Hybrid Work and Disabled People: Post-Pandemic Policy Problems

Hybrid Work and Disabled People: Post-Pandemic Policy Problems

Urte Macikene

The pandemic forced a revolution in working practices on organisations and employees alike, and a much larger proportion of the workforce continue to work remotely than ever before

A growing body of research shows that a hybrid work environment appropriately designed around workers’ individual support needs can contribute to raised productivity, increased prosperity and a happier and healthier workforce. There is also evidence to show that remote working practices can help enhance working capacities of employees.

Through discussions with stakeholders and policymakers, IPPO identified a particular interest in the impact of hybrid working on the experiences and employment outcomes of disabled people. Around 23% of the UK working age population are disabled under the Equality Act 2010 definition, an increase from 19% before the pandemic. There is a significant ‘disability employment gap’, with the overall difference in the employment rate of disabled people and non-disabled people being 29% in early 2023.

This briefing paper is the product of a programme of work on hybrid work and disability undertaken in summer and autumn 2023 to understand the current policy landscape, provide discussion of policy options for the future and make several high-level recommendations.

Please find our full policy report below.

Our review of evidence and discussions with experts indicate that hybrid working is desirable for most workers and can bring important additional benefits for disabled people. Yet it can also create additional challenges and new access needs for some. Opportunities and rights for hybrid working should be expanded but must be paired with additional support where needed to support equality in the workplace.

For disabled people to get benefits from hybrid working, they should have maximum autonomy and control over their working pattern. Good practice guidance and examples are important to normalise hybrid working, and reforms to enforcement and support mechanisms for reasonable adjustments are needed.

Hybrid working is not equally available to all, and disabled people are more likely to work in industries where hybrid working is less routine. Government support and encouragement for these industries to trial approaches to flexible working could help.

We still don’t know enough about the long-term impact of hybrid working on disabled people’s capacity to work, or even about take-up of flexible working among different groups and industries.  Other countries have trialled different methods of supporting and encouraging disabled people at work – such as disability employment quotas – but evaluations of these are scarce. We need more standardisation of data collection and more qualitative and quantitative evaluation of disabled people’s experiences in hybrid work to embed positive lessons across the economy.

Key recommendations

For government:

  1. The next Government should prioritise introducing a UK-wide right to flexible working for all workers, which would allow disabled workers to benefit without penalisation or stigma
  2. Enforcement of workplace rights should be brought under the Equality Act and a single enforcement body should be empowered to tackle discrimination at work
  3. The Department of Work and Pensions should prioritise reforming Access to Work to allow for more streamlined processes for applicants and provision for greater employer engagement in applications
  4. The Government should establish targeted funding and resource to pilot innovative approaches to flexible working for employers who may find it more challenging, such as small or service-oriented businesses. Evaluations of these initiatives should include qualitative engagement and quantitative outcomes monitoring.
  5. The Government should make available all data it collects on employment and disability to the wider research community to stimulate analysis and discussion, and should prioritise collection of more longitudinal data on disabled people’s employment outcomes
  6. The Government should consider methods to encourage better reporting on take-up of flexible working by employee demographic (gender, occupational level, disability status) and distinguishing between different types of arrangements (e.g. part-time, term-time working, job shares, flexitime, hybrid and homeworking). This could be reported as part of annual gender pay gap reporting, or through disability reporting for ‘Disability Confident’ employers.

For employers:

  1. Employers should always display flexible working options on job adverts, normalising flexible working for all and giving applicants choice and transparency
  2. The Flexible Working Task Force should support research comparing international policy responses to supporting disabled people in a hybrid work environment, considering alternative solutions such as disability quotas and their potential application in the UK
  3. The Flexible Working Taskforce should initiate a campaign to attract more employers to the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme which involves voluntary disability reporting, with a view to making disability reporting mandatory within the next decade
  4. The Flexible Working Taskforce should develop clear, sector-wide definitions for terms like ‘flexible work’ and ‘hybrid work’ to ensure comparability across research and data sources, and seek endorsement for these from key industry bodies

For researchers and advocacy groups:

  1. Invest in research comparing international policy responses to supporting disabled people in a hybrid work environment, considering alternative solutions such as disability quotas and their potential application in the UK
  2. Work to evaluate long-term impacts of hybrid working on disabled people, including analysing Disability Confident reporting, gathering data on how reasonable adjustment requests are dealt with, and reporting on how reform of the Work Capability Assessment will impact disabled people
  3. Continue concerted action to publish, gather, and share good practice to support employers and managers to offer hybrid working with appropriate individual support

For more information about this work, please email Urte Mackiene.