In early April, MIT conducted a survey that asked a single question: “Have you started to work from home in the last four weeks?”
The results showed that 34.1 percent of employees who had commuted to work just four weeks earlier were now working from home. That’s on top of the 14.6 percent who said they were already working from home in some way before COVID-19.
This trend is likely to bring greater disability inclusion to the workplace. Remote work was declared a reasonable accommodation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1999. But many employers have refused to allow it due to harmful myths, and sometimes a lack of understanding of the law.
Now, for many companies, those myths are being busted in real time. And the results are starting to become clear. Some major companies are already extending their work-from-home arrangements—or even going remote for good.
One benefit of a good work-from-home policy is a wider talent pool. Because many people with disabilities are well-prepared to work from home, companies can broaden their reach when looking for candidates.
So now is the right time to take a look at what’s working and what’s not in your existing work-from-home policy. That way, you’ll be set up to provide the right support to employees, now and in the future.
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A solid work-from-home policy prioritizes two things—flexibility and communication.
“Good work-from-home policies give employees permission to take care of themselves and encourage them to communicate with the team. They let employees know that whatever we as an organization can do to help, we will do, and that their health and safety is our number one priority,” says Katie Aholt, director of people engagement at Understood.
Make sure your policy addresses the needs of employees with disabilities. Some may need reasonable accommodations to work from home, as outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Accommodations can vary depending on the disability. For example, if you’re visually impaired, you may need a screen reader for your computer at home. Most accommodations are cost-effective,” Aholt says. Research has shown that most accommodations cost nothing, and the rest have a one-time cost averaging $500.
Aholt adds that employers should create people-first policies.
“You must make clarity and communication the new norm,” she says. “You must have a level of trust and an assumption of good intent. And over-communicate as much as possible.”
Here are a few things Aholt recommends companies add to their work-from-home policies:
Flexible work hours: Flexible work hours give employees the ability to run necessary errands and take care of children. They also allow for employees to take care of their own health. Consider building flexibility into your policy to show trust and reduce stress.
Caregiver support: Some employees find working from home to be an attractive option because it gives them more options to care for children and other family members. Many employees may have children with disabilities who need particular types of care. And regardless of disability status, caring for children or other family can be a challenge—whether or not it’s related to COVID-19. Policies should be considerate of employees with caregiving responsibilities, both now and into the future. For example, you might offer extra time off specifically for caregiving needs.
Clear expectations about availability: To account for the added flexibility, employers should set clear expectations when it comes to availability. That might include guidance around how and when to use specific communication tools. If needed, you could set core working hours when employees are generally expected to be available.
Open communication: Specify that it’s OK for employees to tell their manager when they need personal or professional support. Make up for the lack of in-person interaction by encouraging strong communication.
Aholt also says that companies should work with their general counsel to make sure their work-from-home policies are ADA compliant.
When the pandemic slows down, working from home will probably remain popular. Now is the time to prepare by revamping your approaches and policies. With clear guidelines in place, you can build a more flexible and inclusive workplace.