Many groups have struggled to access full-time work in typical office environments. The remote working boom caused by Covid-19 could bring long term benefits for them.
An estimated 60 to 70 million Americans are now working remotely in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19 pandemic, and many more millions around the world are doing the same. While some businesses might have previously resisted remote working, they are now finding out that it is entirely workable. The availability of collaboration software, high-speed internet connectivity, and computing devices means much office-based work can be done remotely.
As well as allowing work to continue during the crisis, the increase in remote work also brings benefits to groups who have often been excluded from the workplace. People with disabilities, women, especially those responsible for childcare, migrants and refugees, and people with limited financial means have all faced struggles in accessing the employment market.
How can we ensure that the Covid-19 response is the beginning of lasting change for those groups, as well as deal with any potential disadvantages?
Around one-fifth of the EU population has a disability, while in the US the proportion is nearer a quarter. For many of these people, accessing traditional workplaces is a struggle. The issue is not only whether the workplace itself has the appropriate facilities, such as the kind of desk or computer they might need, but also overcoming accessibility challenges on public transport every day and simply having the energy required to commute on top of a full day’s work.
It hasn’t escaped the notice of people with disabilities that many of the accommodations they have been told are not possible are now being provided because of Covid-19. Working from home, remote access to conferences, even online appointments with doctors have all been requested by people with disabilities for years but have only now become standard.
Similarly, women with childcare responsibilities are often unable to take on fulltime work unless they can work remotely. In Japan, a recent online survey of some 1,800 working mothers concluded that 80% of them were not allowed to work from home due to their profession or a lack of online security.
Those with limited financial means perhaps cannot afford the car they would need to commute to a job but could work remotely. Migrants and refugees often face language barriers in their new country but these can be mitigated by collaboration tools, such as email and chat software, that take the emphasis off face-to-face interaction.
On top of that, working remotely under current circumstances also offers a unique opportunity for people to develop their skills and improve their employability. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more education resources have been pushed online, making learning more affordable and accessible.
Working from home, therefore, has many advantages when it comes to inclusion at work.
However, remote working is not a solution for all. Those without easy access to broadband internet connectivity – or who can’t afford it – will find it harder to work from home. These groups have often struggled to have their needs met, but it is possible that the pandemic will galvanise governments to ensure wider access to high-speed internet.
A more difficult problem is that not all jobs can be done remotely. Retail workers, plumbers and electricians, and of course healthcare workers, are among the groups that need to go to a specific place to do their work. Delivery workers and cab drivers have to be on the move all the time, in contact with lots of different people throughout.
Protecting those workers is one of the reasons why we need to work towards a new social contract, and in doing so, we should consider accessibility as a core principle. Not every job will be suitable for every person in society, but the more we can remove the barriers facing typically excluded groups, the better.
This is a matter of social justice and fairness to everyone but there are also sound business reasons for increased accessibility. Diverse companies simply perform better. Once the Covid-19 crisis is over, we need to think carefully about whether we can keep these increased levels of remote work so that we become more inclusive.