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Equal accessibility for all employees can improve your bottom line

Inclusion and Diversity|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Fredrik Motzfeldt | June 2, 2020

Enhancing the workplace experience for employees with disabilities can turbo-charge your I&D platform and grow your business.

At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, I listened to the former CEO of a Fortune 500 company talk about the difficulty of finding enough talent to cover information technology (IT) vacancies that are critical to the growth of his business such as cloud engineering, artificial intelligence, and so on. He then described how his company is breaking down workplace boundaries and looking to people with disabilities to expand the talent base.

He went on to explain that people with disabilities are a vital and largely untapped source of talent, and new technology increasingly places them on a level playing field with their colleagues, enabling them to perform to their full potential while improving their employee experience. Recruiting more disabled people for his company helps create a more diverse and inclusive organization and makes good business sense.

I&D programs should address issues holistically

Many companies the world over have made good progress with inclusion and diversity (I&D) programs that open the workplace to a wide new universe of underutilized talent and experiences. The payoff shows up in various ways, including better financial performance and higher employee satisfaction.

Having a well-established I&D program is now common in most companies, with a focus on three areas:

  • The positive impacts an inclusive and diverse culture has on the employee experience, including employee attraction, motivation and retention
  • Technological adaptations, such as accessible premises, IT accessibility, and overall wellbeing and inclusion for disabled users
  • A diverse workforce’s contribution to the robustness of the business and, therefore, to improved business performance

While each area is of course important and worthy in itself, our findings suggest that many companies pursue each of these (and other I&D activities) independently, failing to realize the full potential if their efforts were better “joined up.” In other words, by not linking talent scarcity and I&D with the need to improve business performance, they miss the opportunity to fully connect the dots, entrusting various aspects of a diversity program to siloed functions, such as HR and, in the case of technology, an IT department.

Addressing the digital talent shortage also calls for joined-up thinking across all stages of the employee lifecycle. If companies want to access the broadest possible pool of talent, including people with digital skills who are also disabled, they need to analyze their recruitment materials and processes, onboarding activities, performance management and talent retention strategies. And vital to all of this is the need to create a culture in which people with disabilities feel listened to, included, valued and respected.

Too many companies undervalue workforce diversity as a genuine driver of revenue and profits, sometimes treating diversity as something they are required to do for window dressing or perhaps to meet legal and regulatory requirements. To our thinking, this approach misses an opportunity to gain sustained competitive advantage.

Consider the hiring of an employee with autism. Many companies have found that people with autism may be ideally suited for computer coding or programing positions. Yet too few companies have made efforts to attract and recruit from this promising talent pool.

Katherine Breward, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg who researches autism in the workplace, cites a number of traits that are vital to many business operations, including attention to detail and heightened pattern recognition skills. These distinct skill sets easily justify a company’s efforts at workplace accommodation, including customized workspace and enabling technology.

Linking four I&D areas

To take a closer look at I&D, my Willis Towers Watson colleagues and I considered the following four related topics. The observations and insights gained are from our primary regions of focus — the U.S., the U.K. and selected countries in continental Europe.

  1. 01

    Trends and demographics

    Research indicates that disabled undergraduates are somewhat more inclined to study computer and information sciences and are roughly equivalent to nondisabled students in the engineering and mathematics fields. However, disabled employment levels significantly trail those of the overall workforce.

    Regulatory and public policy developments are accelerating accessibility trends around the world. EU member states, for example, must follow explicit directives for web accessibility. Businesses are also striving to improve accessibility, motivated by business practicalities if not compliance requirements or threat of litigation.

    In addition, many business leaders significantly expanded their work-from-home polices amid the lockdowns imposed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. As expected productivity drops failed to materialize, many leaders are now considering making more expansive work-from-home arrangements permanent — a potential boon to many of the disabled who may find working from home far more accommodative to their needs.

    Recent research has also reaffirmed the link between company financial performance and diversity. In the U.K., research by the government and We are Purple indicates that U.K. businesses lose approximately £2 billion each month by ignoring the needs of disabled people. Seventy-five percent of disabled people and their families have avoided a U.K. business because of poor accessibility or customer service.

    It is a reasonable assumption that if we looked at the global numbers for these scenarios, the economic impact would be staggering.

  2. 02

    Economic benefits of using talent with disabilities to address the digital talent shortage

    By creating an accessible workplace and enabling the disabled, companies expand the talent pool while adding employees who typically show less turnover than the overall workforce, thereby reducing costs associated with recruiting, hiring and training new employees. Moreover, companies can take advantage of hiring incentives in North America and Europe.

    Spain, for example, offers a number of incentives, including bonuses, to contract disabled employees. In the U.S., companies may be eligible for tax credits ranging from $1,200 to $9,600 for each disabled employee.

    Other research indicates that companies gained an estimated $5,000 after investment for accessibility, equivalent to a gain of $40 for each dollar invested. And recent Willis Towers Watson research shows that an optimal employee experience will result in better organizational performance and better financial results.

    While hiring incentives are important, simple math in study after study shows how disabled employees more than offset costs associated with their recruitment, training and effective deployment — especially when the financial benefits of creating a high-performance employee experience are also taken into account. In short, workplace accessibility could be viewed as a solution to the digital talent shortage.

  3. 03

    Innovative technology solutions

    Technology is a real game changer for allowing disabled employees equal access in the workplace. Its evolution from screen and keyboard to a digital world via technology aids is making business environments increasingly accessible to the disabled.

    While a number of technology companies provide accessibility options, Microsoft is a true innovator in the field. For example, for those with autism or other neurodiversity issues, Microsoft’s Focus Assist tool clears distracting content from web pages. The company’s auto-generated captions and transcripts assist the hearing impaired, while its Virtual Narrator reads text to visually impaired or blind users.

    Voice-activated technology, such as Apple’s Siri or Voice Control, are examples of technology that removes additional accessibility barriers. Voice Control, for example, enables a motion-limited worker to have full access to computer functions that would normally require a mouse or touch screen. The beauty for many companies is that this technology is readily available at little cost and already embedded in off-the-shelf technology.

    The above are only a few examples of technology solutions. With rapid innovation, we are likely to see accelerated progress over the coming years, even more so as companies realize the economic benefits that such investments will bring.

  4. 04

    Breaking down boundaries to drive performance, attract, engage, nurture and retain talent with accessibility challenges

    Our work has shown that many disabled people believe that the corporate world and many of its leading players represent a largely inaccessible step with few viable job options and no clear career paths. While many companies have taken steps to improve accessibility and to proactively recruit disabled job candidates, there is not enough consistency. And as noted above, these efforts are not always connected — effective efforts by the HR team or line managers may not be linked to accessibility partnerships with high-technology businesses, and it’s even less likely that the accessibility strategy will be linked to improved business and financial performance.

    To connect these dots, I can think of no better benchmark than starting with the bottom line — the impact of an effective accessibility program. Linking accessibility to corporate strategy, future needs, the employee experience and bottom-line performance will have the added benefit of engaging the C-suite and other leadership in efforts that might otherwise be confined to HR, line managers and IT teams. Doing so will therefore turbo-charge inclusion and diversity while also growing the business — a win-win situation!

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U.K. Leader of Global Technology, Media & Telecoms Industry Group

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