By Ioana Zanchi
The year 2020 can be remarked as ushering in the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” As the Covid-19 wave washed across the world, it made people restructure many aspects of their daily lives, as they could no longer rely on their prior routines. This extended time demanded that people adapt and become creative with the resources they had wherever they settled in quarantine. Covid-19 significantly changed the way we look at a lot of things, but especially how we look at employment.
The modern employment system, either by choice or necessity, had to become more innovative in offering individuals – disabled and non-disabled – work arrangements unique to their needs and capabilities.  The last two-plus years forced employers to reevaluate their prior practices but also to reflect on how they could cultivate a better environment for their employees and grow their respective industries.  While not all jobs could be completed remotely, many workplaces did convert to a virtual setting, to a point where up to “half of Americans were working from home.” Prior to the pandemic, many employers in the U.S. allowed some version of remote work; however, it was not common to work remotely full-time. Since the pandemic made remote work the “new normal,” the Department of Labor reported in April 2020 that eight million people stated that they had a job but not at “work,” or at an office, as opposed to the prior year when only 554,000 reported the same. Despite fluctuations in the number of persons teleworking, [t]elework is here to stay.”
Job accessibility through the implementation of telework/remote employment is not meant to focus on a person’s diagnosis, condition, or disability. Rather, accommodations or access to the workplace are meant to serve as an equitable tool giving people the opportunity to participate in employment by supplementing their unique strengths. Through this revamped mindset, the world now better understands the notion that access and participation are not only vital but that they can also be arranged easily and without burden on the employer. For disabled individuals, remote/digital work even prior to the pandemic was an essential alternative that may have meant the difference between working and unemployment. Disabled individuals are talented, hardworking, and resilient, but advancing access, such as through telework/remote work, is invaluable to be successful in a workplace.
When looking at how employers can better implement remote accommodations for their staff and employees, I/O psychologist Kristen Shockley, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Georgia, maintains that “[c]ompanies should never just implement telecommuting without changing anything else.” She cites those places of employment “also need to shift their culture and norms to support the new arrangement.” Some suggestions that may help with the implementation of these accommodations include the following:
1. Companies and organizations should take the time to review and revise office policies and practices with their employees. This process is imperative and can prove to be beneficial because it gives the management of the company/organization the opportunity to reflect on what is working well for their employees and what is not. Review and revision should focus on gaining feedback from employees. The strength of a company/organization comes from the collaboration, connection, and strengths of its employees. If employees do not feel seen or heard by their supervisors, then they are less likely to be enthused about their work and may function with lower productivity. Employees will also know best what is working for them and what is not. Offering space to give feedback can be accomplished in numerous ways. Employees may have varying physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, so there is flexibility with each company/organization in providing what each specific person may need to achieve their best level of success. The options could include but are not limited to writing or typing suggestions, oral presentations, private or collaborative meetings, a suggestion box or a suggestion email account, and many others. If employees have multiple ways to express how they are feeling about their work and how to achieve better task outcomes, they are more likely to feel comfortable doing so. There must also be an environment where employees feel comfortable providing that feedback.
3. Once there is a review and revision of the policies, practices, and standards that have been agreed upon, it is helpful to formalize and distribute them. When goals, roles, and communication methods are formalized, it helps remind employees of the new changes and guides incoming employees. Furthermore, ensuring that these new policies, practices, and standards are distributed in an accessible fashion holds people accountable and demonstrates a company/organization’s priorities.
4. The next suggestion provides a reminder that employers and employees are in fact human too! Making work accessible to employees makes it easier to accomplish our daily tasks, but we can’t work indefinitely without some breaks and enjoyment. I offer a reminder to employers to encourage breaks and downtime, as well as to encourage office connections despite the fact that folks may be working from a different location. Studies have found that breaks can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day, and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day. Stress management and encouragement can look like fostering virtual non-work-related activities, small stipends for virtual lunch or coffee dates, and mental health resources. Our perception of connection has changed since we have dealt with far greater isolation than we have been used to over the last two years, so it is imperative to connect employees, whether they are physically present in the office or teleworking, for the sake of our mental and emotional wellbeing. Establishing a mentorship program, employee resource groups, or other programs may be one way to go about doing that.
