Why remote working could actually help fix some diversity problems

Natsumi Chikayasu

When Anna, a psychologist working in London, was told in March that she would be working from home indefinitely, her colleagues joked that she must have somehow started the pandemic herself.
Six weeks earlier her line manager had rejected her request to work remotely one morning a week. Anna, who lives with dyslexia and depression, had hoped she could briefly escape the morning commute from Luton into central London, which had left her feeling exhausted and had tested her ability to focus.


Now, she says, it’s become clear that her manager’s objections “were all total bollocks”. “My boss told me that it would be hard on clients, but they were all happy to be seen virtually. I was told it would be too expensive, but all the software we’ve used has been free and our organisation hasn’t suffered at all financially.”
Most importantly, since working from home during lockdown, she has felt more productive, focused and calm. Like millions of others, she was left wondering why it took a pandemic to change her employers’ attitude.
Since 2014, all employees have had the legal right to request flexible working, but few of these requests were actually honoured. Just 30 per cent were accepted in 2019, while flexi-time was still made unavailable to 58 per cent of UK employees, according to the TUC.
For disabled and neurodivergent employees – a term typically used to describe those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD – the need for flexible working is especially pressing.


Office cultures designed for more neurotypical employees can throw up a number of obstacles. Sensory overload caused by lighting and sound, communication issues in team meetings and long commutes are all significant, but solvable, issues.
But disability charities such as Leonard Cheshire have shown that there is a risk of neurodiverse individuals being frozen out of work altogether. In 2018, almost a quarter (24 per cent) of UK employers said they would be less likely to hire a person with a disability, and 66 per cent said that the cost of workplace adjustments would act as a barrier to recruiting people with disabilities.
However, Covid-19 has seen many companies implement remote working on a mass scale, and employers are realising just how easy adapting to different ways of operating can be.
“It’s ironic that it’s taken a pandemic to get employers to change their views,” says Leena Haque, co-founder of BBC CAPE (Creating A Positive Environment), a research team working to promote an understanding of neurological differences in employment. “They’re now proactively asking questions around how they can support people to work from home, when before, it was frowned upon. Culturally, it’s a complete U-turn. It’s forced leaders to become more empathetic because now everyone is in the same boat,” she says.


Of course, remote working isn’t a silver bullet to fix diversity issues. Haque points out that many employees with autism spectrum disorder, for example, have struggled without the routine of heading to the office each day. Neurotypical and neurodivergent workers alike have found focusing while working from home challenging, especially those without a comfortable, distraction-free space.
Sean Gilroy, head of cognitive design at BBC CAPE, believes the only solution is to scrap prescriptive, hierarchical views on remote working altogether. “We’ve still got to be cautious. It’s really about managers dismissing this parental view towards workplace culture. Whenever you choose one way of working over another and remove people’s choice, that’s when you start to exclude people.”
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