At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world closed its physical doors and opened a new online reality. This was a welcome shift for many people, especially many with disabilities, who could virtually – and more equitably – participate in everything from arts and culture to the workforce. It was progress, not perfection, but it presented a powerful opportunity to bridge what many recognize as the “disability divide.”

With corporate America’s return-to-office planning in full swing, business leaders need to ensure that individuals with disabilities aren’t left behind as we return to physical workplaces. If there is anything we learned from the pandemic, it’s that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach and not all of our ways of working were actually working.

It is therefore critical that employers take an inclusive approach when configuring return-to-office policies. Here are five ideas to consider:

1. Solicit employee feedback.

As leaders, it’s essential to inform our return-to-office strategies with employee feedback, or otherwise policies can be influenced by assumptions about the workforce and their needs. This is especially true when it comes to policies for people with disabilities. We need to take the time to solicit employee feedback by conducting regular surveys and/or holding one-on-one conversations to accommodate unique needs. As return-to-office policies start to take shape, preview plans with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and individual employees with disabilities to help ensure their needs are being met. If your company does not have an ERG for employees with disabilities, consider forming one

2. Follow all legal guidelines.

Across industries and geographies, companies should make accommodations for those with disabilities. Not only is this the right thing to do, but many of these accommodations may be legally required. As a baseline, employers should ensure they’re following laws outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the latest guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, especially as they relate to new disability guidance tied to COVID-19. When planning workplace safety protocols, take into consideration how individuals with disabilities may be impacted by potential return-to-work requirements such as conditional testing related to COVID-19, for example temperature checks and actual COVID-19 testing, and vaccine mandates.

It is also important to recognize that disabilities aren’t always visible. At Guardian Life, we work with disability advocate Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, who emphasizes the importance of normalizing disability in the workplace. The more employees feel like they need to hide their disabilities, the more their work and wellbeing is impacted. Employers should take this time to refresh their understanding of possible workplace accommodations and requirements to help ensure they provide a comfortable and transparent work environment for all.

3. Provide flexibility with accountability.

People with disabilities in the workforce have been asking for support and accommodations from their employers long before the pandemic. According to Guardian Life’s Workforce Study conducted in March 2020, over 70% of workers with disabilities agreed that telecommuting and flexible work schedules top their list of desired benefits from their employers.

The pandemic has revealed the ways “normal” simply did not work for many individuals with disabilities. Companies of all sizes and industries have an opportunity to make workplaces more inclusive by prioritizing hybrid work models. This includes increasing accessibility in physical workspaces and extending remote work options, which can be done by leaning into technology and innovation. However, to effectively drive continued progress both for in-office and remote environments, employers need to hold themselves accountable by putting people and productivity before place.

4. Offer the right resources.

New findings from Guardian’s 2021 Workplace Benefits Study show that more than a third of employers say the pandemic negatively impacted employee wellbeing, and workers with permanent disabilities are nearly twice as likely to say that COVID-19 negatively impacted their mental health. With that in mind, it’s critical that we empower employees with mental health resources, such as Employee Assistance Programs and Employee Resource Groups (ERG) focused on wellness.  

At best, employees understand that flexible work options promote inclusivity – and at worst, employees who take advantage of remote work could be perceived as lazy or given fewer opportunities. To combat this, avoid rewarding people for coming into the office and consider requiring organization-wide bias training to remove stigma from remote work. Communicate that flexible work policies are in place as a strategic imperative to help normalize disability in the workplace.

5. Update DE&I strategies.

According to research from Disability:IN, the American Association of People With Disabilities, and Accenture, companies that adopt best practices for hiring talent with disabilities outperform their peers in numerous financial metrics, including 28% higher revenue, double net income and 30% higher economic profit margins. This underscores the importance of giving employees a voice and creating an environment where there is awareness, empathy, and education. I am proud to be the co-sponsor of Equally Enabled, a new ERG at Guardian Life that focuses on supporting and connecting individuals with invisible and visible disabilities, mental wellness and its allies in order to foster a culture of belonging, as well as enhance our talent and recruitment pipeline.

As we shape the future of work, I view disability inclusion as a critical component of corporate DE&I. When we build products and services with our customers’ needs at the forefront, we can build something better. But we can’t do it alone. Collaboration and representation are key to getting it right. As leaders, we should take note of organizations like The Valuable 500 and Disability:IN to stay abreast of what top companies are doing, and use this inspiration to make our workplaces more inclusive.  The time is now to take a renewed, inclusive approach to disability in the workplace.

Material discussed is meant for general informational purposes only. The Valuable 500 and Disability:IN are not affiliates or subsidiaries of Guardian. 2021-124252 (Exp. 7/23)