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Are people with disabilities your next competitive advantage?

The COVID-19 fuelled home-working push could lead to big opportunities, not only for your business but society at large. Glenn Elliott explores this in his latest piece.

As I scrolled through my newsfeed earlier this year, an article caught my eye. Virgin Media were closing 53 high street stores and re-deploying their staff to customer care roles. So far, so normal. Until the article revealed that 300 of the 341 jobs would be carried out from home because this tactic had proved highly effective for Virgin’s existing customer care staff during the lockdown. 

This got me thinking. With more jobs being carried out from employees’ homes, what could this mean for people with disabilities? Could firms tap into this underutilised part of the workforce? And what would this mean for businesses? I decided to do a bit of digging, and as you’ll see, the results are pretty interesting.

Employment and disability pre-COVID-19

Before the first lockdown, the employment situation for the UK’s disabled population wasn’t all that great. Data from the Office for National Statistics and The Department for Work and Pensions shows that:

  • In 2019, 53.2% of disabled people were in work versus 81.8% of non-disabled people.
  • Most disabled people felt they had been pushed out of traditional employment because it wasn’t accessible.
  • “Businesses run by disabled people are disproportionately likely to be solo self-employed [and] run from home …” 

While this isn’t good news for disabled people, these figures are very positive for employers. Because they show that disabled people are willing and able to work when the conditions are right. And working from home is part of the solution.

Of course, all employers are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act so disabled people are not disadvantaged in the workplace. Yet, the data above shows that this isn’t always happening. This is why working away from the office could be an alternative approach that works for more disabled people and businesses too.

Accelerating the flexible working trend

It’s not just disabled people who are embracing the flexible working trend. Employee surveys have repeatedly shown that the most desired benefit across all age groups is flexible working. Be that working from home, part-time jobs, compressed or staggered hours or time off in lieu.

As we’ve seen, this change has been accelerated by COVID-19. Employees have proven that many jobs can be carried out perfectly well from home. And employers are placing more trust in their workforce to deliver when out of sight. 

Research suggests that this shift will embed further, with 60% of employees wanting to work from home more often after the lockdown. 

Even Barclay’s CEO has warned that having thousands of bank workers in big, expensive offices in the city “may be a thing of the past”, as the business has been run successfully by “staff working from their kitchens”.

Combine disabled people’s willingness and ability to work from home and the trend towards remote working, and it feels like there’s a major business opportunity. But what does hiring more disabled people really mean for organisations?

Big business benefits

Given what we know about the advantages workforce diversity brings, my hunch was that hiring disabled people would generate a business edge. And a report from consulting firm, Accenture, supported this theory. 

Their study into disabled workers in the US revealed a range of benefits: 

  1. Increased revenue – firms ranked as disability inclusion champions were twice as likely to have higher stakeholder returns than companies in their peer group.
  2. Increased innovation – disabled people develop creative problem-solving skills to adapt to the world around them. They develop strengths like agility, persistence, forethought and a willingness to experiment.
  3. Improved productivity – more inclusive work environments often improve overall productivity levels. When employees with disabilities are graded on the same scale as other employees, 90% receive performance ratings of ‘average’ or ‘above average’. 
  4. Improved market share – companies that set up specific disability-related programs and complete targeted marketing efforts see an increase in custom from people with disabilities. People with disabilities tend to be more brand loyal, make more shopping trips and spend more per trip than the average consumer.
  5. Enhanced reputation – businesses that adopt inclusive marketing and advertising efforts stand out from the competition. 

With disabled people bringing a competitive edge – and the removal of additional barriers through home working – actively recruiting disabled people is the logical next step. But where should you begin?

Evenbreak – connecting disabled people with jobs

When Jane Hatton founded Evenbreak in 2011, she set out to join the dots. Between employers who were struggling to attract disabled candidates and disabled candidates who couldn’t tell which employers were inclusive.

Jane Hatton, Founder of Evenbreak

Run by disabled people working from home, Evenbreak operates the UK’s most accessible job board. And provides guidance to employers who might be uncertain about including disabled people in their workforce, with a range of insights: 

  • “Disabled people are brilliant at self-selecting – we’re used to rejection, so we only tend to apply for the jobs we know 100% we can do. If disabled people apply for your role, it’s because they know they can do the job standing on their head (assistive technology allowing).”
  • “Not every disabled person will need huge adjustments – an autistic person might want to sit somewhere quieter, a deaf person might prefer to sit with their back to a wall so they can see people approaching them. In fact, most disabled people don’t need any adaptations at all, or only those that cost nothing (e.g. flexible working). For those who do need adjustments with a cost attached, Access to Work will pay some or all of the costs and the benefits far outweigh the outlay.”

Staffed by disabled people who work mainly from home, Evenbreak demonstrates how it’s possible to run an organisation without the need for an office. 

Writing in the organisation’s blog, Kiana, one of Evenbreak’s team members, says: “At Evenbreak, we all work flexibly from home – and yes, this was before the pandemic lockdown started. Of course, we still did face-to-face meetings and travelled for events, but only when it was actually necessary. Not because ‘normal’ work culture dictated it to be so.”

Building better futures for all

And herein lies the inspiration. As a CEO, your organisation’s work culture is whatever you determine it to be. With COVID-19 sparking discussions about humanity’s future, it’s time for business leaders to consider: 

  • marrying home-working opportunities with disabled worker recruitment
  • taking a fresh look at the jobs that can be carried out by disabled people with or without reasonable adjustments 
  • making it possible for disabled people to work for employers while driving major business benefits

Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. So, let’s take the chance to unleash the full potential of the entire UK workforce and make working from home work for everyone.


Picture of Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn is a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of CEO experience. He sold his last business, Reward Gateway, to PE three times. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing, and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.
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