Robust Disability Employee Networks Key To Shaping Post-Pandemic Workplace Inclusion
Opportunities and threats
The initiation and maintenance of an effective corporate diversity and inclusion policy is often viewed as being a core responsibility of an organization’s senior management team.
While leadership at boardroom level is undoubtedly an essential enabling component, this alone will never deliver optimal outcomes for employees with disabilities.
Governments certainly have a role to play in bringing forth the legislative frameworks necessary to scale and foster an ecosystem of organizations adhering to best practice but what of the grassroots?
Disability employee networks and resource groups, also known as ERGs, are that elemental bottom-up driver of inclusive disability-confident workplaces.
Providing a vital communication link between employees with disabilities and senior management across critical subject areas such as workplace adjustments and digital accessibility, today, as Covid-19 continues to advance tectonic shifts in the way we all think about work, they are more important than ever.
The present moment is one of great uncertainty. The eye of the Covid storm is upon us and even when things hopefully settle down over the coming months, nobody really knows what the future of work might look like.
The safest bet would be something between the two extremes of vast swathes of derelict former office buildings scoring the metropolitan skyline, and hordes of vaccinated workers blithely piling back onto public transport to commute to the office – eager to put the nightmare of the past 12 months behind them.
Whatever hybrid model between remote and office-based work emerges, disability employee resource groups are going to play a pivotal role in ensuring that employees managing long-term health conditions are brought along on the journey.
Opportunities and threats
A unique opportunity has presented itself with respect to the normalization of homeworking for all. This should naturally lead to scope for useful, more in-depth conversations with management and IT teams around adjustments and accessibility.
Yet, the opportunity is not a one-way street and dark and dangerous threats additionally linger.
Not least, is the frightening prospect of disability inclusion becoming inadvertently deprioritized, as employers find themselves swamped in adjusting to the wider business transformation pressures of the post-pandemic world.
More worryingly, is whether employees with disabilities and long-term health conditions will end up being disproportionately impacted by the inevitable tranche of redundancies that seem likely to accompany the end-stage of the pandemic, whenever that might be.
Changing the game
Kate Nash OBE is the founder and CEO of PurpleSpace, a world-first social business connecting disability ERG leaders across over 800 organizations looking after the interests of around 440,000 disabled employees from across the globe.
Specializing in “networkology” — the art and science behind building high-performing ERG networks, PurpleSpace provides leadership training, networking opportunities and a best-practice professional development hub for individuals running ERGs for the purposes of mirroring and supporting their employer’s D&I initiatives.
Concerning the legacy of Covid, Nash prefers to focus on the more positive impacts of the pandemic in diversifying working practices and recognizes some of the universally humanizing effects which accompanied the shift to remote working.
“For nearly a year, millions of people working from home have been staring into Chief Executive’s living rooms and kitchens, maybe even seeing children run past,” says Nash
“The pandemic has called out the complexity of all of our lives.”
However, when it comes to running ERGs specifically, Nash views the benefits as altogether simpler and less nuanced.
“I’ve heard story after story of our network leaders, who have now been given this gift of time because generally, they might take longer to manage their own medical interventions, or just get dressed in the morning,” says Nash.
“Often, ERG leaders are burning the midnight oil to run their network because they’ve got their day job on top of managing a disability.”
She continues, “I strongly feel that the supercharged digital era that we’ve been forced into, through no fault of our own, will at least help our ERG leaders to set up those virtual coffee mornings in a manner which will be much easier and more elegant for them.”
Nash served as CEO of Disability Rights UK for five years between 2001 and 2006 and authored the widely acclaimed book Secrets & Big News in 2014, which explores the thorny issue of disability disclosure.
Zooming out from the immediate pressures of the pandemic, Nash cites leadership colleagues from her decades of experience at the cutting edge of business to encapsulate the core functions of ERGs.
“ERGs are not like unions,” says Nash. “They are not as structured. However, I do remember, infamously, Mark Fisher (former Lloyds Banking Group Operations Director) telling his ERG lead, ‘I don’t want you to be a union but I don’t mind you having the whiff of a union.”
Nash continues, “What he’s saying is ‘I want to be told difficult information.’ Sometimes, an ERG is involved in the process of showing truth to power and sometimes, they have to be in the game of uncovering incredibly uncomfortable truths.”
PurpleSpace has, since 2017, led the #PurpleLightUp movement – a global initiative celebrating the economic contribution of the 386 million-strong global disability workforce.
Last month, #PurpleLightUp marked the annual UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3 with a 24-hour global broadcast, featuring panel discussions, webinars and interviews with D&I and ERG leaders from around the world.
A consistent theme resonating throughout the event was the pivotal role of storytelling campaigns, be they in the form of written articles or filmed video testimonies, to enliven and humanize disability inclusion and steer it away from simply comprising dry statistics and corporate policy pledges.
Dedicated to, in Nash’s own words, “supporting the notion that the experience of disability is a very normal and natural aspect of human difference,” — video campaigns signal the presence of a welcoming and diverse corporate culture, not just for existing employees but for prospective candidates too.
Headline campaigns that have historically received widespread acclaim and that can still be viewed online, include the “This is Me” campaign from Barclays, “Be Yourself” from Shell and Fujitsu’s “Be Completely You” campaign.
Whatever the post-pandemic world may hold for workplace disability inclusion in the future, storytelling campaigns and the relaying of lived experience, as powerful mediums for eliciting understanding and empathy, are certain to be part of the mix.
Perhaps, in the early 2020s, more so than at any previous point in history, concepts that have been familiar to disabled employees for decades, such as grappling with uncertainty and needing to be fleet of foot in coming up with adjustments and adaptations, will be something the rest of the workforce appreciates and comprehends that little bit more.
Originally published here.
I am a diversity& inclusion contributor to Forbes.com. I write about issues affecting people with disabilities, including government policy, social justice, accessibility and assistive technology. I have also written on these topics for several major UK newspaper titles.