Disabled Workers’ Experiences of Remote and Hybrid Working Offer Lessons for Employers and Policymakers

Disabled Workers’ Experiences of Remote and Hybrid Working Offer Lessons for Employers and Policymakers

Calum Carson, Urte Macikene and Rebecca Florisson

As the debate continues to rage between the merits of remote and hybrid working and returning workers more permanently to the office, it is important to understand how disabled workers experience the workplace to ensure that employers and policymakers can develop more effective ways of making work more inclusive of their needs. 

The design and structure of remote and hybrid working strategies should work for the entirety of a workforce rather than for only non-disabled workers.

Making the future of work inclusive: the importance of academic research

There is a critical role for researchers across the UK to explore disabled workers’ experiences through their work, some of which are highlighted within this article. 

In 2022, the Work Foundation and Lancaster University conducted a survey of 406 disabled people working remotely or in a hybrid way and 15 interviews. The research found that 70% of disabled workers expected to experience negative impacts on their physical or mental health if their employer did not allow them to work remotely. They also reported clear benefits to working from home, including having more autonomy and control over when and how they work, which allowed them to better manage their health and wellbeing. 

An example of larger-scale ongoing research is the Inclusive Hybrid and Remote Working Study. Primarily conducted by researchers at Lancaster University and the Work Foundation, and led by Principal Investigator Dr Paula Holland, this project is conducting a UK-wide survey with disabled workers to better understand their experiences over the past five years of remote and hybrid working. It aims to identify unmet support needs that would enable disabled people to work remotely more effectively and happily, and suggest what can be done to ensure these needs are more consistently met. You can add your own voice to this research by participating in the survey through this link until January 2024, too.

The project will also be conducting a series of interviews with disabled workers across the next six months to better explore these issues on an individual basis, with these findings then used to produce a good practice guide for employers on designing hybrid and remote working strategies in disability-inclusive ways. Interviews will be conducted with employers and policymakers to better understand their own perspectives, too, providing further lessons for each. 

The International Public Policy Observatory has also focused on exploring what we currently do and do not know about the effect that changes to working patterns since the pandemic are having on individuals’ wellbeing and economic productivity. This autumn, IPPO will synthesise and share evidence focused on disability and hybrid working, an expert roundtable, an international policy scan, a policy briefing synthesising current evidence and best practice, and a series of blogs on the IPPO website.

Through such academic research, among other studies, an important contribution will be made to the ongoing discussions surrounding the future of work and the role of remote and hybrid working models in a post-pandemic landscape, placing the experiences and needs of disabled workers at the heart of these debates and on to the desks of employers and policymakers. 

Bridging the gap: turning academic research into policy 

Within such a rapidly changing environment, it is important that the insights derived from academic research are both heard and acted upon by policymakers across the UK. At the time of writing there is a growing concerted effort from larger employers to bring workers more permanently back into the office, highlighting the need for engagement with policy-makers around existing (and future) research into the remote working experiences of disabled workers. 

Ensuring that disabled peoples’ voices are heard is often as much about establishing strong and trusting relationships between academic researchers and policymakers as it is about the findings of the research in question. Establishing and strengthening these links is something that is at the heart of the International Public Policy Observatory’s mission, with IPPO researchers exploring new means and methods for linking action to evidence, and how these can best be used in practice.

The need for research advocacy exploring worker experiences and effectively communicating them to policymakers is crucial with regards to understanding wider support and labour market interventions that can help close the disability gap, too, particularly in the face of employers arguing for a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Inequalities in the workplace: combating existing disparities, identifying new risks

The unequal ways in which disabled workers experience the post-pandemic workplace are not isolated to when and where they work. For example, recent research from the Work Foundation highlighted that disabled workers are at greater risk of experiencing insecure forms of employment, with 27% of disabled workers (1.3 million) currently experiencing severely insecure work in the UK compared to 19% of non-disabled workers. These figures demonstrate that making the world of work more inclusive for disabled people goes beyond their day-to-day experiences within the workplace, and that existing inequalities must be effectively tackled.

Given the complexity of these existing inequalities, we should also be reluctant to seek simple solutions to the question of how to make future forms of remote and hybrid working more inclusive: for example, that the “answer” to improving disabled workers’ professional lives can be found in simply providing them with a greater level of freedom and flexibility in being able to work from home more often (or entirely). Such a focus could take away the imperative for employers to reflect on their present efforts at ensuring that disabled workers’ needs are met within the office itself: for example, do they have access to the equipment that they need to work both at home and at the office?

Previous academic research has highlighted this as a cause for concern among disabled workers already. For example, a Work Foundation study reported concerns from disabled workers that they might lose access to opportunities at work if they were to be based entirely at home, with these concerns greatest among individuals with multiple impairments or conditions. Seven in ten respondents (70.3%) with multiple impairments agreed that opportunities to stretch and grow might only go to those in the office, compared with five in ten (52.8%) of respondents with a single impairment, and that they would miss out on critical opportunities to progress within the organisation if they were not part of the physical workplace at least some of the time. 

Similarly, previous research conducted with disabled workers across the pandemic by the International Public Policy Observatory highlighted the fragility of social bonds for many disabled people outside of the workplace, particularly for those with intellectual disabilities, demonstrating the value many disabled workers place on being able to work both at home and at the office, rather than advocating for only one or the other. 

Given this existing evidence available to us on disabled workers’ needs, then, alongside new research findings continuing to be collected by various academic research projects across the UK, we should be wary of simpler answers to the question of how to make the future of work more inclusive.

The time is now

As we continue to emerge from the most severe stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of academic research in guiding the future shape of the workplace is more critical than ever. This is time-critical research: employers are making decisions now about future ways of working that will affect the long-term working conditions, health, and wellbeing of disabled workers, with many considering returning to a pre-pandemic office-first approach, making it critical that the voices of those who will be affected by such policies be heard (and lessons from their experiences learned).

Similarly, policymakers are in turn currently exploring how best to design guidance for employers to best implement new remote and hybrid working models within their organisations, and what the shape of the legal regulatory framework will look like in which they will be taking these decisions. The urgency of these discussions demands the establishment and maintenance of effective relationships between policymakers and academic researchers, both through engagement efforts regarding individual projects but also from organisations such as the International Public Policy Observatory, and their commitment to helping to uphold these linkages between research and policy. 

Taken together, these efforts will make an important contribution to ensuring that employers and policy-makers take decisions about the future of work in an inclusive and fair-minded way, taking the needs of all employees into account.