I struggled with office life. Now others are alive to benefits of remote working
People with invisible disabilities have long asked for flexible options such as working from home. Then came the pandemic
I struggle with a mild form of face blindness, or prosopagnosia. The condition, usually associated with autism, makes it difficult to remember people’s faces. This means that, in high-stress situations, I am often unable to match someone’s face to their name or even remember if I’ve met them before. When I worked at an office, I inadvertently offended colleagues who did not understand why I struggled to place who they were.
This is just one way that the daily office environment made my career difficult to navigate. Working from home, as I have for the past three years, has made a positive difference in my ability to be a successful, confident journalist, and a happier person overall.
For years, people with invisible disabilities – including neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – have campaigned for accommodations that would allow us to do our jobs well. Chief among these is the flexibility to work from home. For many of us, the remote work era facilitated by Covid-19 has changed our lives for the better, despite the grief and anxiety of the pandemic.
Now, as the world begins to reopen and offices throw open their doors, many are afraid the era of working from home – where they feel more comfortable, productive and safe – is coming to an end.
A culture of workplace inflexibility
“In our research, what we found was that working from home was amongst the most required accommodations or support that people with all types of disabilities reported needing,” says Arif Jetha, part of a team of researchers who study workplace accessibility issues at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health. This essential accommodation request “was also one of the most unmet needs” by employers, Jetha says.
“Employers would often say that this is not in our policy. We just don’t do that.”
Paula*, a social worker in Liverpool, England (who requested that the Guardian change her name to protect her privacy), has autism. In an office, she struggles with processing information and concentrating. Though she is easily able to complete her job’s administrative tasks without going into an office, before the pandemic, her direct manager required her to put in a new request every time she wanted to work from home. Eventually, she says, she gave up.
When the whole company transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, it threw into sharp relief the absurdity of having to make frequent requests to work from home – requests that were often denied.
“It is frustrating to hear [co-workers] complain about their needs not being met because they’re now working from home,” Paula says. “I really have to bite my tongue to stop from asking them, ‘Yeah, how’s that feel?’”
Becca*, a journalist in London who requested that only her first name be used because she hasn’t gone public with her autism and ADHD diagnoses, says she has “absolutely” faced hurdles climbing the career ladder because of her disabilities.
“I personally really struggle with processing different sounds at the same time. I always found it really difficult to work in an office with music playing and then listening to someone talk,” Becca says. “Brainstorming in a team of extroverts was also awful. I don’t like shouting over people and process written language so much better [than spoken conversation].”
As a result, Becca says that employers and co-workers would assume she didn’t have any of her own ideas. This, and her discomfort with social situations and networking activities, made it difficult for her to get recognition for her work and the value she brought to her teams.
Becca has worked from home for years now, which she prefers to working in the office. “So much flexibility, lots of movement, many, many showers per day! A fan on me at all times,” she says. “Office spaces feel geared towards mentally well people and neurotypical people.” At home, she can orient her work situation, more or less, how she wants it.
Opportunity for reassessment
A 2020 analysis of job market data shows that, although people with physical or mental impairments can benefit greatly from workplaces with flexible remote work policies, we’re more likely to be denied such jobs, and instead find employment in precarious, inflexible service work and other blue-collar jobs. But even in white-collar office positions, the disability disclosures that many employers require for even the most basic accommodations can present roadblocks.
“Providing documentation [of diagnoses] can be extremely difficult, traumatic and personal for people,” says Jalyn Radziminski, the communication manager for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “Everyone does not have the same access to healthcare, funds and insurance to afford to be able to see someone consistently to provide paperwork.”
That’s not all. “People who disclose mental illness or other invisible disabilities such as autism often experience stigma after disclosure,” says Simon Bury, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Center at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “This has led to reports of being overlooked for promotions, being discriminated against in task allocation that could lead to promotion, or simply being fired.”
With the requirement of disclosure, many of us are stuck between a rock and a hard place: disclose, and face significant stigma for our diagnosis. Refrain from disclosure, and struggle to explain why we have trouble with situations that other workers navigate with ease.
But there’s a way forward. Jetha, the Institute of Work and Health researcher, says that by implementing universal accessibility principles, like remote work options for all employees, employers help eliminate the need for individuals to disclose private diagnoses.
Remote work options benefit everyone. Parents can easily stay home with sick kids. Someone who’s feeling down for personal reasons can take the space they need without missing work. A commuter who lives far from the office can stay home when traffic is bad, or simply when they don’t have the energy for a long commute.
Even as pandemic restrictions recede, there’s reason to hope that employers will allow their workers the flexibility they want or require.
“Many workers who might have previously been denied remote work alternatives, part- or full-time in the past, may now have a renewed opportunity to negotiate flex-place and flex-time working alternatives that make them far more productive, and lower stress and anxiety,” says Susanne Marie Bruyere, the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.
“This is hopefully one positive outcome from the pandemic – that organizations realize that there are many ways to work, and among them is working from home [or] remotely.”
Most critically, a flexible workplace allows people to take care of their needs as they arise, without judgment.
The pandemic made clear that for people who work in an office setting, most of our jobs can be done just fine from home. Companies that want to support all employees, not just those who fit a narrow mold, may realize that remote work policies have the capacity to make a happier, more productive workforce.