Designing work around people

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  • Picture of Nick Bacon FRSA
    Nick Bacon FRSA
  • Picture of Mark Howard FRSA
    Mark Howard FRSA
  • Picture of Fergus Grierson
    Fergus Grierson
  • Employment
  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Fellowship in Action

We have inclusive design standards for buildings. Why can't we have them for work? The RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network Steering Group propose a system that works for everybody.

Earlier this year a parliamentary bill proposed the right to request 'flexible working' from day one of employment. The legislation has since stalled, yet flexible work should become a default right, not just a right to request. It gives individuals greater autonomy to define the arrangement of working time and roles to meet their personal needs. The result is a work-life arrangement encouraging productivity and balance.

Flexibility is often defined as where or when you work, often meaning home working – which isn't the same thing. It is broader, touching on technological and social inclusion as well as a range of dynamics spanning infrastructure, power, individual work styles, employee-employer relationships, performance measurement and trust.

Roles open to flexible working have a positive impact on women’s labour force participation. They also promote job satisfaction and better work-life balance, particularly important in reducing disability-related disadvantages.

Many disabled and older workers need to align work with personal and health needs. As well as being a key predictor of the proportion of disabled people employed, flexible working reduces gaps in the subjective experience of work between disabled and non-disabled people

The Covid pandemic has been a major catalysing force in the adoption of flexible working. Traditionally, women have driven change around maternity leave, access to childcare, shared roles, and part time working. Covid took more men into that space, enabling them to experience different ways of working.

The pandemic also revealed significant demand among disabled and older workers for flexible working. Despite the challenges in the pandemic, a TUC survey of disabled workers who worked from home during the pandemic found 90% wanted to continue doing so.This momentum can be harnessed to change attitudes and improve access to flexibility. But government messaging focuses on getting people back to “the office”.

As employers struggle to balance person-centred approaches with operational consistency, this may generate some tension. This is critical for disabled and older workers. Notions of flexibility don’t always align with physical impairments and chronic health conditions that change and fluctuate. There is a sense that flexible working can only be achieved within narrow parameters - that it is only for those able to meet certain criteria. 

Equitability is key – who gets access to flexible working. Although some jobs may have greater potential than others, disabled people are disproportionately excluded from the higher-paying and/or managerial roles in which working from home is more widely available. Too many employers regard flexible working as a perk, only offering it to employees in managerial and professional roles. Flexible working should be offered to employees in a wider range of occupational roles and industrial sectors.

Flexibility in remote work presumes accessibility. But information and communication technologies (ICT) are often imbued with non-disabled assumptions and constitute as significant a barrier to disabled people’s employment as workplace inaccessibility. For example, an employer’s ICT may be incompatible with assistive technologies, and employers may use virtual meeting technology without live captioning and non-screen reader-friendly video conferencing software.

Creating flexibility from day one may be challenging, but a good place to start is for employers to signal they're open to conversations. This means an expectation to extend necessary provision when required.

This should be defined from an employee’s perspective. However, not all of the obligation should fall on an individual, which can have as many potential difficulties as placing all of the onus on an employer. 

This can be mitigated through standard processes, with hybrid working policies written down as part of a range of progressive equality practices, without which an emphasis on flexible working alone is associated with employing fewer disabled people in the. As such, success depends on the attitude of senior managers and leaders, and whether they want it to work.Management should be more concerned with coaching, nurturing, and supporting and less about time sheets. 

People with learning difficulties have long called for more focused role descriptions. This is also relevant to intersectional communities and older people, who can benefit from jobs that take account of evolving physical ability and cognitive function throughout life.

Removing some of the labels attached to jobs would help. Labelling jobs as being for school leavers or for older people is limiting for other potential employees who might excel in such roles – and may breach the Equality Act. Another strategy could be rebalancing duties by allocating tasks and responsibilities around a team according to skills, interests, and capacity. Employees can be co-authors of their own flexibility.

True flexible working means employment that works for everybody. Work that is genuinely inclusive, appreciating the range of human experience. Taking full account of demographically-specific inclusion perspectives can challenge employers already under pressure to engage with splashier topical issues such as the environment. More holistic approaches could make this easier to navigate. Discussion about default flexible working should start with the notion that each employee should be part of the conversation about what it means for them.

Equality legislation is piecemeal, not necessarily by design. Where the needs of different minority groups have not been given legislative priority, it is because the breadth of the human experience wasn’t considered at the time. Flexible working is more widespread in Northern European countries where provision is mandatory. The best way to ensure flexible working is through legislation making jobs flexible by default.

Laws need to be inclusive, giving everybody a seat at the table when they are designed. People are human beings first, and legislation needs to ensure work is built around the reality of people’s diverse life stages and circumstances. Laws aside, benchmarking schemes for employers denoting they meet a recognised metric as a flexible-friendly workplace could also help.

There is still much to do, The National Disability Strategy promised consultation on flexible working becoming the default from day one. Many in the disabled community thought that that would mean it would be put on a footing with women's rights, post maternity leave. There’s a real fear that the Government is trying to shove the genie of flexible working back in its bottle.

Flexible working should become a universal right, like old-age pensions and access to the NHS. Universalism for many could remove the need to make an argument based on the needs of specific groups (and thereby creating the potential for a clash of rights). People may at times still need to exercise more specific rights – for instance for reasonable adjustments – but this could become more of a last resort. Flexibility would simply become an expectation and a right.

We thank the Steering Group of the RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network for the contributions to the development and writing of this article, in particular Simon Lydiard FRSA, Kim Chaplain, Diane Lightfoot FRSA and Jacqui Nicholson FRSA for their editorial support.

See below our upcoming event, which explores the themes of this Comment article further.

Designing work around people’s lives

Fellowship Event / Online

Online

 Join us at this RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network event to explore new learnings, thinking and trends on flexible working, as the world moves into a new era. 

Join the discussion

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  • Thanks for creating and circulating this useful article. I do recall recently reading that the loss of older workers via early retirement etc. may lead to a significant and detrimental impact on the UK economy. So efforts should be made to retain access to this highly skilled and experienced group. Unfortunately, I don't think I can attend the webinar, will a recording be available afterwards?

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