Remote Control: Helping Employees Feel Included, No Matter Where they Are

An image of a treasure map, with a Drupal drop as the compass rose and a path leading to a stylized Echidna logo.

From a practical point of view, offering workers the ability to work remotely (or from home) can solve a lot of problems. For people with disabilities, it can also help to reduce some of the barriers they face in acquiring and maintaining employment.

But remote work isn’t a panacea that’s going to magically fix anything. And it brings with it additional problems that can make the experience less about inclusion and more about isolation if they’re not addressed properly.

I’ve had the benefit of doing both -- working remotely and working in an office environment. And though I work for a company that values inclusion and does its best, I have to admit there’s still nothing like working in an office environment, when it comes to developing relationships, awareness, and camaraderie. I’m not going to suggest it can’t work, but you have to put in a lot of effort.

I recently read a post titled “Remote Work to Accommodate Workers with a Disability”, which touted the benefits of remote work for persons with disabilities as both a cost-saving measure for employers and a means to increase the comfort of employees with disabilities. The argument went that by allowing employees to use their own equipment from home, employers would not be required to purchase it. As well, employees could work within a familiar space where they are in complete control of their workspace.

These are all compelling reasons for work-from-home options and could allow for increased employment rates for persons with disabilities. This, also, allows for easier access to all the benefits to employers of a diverse workforce. There certainly is some truth to all that. There are disabilities that make preparing for an outing challenging, so having the ability to remain at home could save significant time and effort.

What I would caution employees and employers who embrace this work-from-home solution is that it will take concerted effort to get the results you hope for.

I worked remotely for Echidna for most of my first three years at the company; I have only been in the office for just over a year. The difference between working remotely and working in-house is striking and, if not handled properly, both employers and employees risk missing out on the benefits they might provide each other.

As a remote worker I enjoyed the flexibility of my schedule and work environment, and the ability to get started right away without having to learn a new environment or new technology (I use my own devices in my job). But it also took time for my colleagues and I to get used to each other. My role was new, and everyone involved was figuring out what I could offer and how I could best contribute to the team in a growing company.

Without daily, lighter interactions it took us longer to get to know each other, and made the on-boarding process perhaps lengthier than it might otherwise have been. And that’s despite being blessed to work for an employer who tries really hard to create an inclusive workplace.

Within my first few months I had attended a company barbecue and I was always invited to major company social events. However, there really isn’t a way to translate the casual hallway meetings or the lunches together into a virtual form. So, we all had to work at making sure that I was included on relevant projects and that anyone who needed accessibility help had access to me as required.

As I hadn’t met many people, there was some difficulty in making new connections with colleagues I hadn’t yet met in person and I don’t think it was always clear how could best support my colleagues in their accessibility efforts. Had I been a remote worker for a less socially-engaged company, these challenges would have been all the more great.

With the opportunity to work in the office for part of the summer of 2016 and now having worked exclusively in the office since May 2017, things are more straightforward. I’m a visible reminder of why accessibility is important to us as a company. There are more casual conversations about all topics (including but not limited to accessibility), and more people know I’m around so more colleagues get in touch. This is by no means a critique of my colleagues: it’s just easier to get in touch with someone that one sees in person regularly.

Because I have more social connections, I feel better able to provide constructive critique when someone leaves a post-it note without telling me its contents, or when I remind my colleagues to caption the images and gifs they post on our internal messaging system. We are all better at our jobs because we have shared history and social experience that goes beyond the workplace.

Remote work absolutely can, and must, work if people with a variety of disabilities are to be a part of the workforce. But it must be done correctly. In a globalized world such as ours, there may not be opportunities to meet colleagues in person. But that does not mean there shouldn’t be social opportunities. The collaboration tool Trello released a guide recently discussing how to do just that, including building in time into work conference calls for social chats, or sending employees birthday cakes. Initiatives like these are important to creating the most congenial and productive workplace possible, geography notwithstanding.

Designing a work-from-home scheme without considering how everyone might be included from those remote locations risks missing a critical opportunity. If everyone is given a chance to feel included in the larger group, individuals with a variety of experiences will feel more comfortable contributing to the larger group -- and everyone will benefit from the full breadth of their diverse workforce.

Questions Answered

What barriers do remote workers face?

Is remote working better for people with disabilities?

How can you ensure remote workers feel included in the larger team?