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Building more inclusive workplaces

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum, explains how businesses can make workplaces better for all

No one could have predicted the huge changes we have seen to our working patterns and workplaces over the last two years. As we now try to find ways to live with Covid, there is an opportunity for employers to think again about how they can make the workplace better for everyone.

Creating inclusive built environments

Earlier this year, Business Disability Forum, with the support of HSBC, launched its new global guide to making spaces more accessible for disabled people. We launched the guide, Access for all: Creating inclusive global built environments, to show employers and the wider business community the benefits of building back post-pandemic with the needs of disabled people in mind.

Having a disability can affect how a person accesses, navigates and uses the spaces and structures around them. So, it’s really important that employers consider disabled employees when making changes to the workplace, whether that’s moving premises, changing layouts or introducing a new hot desking policy.

With many sectors facing record levels of skills shortage, creating spaces which are inclusive and accessible can also help businesses to attract and retain talent. Many disabled people report leaving their job because their workplace wasn’t accessible.

User engagement

So, where do you begin? How do you know what works and the areas that may be causing problems for your disabled staff?

Begin with genuine user engagement, which means talking to colleagues. Find out what is working well and what isn’t when it comes to using a space. For example, your building isn’t accessible if the lift is always out of order or if the person who needs to use the disabled parking space then has to navigate steps to get to the entrance of your building.

With over 90% of disabilities not immediately visible you may not always know which colleagues have a disability, so involve everyone in the discussion. Accessible spaces work better for everyone, not just for disabled people.

Next, prioritise key projects. What are the biggest barriers people are facing? Which projects will have the most impact? Try to tackle those first. Getting feedback on these changes will help you evidence the need for other projects.

Organisational buy-in

Get organisation-wide buy-in. Regardless of the size of your organisation, you need everyone to understand the importance of accessibility and their role in making it happen. This is most easily achieved when you get senior level buy- in to drive change. Get senior leaders involved in communicating the plans and why they are important.

You may also want to organise accessibility training for your organisation. There are many free resources and online courses available to help with this.

Be flexible. This can be a lot easier if you are a small organisation, but even if you are a large organisation, try to balance the need for global consistency with local flexibility. What works in one location, may not work everywhere.
It’s about offering all staff the same level of accessibility, rather than the same solution.

Design with inclusion in mind

Also, remember that retrofitting can be costly and time consuming. It is far better to design with inclusion in mind from the very beginning rather than trying to adapt a space afterwards. If you are changing an office layout check whether it really is accessible for a wheelchair user. Don’t just assume it is. It’s important to note here that the reference size for wheelchairs is based on a 1980s manual model, not on the more modern and often larger electric wheelchairs. Also think about how people will access the office space. There may be a ramp, but is it in the right place? Do staff know how to use it if it isn’t a permanent fixture?

As one of the contributors to our guide put it: “The more accessible your estate, the more it improves your retention, employee engagement and pipeline of staff. This then works with relationships with suppliers and results in less retro-fitting.”

Finally, don’t be put off. Sometimes fear of getting it wrong or the size of the task can put us off making a start. Remember that you don’t need to have all the answers. You simply need to ask the questions and let people tell you what they need. Our built environment guide is here to help you too.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not for profit membership organisation that provides practical and strategic solutions for businesses to recruit and retain disabled people and provide inclusive and accessible products and services to transform the life chances of disabled people. Its 300-plus members and partners employ an estimated 20% of the UK workforce and eight million people worldwide. Access for all: Creating inclusive global built environments can be downloaded from the Business Disability Forum website

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