From the desk of Lisa Mathess, M.A., SHRM-CP, Principal Consultant, ADA Specialist
Many sources are now reporting that telework during recent times has been beneficial to employees with disabilities, as some people with disabilities may prefer to work at home either as a benefit of employment or as a form of reasonable accommodation. While that may be true, and we are certainly seeing that some jobs can be done from home when we originally thought they couldn’t, there may be instances when work at home can be challenging. So, I wanted to showcase some strategies that may help those of us who are teleworking be more productive.
From personal experience, when JAN transitioned to remote work my children’s day care also shut down, which meant that not only was I a full-time JAN consultant, but simultaneously a stay-at-home mom to two young kids. While caregiving needs aren’t going to rise to the level of an ADA accommodation, we often encourage employers to try to be flexible, especially in these unprecedented times. One useful approach that helped me through those first few months was flexible scheduling. This flexibility enabled me to accomplish the bulk of my important work tasks before the kids even woke up. This was different than my typical 9-5 set schedule in the office, but it enabled me to maintain productivity and still tend to my kids as needed. We often see a similar accommodation for various disabilities that cause fatigue or weakness. Having people with disabilities work a schedule, even from home, when they feel their best mentally and physically enables employees to operate when they feel sharp and aren’t struggling to stay awake or performing while in pain. This is a win-win for both the employee and employer, as better work is produced.
Another helpful strategy for me was job restructuring, where I was able to swap out phone consultations for more emails and chat consultations. Taking phone calls while my children were home was nearly impossible without interruptions and background noise. Reallocating phone duties to my colleagues and taking on more chat and email tasks was a simple yet effective informal accommodation that enabled me to be productive regardless of the chaos created by children.
While telework is considered great and a luxury to many, sometimes medical conditions or limitations can make telework difficult. Those with ADD or ADHD may experience concentration issues or problems with focusing, especially in their homes. Dishes and laundry piling up, along with various noises from pets or neighbors, can be a distraction to those with medical issues and may not be conducive to a successful work environment. White noise machines or noise canceling headsets can be useful to mask unwanted noises. To help with visual distractions around the house, it may be ideal to create a dedicated office or workspace using partitions or room dividers. Creating this space may also help separate the stress of work from the comfort of your home.
Employees who are working from home need access to equipment to be successful at their jobs. This may mean transferring equipment they had onsite to their home location, or it may mean ordering what is now needed to perform essential functions. What is considered reasonable in terms of equipment is going to vary, and it’s up to the employer to determine what’s feasible. Whether a person with a disability had a workplace accommodation before teleworking or is now requesting an accommodation for the first time in relation to teleworking, employers should engage in the interactive process and learn what is needed. It is important to ensure employees have the tools and technologies to be successful.
With more virtual meetings and presentations taking place, employers also need to be inclusive of employees with disabilities such as hearing impairments. JAN has published an article on this topic to help ensure accessibility for our hearing impaired colleagues. Even those who are not hearing impaired may benefit from screen captioning and other accessibility features, so consider using accessible virtual meeting platforms when planning your next training or meeting with those employees who telework.
As you can see, common accommodation strategies can be applied in the at-home setting for employees who are new to telework or have been teleworking for years. As job roles and business needs evolve, it is important to be flexible and keep up with technology that may be better suited for certain applications. Always keep communication open with employees as that often minimizes any disruptions to accommodations and job tasks.