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Current Trends in the Workplace: Considering the ADA and Accommodations for Employees

Learn more about ever-changing trends related to accommodations

As most of us know, trends in the workplace are ever-changing and developing from year to year. JAN recently offered a training on the top ten workplace trends to kick off the annual JAN Webcast series for 2014/2015. The focus of this Webcast was to provide an overview of various up-and-coming trends that JAN consultants are hearing about. This article highlights two of the ten current trends covered in the Webcast: open-plan offices and white noise systems.

Open-plan offices

Open-plan offices, where cubicle walls and private offices are removed, are intended to increase collaboration, communication, and productivity. The non-traditional design can be a cost-cutting strategy and an attempt to limit the perception of a hierarchical corporate structure resulting in a workforce that is more cohesive and efficient. The trend of opening up an office and removing cubicle walls is growing, but is not without its problems, particularly when it comes to the continuation of accommodations for employees with disabilities. In open-plan workspaces the potential for distractions to increase and for employees to have difficulty concentrating could have an impact on employees with attention deficit disorder, hearing loss, or other sensory or mental health impairments that are triggered or exacerbated by noise.

In terms of the limits to how a workspace is modified, when cubicle walls are removed it becomes even more difficult for the air quality and/or temperature in a person’s workspace to be regulated. Employees who rely on the cubicle walls or an office to help regulate an environment may be impacted by an open-plan workspace.

Yet another concern is in relation to maintaining confidentiality of an employee’s accommodation. This could be problematic if removing cubicle walls or private offices results in exposing accommodations that are in place to coworkers and/or the public. Examples of accommodations that employee’s with various disabilities may be using that would be obvious to coworkers in an open-plan office could include:

  • Assistive technology for phone use;
  • Software used for accessing information on computer;
  • Software used for inputting information on computer; and
  • Alternative keyboards, mice, and chairs.

Here is an example to illustrate the impact of modifying an office to make it open-plan:

A financial planner with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and bipolar disorder had been provided with high cubicle walls and a cubicle door as an accommodation to reduce distractions and allow him a private space for phone calls to his counselor. The employer decided that the office design was going to be changed and everyone was expected to work in an open-plan space. After two weeks of sitting in the open-plan space the employee’s productivity started to drop and he requested to have his old space back as an accommodation.

In this situation the employer would need to look at what options might be available to the employee so that he can get back to a point where he is able to be productive at work. This might include creating a separate workspace for him, modifying his schedule so that he is working during hours when the office is not as busy, allowing him to work in a private space-maybe even on an intermittent basis-or allowing telework if the employee does not feel that this would be forced isolation.

White noise systems

White noise systems, sometimes called sound masking systems or speech privacy systems are systems that use a particular type of sound emitted from specially placed speakers to mask unwanted background noise. These products are marketed as a way to limit the distance from which a private or confidential conversation can be overheard, which businesses may find desirable as a means of complying with laws requiring privacy safeguards as well as a means for prevention of corporate espionage.

Most of the systems that JAN consultants have heard about use sound emitters that are placed above ceiling tiles. Some may use smaller, low-profile emitters that could be attached to walls, furniture, or cubical walls. Both emitters function somewhat similarly to the smaller environmental sound machines and tinnitus maskers that you might already be familiar with. They differ in that they are strategically placed in a design that allows them to work together to mask out background noise and enhance speech privacy in large spaces.

In terms of the ADA implications for use of white noise systems in the workplace, there are advantages and disadvantages. Advantages could include: a reduction in distractions from background noise; prevention of breaches of confidentiality; and, for large spaces, they may be cost-effective compared to installing other products, such as acoustic paneling or noise absorption foam.

Disadvantages should also be a factor when considering the installation of a white noise system. For example, these systems may interfere with the functioning of some types of hearing aids. This is largely because sound masking systems don’t provide true noise cancellation; they mask sound by emitting sound, but not by fully canceling it out. Modern hearing aids can actually adjust themselves to prevent damage to the ear from amplifying sounds and, in some cases, noise from a sound masking system may cause this safety feature to become activated. Finally, even for those who do not use hearing aids, individuals may be distracted by the white noise itself if they experience some type of noise sensitivity. Some employees have even mistaken normal functioning of a sound masking system for a malfunction of the building’s ventilation system. Here is an accommodation example:

An employee who used hearing aids reported that white noise from his workplace’s sound masking system was interfering with the functioning of his hearing aids and making it difficult for him understand what others were saying in conversations and in meetings. Attending meetings at multiple locations in the facility to obtain information was an important part of the individual’s job. A JAN consultant suggested exploring options for adjusting the sound masking system and seeking input from an audiologist to see whether an FM system might help with hearing during meetings.

As always, when employees report that they are having difficulty performing their job because of a disability or medical condition, it may be time to engage in the interactive process and consider reasonable accommodations. From a practical standpoint, having a developed process in place is a way to streamline the entire accommodation process and help insure that effective accommodations are provided. It creates consistency in policy and practice, leads to the implementation of successful accommodations, and shows good faith. The Current Trends Webcast also included five practical tips for providing and maintaining effective accommodations, such as those related to the trends JAN consultants are hearing about. For each of the ten trends discussed in the Webcast, ADA implications with implementing the trend and examples of accommodations related to the trend were provided. In addition to open-plan workspaces and white noise systems, the Current Trends Webcast covered:

  • Automatic air fresheners,
  • Mobile device policies,
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD),
  • Procedural trends,
  • Shared workspaces,
  • Accommodations related to emotional support animals,
  • Information technology department involvement, and
  • “New from EEOC.”
open office space