Dan Howard

With the potential for 6 months of partial lockdown ahead of us, the adaptations made to the UK’s business infrastructure to remain operational seem set to be with us for some time.

To get to where we are now, we’ve lived and worked through a technological gold rush that was required to keep employees connected and businesses trading.

Alongside this has been a hard lesson in humility and humanity that, coupled with our newfound affinity for tech-enabled workspaces, may prove to be the most advantageous of the changes from which there should be no going back.

Flexibility and profitability

As many of us juggled childcare, caring responsibilities, or simply managed our diaries differently at the risk of going stir-crazy amongst the solitude of full lockdown, there has been a near nationwide embodiment of flexible working. What once seemed reserved for third sector organisations and trendy start-ups can now be hailed as one of the reasons that the UK economy has been able to tread water, up to now.

With this new world order also came a new found empathy; extended to those who had previously suffered that sideways glance as they sloped off sheepishly from their 9:5 at midday to pick up an ailing child from school or nursery, or attend to an ageing parent. With everyone stuck at home, the dichotomy of life and work has been blurred beyond recognition. There’s no denying that we are now all human, with entire lives that exist outside of our ‘work persona’. As seen in many live news broadcasts, there is no meeting, or person, important enough to ignore the extended hand of a toddler or the words “Mum/Dad can I have…”.

Before buy-in from businesses was required as a matter of safety, flexible working has been proven to have a positive impact on recruitment, productivity, retention and inclusion – not to mention the potential for costs saved on office space, parking, security and other sundries associated with maintaining a physical workplace. For staff, the feeling of autonomy of your own work/life balance is emboldening. And, with so little control of our lives as we once knew them, this is an important luxury that we cannot discount as essential to our continued mental management of this ongoing crisis.

The future of diversity and inclusion

An additional benefit of a flexible workplace with a digital-first approach is the capacity for enhanced inclusion that has yet to be realised on a scale as grand as the current situation presents.

Utilising technology has helped to dismantle barriers to employment for those who may have a disability or a chronic illness. Up to now, this may have prevented those individuals from applying for a job role, or caused them to take sick or unpaid leave to manage their symptoms when a physical, or inflexible, workplace has not allowed them to do so without negative repercussions.

The strides which we have made during lockdown towards flexible working have been long campaigned for by disability rights groups. Now, painfully late for many, businesses are signing up in their droves to implement a flexible working policy to keep their staff on the payroll and their heads above water. What will also transpire from this newly popularised working pattern is the opening of more doors than ever before to a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

The challenges of creating an inclusive workforce

With the mention of such huge strides towards a tech-enabled work environment, it would be easy to forget the elephant in the room which is our straining economy and jobs market. Up to now, the government’s furlough scheme has bolstered unemployment figures. Until the scheme’s eventual curtailment as we transition toward The Jobs Support Scheme, we won’t know the full extent of the damage coronavirus has had on jobs. Predications of a peak unemployment rate stand between an upside scenario of 9.7% and a downside scenario of 13.2%. Alongside this, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, threatening an even greater disability employment gap.

So far, the greatest increase to unemployment has been seen in young people who have left education or some of the worst affected industries, like retail and hospitality, with few opportunities available to them. For them, the government’s recent cash incentives for employers provide a beacon of hope and it’s important that when used, these measures are inclusive of young people with a range of abilities, wherever possible.

Many organisations will be using the Job Retention Bonus, a one-off payment of £1,000 for every employee that was previously eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and for which they made a claim, so long as they remain employed until 31st January 2021. It’s very likely that businesses may choose to use this bonus to alleviate the pressure of that person’s salary as they return to work against a backdrop of reduced profit margins, however, this bonus can be used at the employer’s discretion.

This gives those employers with the financial freedom the option to invest in other areas such as reasonable adjustments, training, technology, or other interventions to allow that member of staff, or indeed others, to be better supported at work. This could be due to a pre-existing health condition or disability, or something that may have been triggered or exacerbated by the pandemic, such as mental health issues.

Similarly, the Cash Incentive Bonus for Apprentices can be spent on anything to support an organisation’s costs. This could include facilities, travel, or indeed some of the interventions mentioned previously that could make it easier for a young person with a disability or illness to access an apprenticeship.

Unfortunately, this fiscal flexibility does not extend to the Kickstart scheme, for which there are more stringent terms on how this incentive can be spent. However, a recent step in the right direction toward inclusivity for young people with disabilities is that SMEs have now been invited to apply for funding. Previously, only businesses employing 30 or more placements would be eligible for this scheme. This is an important move as it will allow the support of a wider range of young people with differing needs.

The Kickstart scheme needs to be seen as a programme of learning for all young people, focused on valuable employability skills and the opportunity to be exposed to workplace practices, irrespective of how different they currently look. Access to employers with the resources to support them - i.e. time and human resource, rather than huge profit margins and the space to employ 30 new faces - is imperative for young people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. The widening of the scheme is good news and will help them gain access to the opportunities such a programme will afford.

The future of accessibility and employability

Although the unfolding crisis presents a universal uphill struggle as sectors strain under the pressure and businesses begin to make efficiencies to their workforce to manage the financial constraints, this needn’t have a disproportionate effect on people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

The ability to work from home and use technology supports employers to ensure that employees, and prospective employees, aren’t put at an unfair disadvantage. To revert to how we once thought the workplace needed to operate would be a damaging backwards step. It would slam a door in the face of those most marginalised who, through the changes needed to support industry during lockdown, have been granted the flexibility they have found so hard to win. For industry, it would be equally destructive, as it would close again the huge pool of talent that is available, if we continue to take steps to encourage it.

Amidst collapsing sectors, there are new and emerging opportunities, businesses, and sectors. We have seen businesses previously bound by process, structure and sign-off move in a direction that was never thought possible to cope with coronavirus. For them, there is no going back, for new businesses, there is no excuse.

If employers aren’t putting flexibility and accessibility at the heart of their employment strategy, they will fall behind, both morally and in profitability. Now, more than ever before, we need a resilient and adaptive workforce and to exclude anyone from that would be to the detriment of our economic recovery.

Dan Howard FIEP is Managing Director at Skills Forward and Operations Director Learning for Work at NCFE

Dan has over 10 years’ experience in the employability and skills sector, currently leading Skills Forward, an online assessment and eLearning specialist. Committed to employability and social mobility, Dan is also the Operations Director for Learning for Work at educational charity, NCFE and judge for the BAME Apprenticeship Awards.

This article was first published in October 2020 in the Journal of the Institute of Employability Professionals.

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