5. It is important to make two-way communication between employers and employees commonplace. Employers must encourage collaboration and make formal and informal communication a priority for the entire team. Communication is the foundation of any strong and healthy relationship; thus, it would benefit a team to invest in resources that improve employers/employees’ skills both when interacting physically and digitally. These resources and training opportunities can also serve as a break for everyone to get to know each other outside of work. We all also communicate best in different ways. Ensuring that employees and their supervisors have multiple points for communication while teleworking is important. Some people prefer standing meetings or calls, texting, emails, Teams or Slack chats, or other methods of communication. Not only is this important for disabled employees, but it is also important for all employees.
6. Have technical assistance available. That includes folks who have some expertise in assistive technology, and how that technology fluctuates when communication occurs remotely, but also for all employees who are working remotely. The importance of technology cannot be understated.
7. Train your supervisors and leadership to handle a remote operation. While general skills may be transferable, different skills and considerations are necessary to understand how to provide adequate supervision and accommodations for disabled employees.
8. Understand that, in addition to telework being an accommodation in and of itself, disability accommodations in a remote setting may function differently than they did in an in-person setting. Captioning and ASL interpretation through videoconferencing software requires specific knowledge and skillsets. Challenges relating to volume, WiFi, and microphone interference may come up. Questions about the accessibility of communication software used for those who are blind or have low vision may arise: these communication alternatives might not have been necessary but for moving to telework. Accommodations and needs for those who have anxiety, are autistic, or have other disabilities may also fluctuate. These are just a few examples.
9. Be flexible about your employees’ other needs and other potential accommodations. While telework offers great flexibility, employees may wish to have more flexible schedules, work in the office for part of the time, adjust meeting times or forms of communication, or implement other possible accommodations. Talking with your employees about their access needs should be an interactive process. Employers and employees should determine how to work together to ensure an employee has what they need to succeed.
We will not grasp the extent of how the pandemic affected the employment sector for years to come, but there are many ways to improve the technological evolution that was set in motion by it. Telework seems to have cemented its place in our ever-evolving world; now all we can do is make the arrangements more comfortable and accessible for workers and employers.
 Banjo et al., The Coronavirus Outbreak Has Become the World’s Largest Work-from-Home Experiment, TIME https://time.com/5776660/coronavirus-work-from-home/ (Feb. 3, 2020).
 Stacy A. Hickox and Chenwei Liao, Remote Work as An Accommodation For Employees With Disabilities, 38 Hofstra Lab. & Emp. L.J. 25, 26 (Fall 2020).
 Id. at 31.
 Katherine Guyot and Isabel V. Sawhill, Telecommuting will likely continue long after the pandemic, Brookings Inst., (Monday, April 6, 2020) https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/.
 Rebecca Greenfield, The Rise and Fall of Working From Home, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-10/the-rise-and-fall-of-working-from-home(Corrected July 10, 2017, 12:44 PM).
 See Frequently Asked Questions: The Impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic on the Employment Situation for April 2020, U.S. BUREAU LAB. STAT. (May 8, 2020), https://www.bls.gov/cps/employment-situation-covid19-faq-april-2020.pdf (Accessed June 26, 2021).
 Zara Abrams, The future of remote work, American Psych Ass’n, (Oct. 1, 2019) https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/10/cover-remote-work#:~:text=More%20than%2026%20million%20Americansabout%2016%25%20of%20the,be%20older%2C%20more%20educated%2C%20full%20time%20and%20nonunion.
 Hickox and Liao, supra note 2.
 Abrams, supra note 7.
 See generally 15 Key Tips for Companies Implementing Formal Remote Work Policies, Forbes, (Apr. 16, 2020, 08:15am EDT) https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/04/16/15-key-tips-for-companies-implementing-formal-remote-work-policies/?sh=5aa9bbda40a8#:~:text=It%27s%20easy%20for%20organizations%20implementing%20remote%20work%20to,lunches%20together%2C%20you%20can%20help%20them%20stay%20connected.
 Abrams, supra note 7.
 Jennifer K. Coffeng, Esther M. van Slujs, et al., Physical activity and relaxation during and after work are independently associated with the need for recovery, J Phys. Act. Health (Jan. 2015) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24509946/
 15 Key Tips for Companies Implementing Formal Remote Work Policies, supra note 11.