Post-Covid workspace equality and accessibility

Jeremy Mears
As we move into post-Covid workplace recovery, employers and facilities managers need to consider the inclusivity of their return planning and built environment.

Strategies for re-entry into the workplace are now under way in many organisations. Jeremy Mears, NRAC  accredited access consultant, discusses how employers can ensure that their organisation’s culture is inclusive, with every employee experiencing a safe and supportive environment.

Meeting legal obligations

Employers must continue to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and those with long-term health conditions. The aim should be, as far as possible, to remove or reduce any substantial disadvantage faced by disabled workers which would not be faced by a non-disabled worker. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has guidance on reasonable adjustments.

The re-entry risk assessment should include all individuals with protected characteristics, as well as those who are immunocompromised or otherwise clinically Covid 19-vulnerable. While having an impairment that meets the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010 doesn’t in itself put someone at higher risk from Covid-19, many individuals with disabilities do have specific underlying conditions that make the virus more dangerous for them.

Others who do not have a protected characteristic under the remit of the Equality Act 2010 may be at increased risk (e.g. those who are pregnant, and people over 70 without a disability). It’s important that employees do not face discrimination in the re-entry to the workplace—either in the decision-making around return, or in the safety provisions.

Safe inclusive workspace

In proactively managing safety, care should be taken to ensure that protective measures do not disadvantage those with a disability. Consultation with those potentially affected should be carried out. Considerations may include: 

  • Bespoke provision in access and re-routing arrangements.
  • Bespoke provision in lift capacity planning.
  • Legibility of re-routing and other signage, to assist people with a visual impairment.
  • Visibility of signposting floor-tape and its suitability for wheelchair traffic.
  • Emergency egress and availability of trained personnel (check they are still present in the reduced capacity workplace) to assist egress for disabled people.
  • Workstation accessibility if reconfiguring to maintain distance.
  • Visibility of signage on decommissioned workstations, to assist people with a visual impairment.
  • Accessible toilet availability if toilets are reconfigured for distancing measures.
  • Accessibility of handwashing and hand-gel stations in washrooms and elsewhere.
  • Sanitising of workstations and toilets after use. If employees are expected to do this, remember that not everyone can do so independently.
  • Use of guidance barriers or bollards and signposting in outdoor space and any surrounding public realm.
  • Impact of masks, visors, and potential glare on protective screens, on those who lip read.
  • Accessibility of all employee communications.
  • Employee wellbeing—some disabled individuals may experience loss of confidence outside the home, after lockdown.
  • It is critical that everyone with a disability is considered individually and, where reasonably practicable, their bespoke needs are considered.

Digital equality

Digital accessibility is vital to the success of every diversity and inclusion initiative. If some or all of the workforce will continue to work from home, employers should ensure any reasonable adjustments are made, with ergonomic assessment if necessary. This may apply to the home working environment (furniture etc.) as well as to digital infrastructure.

Any technology adjustments intended to improve workplace Covid safety, or to adapt for remote working, should again take into account those with disabilities. Assistive technology might include adaptation of online meeting platforms and apps. Take a look at our article on technology in the Covid-secure workplace

An opportunity to improve inclusivity

Lockdown measures were imposed on everyone, irrespective of disability, and this has resulted in various barriers being overcome with relative ease. Some would argue that the pressure of almost the entire population needing changes gave greater pressure to seeking resolutions.

Many of the workplace solutions implemented during the pandemic have long been requested by accessibility advocates—remote working, touch-free doors and voice-activated lifts, for example. Remote working, and the systems to support it, turned out to be more achievable and adaptable than most employers imagined. While we can’t pretend that all remote working problems are now solved, progress has been made and can be built upon.

In the workplace built environment, there are opportunities to not only consider, but also improve inclusivity alongside Covid security. All organisations must cater for the disabled workforce during re-entry, but some might go further. With many workspaces closed or operating at reduced capacity, a retrofit that improves inclusivity, designing inclusive spaces that work for everyone, could be an option.

Bringing expertise to the Covid-secure workplace

Faithful+Gould is  supporting organisations with the challenges that are most pressing right now, bringing timely best practice and innovation. We’re helping our clients consider the key factors around people, property and technology, so they can create safe and compliant environments which allow their people to excel.

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