The Future of Remote and Hybrid Working: Listening to the Voices of Disabled Workers by Dr Calum Carson

Sun,3 December 2023
Blog Employment Equality & Rights
Dr Calum Carson speaks about the Disabled Workers survey, which explores Disabled workers' experiences of remote and hybrid working to better inform reasonable adjustments and working patterns for our working environments.

Open any newspaper in the UK right now, and you will notice a trend among the many articles about “getting people back to the office” after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are all written from the employer’s perspective, and often contain many of the assumptions of (some) employers about what working from home means in practice. For some employers, remote working means that workers are inherently being “lazy,” while for others, not having individuals physically together in the office risks organisations missing out on “eureka moments” amongst their workforce. Some even demand a return to the workplace to prevent any risk to the value of commercial property, or because of the accompanying impact of less footfall in city centres on the hospitality sector

Employers within the UK and beyond are increasingly putting this opposition to remote and hybrid working into practice, too, and limiting or even fully reversing the freedoms gained at the height of the pandemic by mandating more compulsory in-office days, or even a return to full-time office working patterns. Some companies, most notably Google, have also linked a frequent presence in the office to employee performance reviews. And just last month UK government ministers issued a new edict to the Civil Service for departments to “set and implement an expectation of increased office-based working” among their staff, with a minimum of 60% attendance in the office and more than 60% for senior officials. A similar trajectory is being followed by policymakers in the US, too, with a directive for departments to “aggressively execute” strategies designed to return workers to the office in bigger numbers.   

But beyond these attention-grabbing headlines, and the recent moves by both employers and policymakers to reverse remote and hybrid working strategies, what is the reality for Disabled workers who now have the freedom to work remotely some (or all) of the time? Do they want to go back to the office more fully, or do they have a preference for hybrid or remote models of work? What are their experiences of working in these ways over the past five years, and what are the advantages and disadvantages in working in these ways? And, more importantly: why are their own voices never heard from in these ongoing discussions about what the future of work looks like?   

The Inclusive Remote and Hybrid Working Study is helping to reverse this imbalance, and to give those navigating the world of work with a disability and/or long-term health condition a stronger voice in the ongoing debate about the “remote working revolution.” This academic research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and led by researchers from Lancaster University and the Work Foundation, is currently exploring Disabled workers’ experiences of hybrid and remote working across the UK, to ensure that their voices and perspectives are more fully heard in the employer, practitioner and policymaker debates on the future of these models of work that are currently raging. You can add your own voice to these debates and get involved in this study by completing their survey here, too, which is open to all UK-based workers who consider themselves to have a disability and/or a long-term health condition and have experience of remote or hybrid working at any point over the past five years. 

The origins of this research can be found in a previous Work Foundation project funded by the City Bridge Trust. Over the course of 2021 researchers from the Foundation and Lancaster University explored the ambitions and perspectives of Disabled people, many of whom have not been a part of conversations about our changing working lives since the start of the pandemic. 

This small-scale study of the experiences of 400 Disabled workers found that 70% of Disabled workers said that if their employer did not allow them to work remotely, it would negatively impact their physical or mental health. Survey respondents and interviewees highlighted clear benefits to working from home, including having more autonomy and control over when and how they work, which in turn allowed them to better manage their health and wellbeing. This brought wider benefits for their organisations too; 85% of Disabled workers surveyed felt more productive working from home. 

These perspectives on the benefits gained for Disabled workers through remote and hybrid working are never the ones that seem to make the front page, a shortcoming in the national (and international) debate that this project is seeking to rectify. There is an element of the study also concerned with improving existing remote and hybrid working strategies too: in the previous research discussed above, outdated cultures meant that some Disabled workers felt left out or isolated while working at home, particularly when colleagues used different working patterns. It is these particular findings that the Inclusive Remote and Hybrid Working Study is building upon by both better understanding disabled workers’ experiences to date, and what they feel that they need to make such forms of working more inclusive to their needs in the future. 

We strongly encourage any and all those with experience in these areas to complete the survey and have your voice heard in these debates, and/or to share it with your own networks too: by participating and helping spread word of the research, you are helping to identify how employers can make remote and hybrid working more inclusive of Disabled workers’ needs. This is important to promote Disabled workers’ recruitment, job retention and progression, and ensure that they are not left behind as the world of work continues to evolve and employers and policymakers continue to make decisions now about future ways of working.