Return to Work: One Size Does Not Fit All

Young woman at office desk, unhappy about return to work post-pandemic

We have all seen clothing labels that read “One size fits all.” Over the past few months, employers have been calling their employees back to the workplace, however, for some workers, this has created a situation where one size does not fit all. Certain employees are asking for consideration, exceptions, and accommodation. Nancy Doyle published in Forbes that “One rule cannot apply to all. Disabled and neurodivergent people still require flexibility and might need a different rule.” Read on to learn about the impact return to work orders can have on some of our clients.

For many of our workforces, the pandemic imposed a quick pivot to a remote work environment. Employees quickly adapted and many reported improved productivity and well-being. The most significant impact of this remote work model was a reported increase in meaningful work amongst underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities.

Remote work was not for everyone, though. Some employees felt they were unable to disconnect from work at the end of the day, or that remote work might have a negative impact on their career. Many really missed the social connection — a key factor contributing to well-being — of the  on-site work model.

Remote Work is Disability Inclusive

Nancy Doyle’s article explains that “From the first lockdown, the pandemic provided a levelling of the playing field for disabled workers. Travel is disproportionately difficult for us, because at home we have access to the environmental augmentations that we need.”

For example, for employees “with sensory sensitivities, the lack of background noise, bright lights, and desk hopping meant we could concentrate on our work and deliver our best work. This was exciting and has helped employers understand that remote working is a valid reasonable accommodation/adjustment.”

“For the world’s 1.3 billion disabled people, the opportunity to prove our worth with flexible and remote work is reverberating across the radar of many strategic human resources teams. There is a greater understanding that what people actually produce is more important than how, when, or where the activity took place.”

The Freedom to Choose

For the past 3 years, requests for accommodation were at an all time low as remote work allowed neurodiverse employees to self-accommodate. We never felt “disabled” as the focus was on our “abilities” and not our limitations. There was nothing to “disclose” as we discovered new ways of working.

Rather than impose a full time return to the office, many employers are opting for a hybrid model with two to three designated on-site days a week. This type of work arrangement, however, has resulted in some workers having to advocate for resources and accommodation; sending them back to a mindset of “something is ‘wrong’ with me that needs to be fixed.” Other employees may simply choose to stay quiet and “just try to fit in,” leaving them once again to suffer in silence. Either option ultimately holds us back from our peak performance.

Statistics have clearly demonstrated that some employees have performed at their best in a remote environment. A flexible hybrid model can offer neurodiverse employees the choice of  “if-and-when” to work from the office, without the need to disclose. Flexibility, by default, removes the burden of needing to “ask” to be treated differently. A flexible hybrid model that offers employees a choice of working remotely or on-site takes into consideration the diversity of its workforce.

Accommodation of Human Rights

According to HR reporter,Remote and hybrid work are now the norm, and the circumstances that an employer must accommodate continue to expand.” An employer has a duty to accommodate employees related to the grounds protected in human rights legislation. When an employee submits an accommodation request, the employer is “entitled to request sufficient information, including medical documentation, in order to allow them to understand the specific limitations upon the employee’s ability to carry out their duties.”

Employers can ask for functional limitations, but not a diagnosis. Employees, however, are the best resource to describe their limitations and proposed solutions. Each situation is unique, especially when it comes to accommodation for neurodiversity.

In her article, What Neurodiverse People Want Their Employers and Colleagues to Know, Rebekah Bastian writes “Please don’t try to mold neurodiverse people into your linear structures — it will destroy the unexpected possibilities and stunning results.”  The return to on-site work is creating pressure on employees to once again “pivot” to a different way of working. “Making resources for neurodiversity available only when they are requested is really hard to navigate; there’s fear that maybe it’s somehow ‘wrong’ to ask because it’s too big of a burden. The process of asking for help can then create a lot of pressure that specifically pin-points executive functioning challenges, making it hard to actualize the help.” The risk of having to justify an accommodation request is that employees will conform and disengage.

Feeling Safe to be Different

One of the risks of hiding “differences” in abilities is that individuals fear being exposed, resulting in living a life of constant fight or flight. “Being different” can trigger chronic levels of stress affecting our executive function, resulting in not being able to fully demonstrate our strengths and abilities. So, what is it that we need to feel safe?

LinkedIn tells us that “For people who are neurodivergent, in-person office culture has traditionally been a tough fit. The sounds, bright lights, and even strong smells can cause some to experience sensory overload. One of the main reasons people with cognitive differences thrive as remote workers is because they have more control over their environment.”

A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply recover to a pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but rose far past it to the highest level in over a decade. Remote work, combined with a tight labour market, explains this high rate, according to the analysis. “These findings prove that providing accommodations for people with disabilities may not require the kind of extra investment that leaders previously thought was needed. In fact, these accommodations might not involve much besides full-time remote work.” Working remotely during the pandemic appears to have been the major differentiator that enabled workers with disabilities, including those with invisible disabilities, to not only be productive, but to thrive.

When it comes to “hybrid” related accommodation requests, through having compassionate conversations it may be possible to create solutions not previously considered that could work best for everyone involved. Flexibility is key, and remember, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Carol Brochu combines a 30+ year career in HR, operations, and client service with a unique personal and spiritual development journey that has included studies in Mental Health First Aidenergy work, and self-care disciplines. She is a certified yoga and martial arts instructor, mindfulness facilitator, Me First practitioner, Certified Psychological Health and Safety Professional, CPC member, and Certified Work-Life Strategist.

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Excellent article and more organizations need to understand that we can remove barriers by providing remote work as an accommodation.

Thanks Linda. It’s not always possible to find the right words as to why we need remote work as there somehow seems to be an accommodation for each specific request. I can see the social benefits to on-site work if there was also flexibility on challenging days. It’s about feeling safe to meet each day fresh and ready to do our best work regardless of location.