is not standard issue from Occupational Health), is that reasonable? If I make an adjustment for Joe do I also need to make sure Joanne gets the same? Within the Equality Act there is a way of determining whether something is reasonable or not. It essentially boils down to whether an adjustment made is effective, practical, affordable, what resources you have available and availability of financial support. Putting the legal obligation of providing such adjustments to one side and the fact that a government scheme called Access to Work can be used to pay towards adjustments. In reality, providing workplace adjustments to disabled employees is actually much lower than expected. According to The Disability Rights Commission, the average cost of adjustments is just £75.
Workplace Adjustments not Reasonable Adjustments
Instead of Reasonable Adjustments, I prefer to talk about Workplace Adjustments and flexing job design to help disabled people (and remember, even nondisabled colleagues) thrive alongside their peers. Workplace Adjustments for disabled people usually fall into six categories.
Communication – This is about how we communicate with each other at work and our physical appearance
Paperwork – This is about working with documents and forms
Computers – This is about making computers and other technology (including mobile devices, tablets, touchscreen devices etc.) accessible to everybody
Workspace – This is about your personal workspace at work like your desk
Workplace – This is about your workplace environment, like your office
Travel – This is about travelling for your job (for example, to visit clients) or getting to and from work
Keeping an engaged workforce
I was diagnosed with a genetic neuromuscular disability when I was just one year old called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. This means that over the years my muscles have gradually weakened to the extent that nowadays I cannot lift my arms to feed myself. I rely on 24-hour personal care assistants to do everything for me from brushing my teeth to turning my laptop on. However, growing up with SMA has never dampened my ambitions and I achieved my dream of working for large organisations like British Airways, Accenture, the BBC and Deloitte. I began my career as an IT Project Manager and moved into Diversity and Inclusion whilst working for the BBC. I was responsible for implementing our gender balance action plan in our tech heavy Design and Engineering division (whilst I was working on refreshing the BBC News website). I have been able to continue working because of the workplace adjustments that my employers have put in place for me. I have also decided to leave organisations on the basis that they were not particularly welcoming of my disability or very forthcoming in making workplace adjustments. The case in point being that if organisations don’t implement workplace adjustments for their employees, they are at a very real risk of losing their talent or having a disengaged workforce.
Examples of workplace adjustments that my employers have made available to me (along with associated costs)
Communication – if my phone rings I cannot lift it up to my ear or I have to rely on my PA to put my headset on. Therefore, my colleagues know that I prefer to talk through Microsoft Teams (or equivalent) or text messaging instead.
Cost: nothing as this is existing software in use in the firm.
Paperwork – as I cannot use a pen I do as much as possible electronically on my laptop or phone. Colleagues would email not print out documents for me. I would take meeting notes on my iPhone instead of a notepad. I would sign documents electronically using a PDF editor instead of handwriting signatures.
Cost: nothing because this is pre-existing technology (and I’m doing my bit towards the environment!)
Computers – I prefer to use a laptop than a PC as a laptop trackpad is better for me to use and I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is speech to text software to write documents – including this article – and emails.
Cost: very little since all employees were issued a laptop (so no special treatment for me) and the organisations had a bulk licence for the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. But if you bought this software from the vendor it’s about £440 (and I can type emails twice as fast as the average words per minute)
Workspace – whilst we “hot desked” I was allocated a fixed desk (so I knew I could manoeuvre my wheelchair easily up to it) with an adjacent desk for my personal care assistant. There was an understanding in my office that if I was not at my desk by 10 AM then it was free for anybody else to use.
Workplace – I just need regular disabled/wheelchair access into my building like ramps and lifts and disabled toilets that all modern offices provide. Even when I was working as a consultant on client site (and we could have been working anywhere, like an old 1940s telephone exchange) my company were pretty good at making sure I had somewhere accessible to work.
Cost: nothing as the office was built with accessibility in mind (except for the 1940s Telephone exchange!).
Travel – with only 20% of London’s underground system step free getting to and from work (especially during rush-hour and in cold weather which is not good for my disability) and visiting clients can be tricky. This is where Access to Work was a lifesaver for me. Access to Work which is a Department for Work and Pensions schemes contributed towards my taxis to and from work. I made a personal contribution to each journey (just like I would pay for my tube fares to work) and they paid the rest of the fare.
Cost: nothing as my employer was not expected to contribute anything under this scheme. Whilst the taxi fares did come out of the government’s purse, a government commissioned report found that for every £1 invested in AtW, £1.48 is returned to the Treasury, which is a pretty good return on investment in disabled people.
Workplace adjustments for nondisabled employees
The above examples prove that workplace adjustments don’t need to be expensive and can be very simple in reality. Providing such workplace adjustments for nondisabled employees as well could really go a long way in making people productive, happier and more engaged at work. Here are some real world examples of businesses providing such flexibility and adjustments for their people:
Communication – making sure that all of your training films are subtitled as this not only helps people with hearing impairments but helps people where English is a second language, or they are working in a noisy environment or have simply forgotten their headphones to listen to the training.
Paperwork – who really does enjoy filling out paperwork? Invest in time-saving apps and software to electronically sign documents with clients, automated workflow to minimise data re-entry (and associated errors). It’s less paperwork and more efficient.
Computers – make laptops standard issue rather than a mix of laptops for some people (like your salesforce) and desktop PCs for others. Modern work environments need people to be mobile and agile so why not just issue everybody a laptop or tablet.
Workspace – the best workplaces provide different types of work environments within their office For different types of tasks that need to be completed. They provide team collaboration spaces, quiet focus booths, team tables, large meeting rooms, small meeting rooms and relaxation spaces to unwind. Somebody with autism may like to work in a focused booth where there is less distraction from loud noises or bright lights just the same as somebody who needs to get their head down to finish that crucial report for a board meeting.
Workplace – the most important one here is in flexible hours. There are organisations that operate on really simple principles, which are: you are judged on the value that you deliver and not how much time you spend sat at your desk; you can work anywhere you like where you feel the most productive; and you can work at any time you like in order to get the job done.
Questions to ask that will ensure happy staff and employers
There are many benefits to providing your employees with workplace adjustments. This is crucial if you want to retain your people and attract the best candidates to your organisation. You can start providing workplace adjustments very easily by asking your current employees two simple questions.
The first question: what prevents you from thriving in your job? As in, what speed humps and roadblocks are in your way?
The second question: what do we need to do (as an employer) to remove these barriers for you? Then go about eliminating these barriers so that your people can flourish in order to grow your own business.
Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion Architect.
Toby helps companies be more inclusive of the diverse UK talent pool and breadth of human experience by reengineering business processes and addressing cultural barriers.
Before establishing his own D&I practice Toby served as D&I Manager for Deloitte and the BBC. Toby is also a qualified Corporate & Executive Coach and NLP Practitioner with Neuroscience.
Toby predominantly works with heads of HR to create their diversity and inclusion strategies for his groundbreaking Inclusive Growth Culture Programme.
Toby has over a decade of management experience on international projects working with the BBC, Accenture, British Airways, Cerner, Vodafone, Microsoft, BT and Ofcom.