Jessie Wusthoff is a Diversity & Inclusion specialist in the technology space. She currently works with Breaking Glass Forums to expand conversations around intersectionality and disability in the workplace.
Flexibility at work can look many different ways, but odds are high that when you think “flexible schedule” you think of a woman with a child. But the reality is that there is a huge range of workers who can benefit from the same types of flexibility. The problem is that they don’t all receive it. And this can be a big problem for a group that we often exclude from this conversation—employees with disabilities.
For my particular disability, I need to receive specialized medical treatments to maintain my physical health. In one of my previous roles, I was fortunate enough to have one of my doctors just down the street from my office. I could leave the office and be back at my desk an hour later with my health improved. [Ed. note: at Werk, we call this MicroAgility™. ] But my boss was unhappy with the arrangement and assumed I was taking advantage by going to appointments during work hours. The problem was that my specialist closed at 5 p.m., so going after work was not an option. But here’s what made things extra confusing: one of my peers was allowed to go for hour-long runs in the middle of the day. So, if we were both using an hour of our workday to improve our health, why was one case OK and the other not?
I asked my boss that question—let’s just say it didn’t go over well.
My colleague and I both needed the same thing: access to one hour away from the office to improve our health. So why was I denied this flexibility, when my colleague wasn’t? My manager didn’t understand how necessary the flexibility was.
People with disabilities are a very diverse group within themselves. Many need no workplace adjustments, but others would greatly benefit from flexibility. Anyone who has worked in a big city knows what it’s like to take public transit during rush hour. People cram into train cars so tightly they become one giant mass. Now, imagine trying to get onto one of those trains in a wheelchair. You need more square footage than many riders and are left in a standoff with passengers as soon as the car doors open. You’re making calculations: will they move so you can get in even though they may lose their space? Will they stand their ground and force you to wait until the next train? Will they make a half-hearted attempt to move without letting you pass? This is your reality. Twice a day.
Now, imagine you shift your day to start and end an hour earlier, before the train cars are as crowded. You can enter and ride safely! You can arrive at work without feeling like you’ve been to war. [Ed. note: at Werk, we call this TimeShift™. ] Simple as that. An employer who accommodates is one who truly understands what structured flexibility means and its potential to create a more positive daily experience for employees.
So if you’re an employer who is evaluating a flexible schedule for an employee with a disability, here’s how you can listen:
Keep it simple. An employee asking for flexibility is doing just that. They are not asking to be held to a lower standard or for a lighter workload. They are not asking to talk about their medical history in detail. They are simply asking for the flexibility that will facilitate their best work.
Believe the need. Trust that your employees will truly benefit from the flexibility requested.
Check in. Making sure the type of flexibility provided is the right fit over time will be mutually beneficial.
Disability is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. Those who have not lived with a disability may find it challenging to really understand and trust the needs that may arise. And when someone’s disability is invisible? It takes even more trust. But if you listen to your employees, design a program that meets their needs, and focus on their skills and outcomes the results will speak for themselves.
Ed. note: If you’re an employer who needs help evaluating how to implement flexibility policies for all types of employees within your organization, check out FlexCert™.