In Spain, telecommuting has become a powerful tool for allowing people with disabilities to work from home.
The fight against Covid-19 has taught us some surprising lessons. Among the most important is that there are no longer any physical barriers preventing talent from flourishing. Inclusive culture has arrived like an unexpected guest. And as has happened many times before, the movies predicted this would be the case -- 11 years ago, to be exact.
But let’s back up. Spain recently observed an anniversary that was no cause for celebration. This wasn’t the date of a military victory nor a historical figure’s birthday; it was the one-year anniversary of lockdown. On March 14, 2020, we Spaniards watched in disbelief as our government ordered us to stay at home, Middle Ages-style. That same week, 90% of companies launched contingency plans to send their employees homeward. What followed was an experiment in mass telecommuting: laptops were purchased or rented, internal systems were adapted, and remote communication tools were trialed.
We entered a 2D world. Or rather, in audiovisual terms, we found ourselves in a perpetual medium shot, framed from the waist up. In this flat existence, we can adjust our color, contrast, and tone. We no longer have to climb stairs or travel great distances. Everything is close at hand, forty centimeters from our eyes. In this digital, unbiased space, shared with people with different skill sets, viewpoints, and capabilities, diversity reveals its true value -- and gives organizations their competitive wings. In reflecting upon this, we should ask ourselves whether stay-at-home in Spain is a temporary measure -- or whether it might be a powerful tool moving forward, which gives companies a long-lasting advantage and improves the lives of those people who make up the living tissue of an organization.
Over a decade ago, film director and writer James Cameron demonstrated the value of diversity in his cult hit Avatar, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Avatar not only shows us the power of diverse ethnic backgrounds, but also portrays a disabled protagonist who needs a wheelchair to get around and who is given an opportunity to inhabit another body and pilot an “avatar.” (We might say he... telecommutes?) Cameron anticipated how, when we adapt a person’s context to their unique capabilities, intelligence, and perspective, we let him or her contribute their vision and life experience to the organization’s well-being.
Let’s return to reality. According to the Adecco Group Foundation, 3 out of 4 disabled youths are unemployed. And what’s even worse, they’ve stopped looking for a job. Physical barriers are one of the main reasons for this. But there are other obstacles: reduced mobility, accessibility issues in companies, the cost of adapting company infrastructure to people with disabilities, and more. This paints a devastating picture, which future scholars studying pre-pandemic times might find relevant. However, with the normalization of remote working, our horizon has now opened up. What if we could offer disabled youths the chance to work from home, in environments specifically adapted to their needs?
We should embrace remote working as an opportunity to improve these youths’ access to the job market. The problem, today, is that many companies have adopted telecommuting exclusively for economic reasons. They don’t see how they can also create differential value through diversity. There is currently a General Disability Law in place, but it doesn’t work. We should not be motivated by subsidies but rather by the acquisition of talent, as we integrate the knowledge, experience, and vision of a diverse group of people and generate differential value in a modern world that prizes innovation, agility, and adaptability. Such a team would be highly driven to face any challenge. This would not just facilitate the success of our projects, but would also increase our employees’ commitment, as they recognize how their company is developing an inclusive culture alongside those who, for whatever reason, experience difficulties performing certain activities or everyday interactions.
We should also consider the effect this strategy would have on our providers, collaborators, and clients, who would regard us as a more human, dynamic, and people-oriented company. That said, nurturing an inclusive culture does not stop at hiring people with disabilities. We need to develop career plans that support these employees and allow them to attain leadership roles. According to Red Acoge’s diversity index, less than 0.21% of management positions are occupied by people with disabilities. This is likely due to the fact that 61% of companies have no mechanisms in place to either detect talent among -- or develop career plans for -- disabled employees.
This pandemic can serve to accelerate the adoption of an inclusive culture in our companies. We should take advantage of this moment to open up the doors of diversity and improve accessibility for employees who once found it difficult -- if not impossible -- to find employment. In doing so, our organizations might help repair some of the damage wrought by the pandemic on disadvantaged groups.
Let’s wake up and redefine disability as our inability to understand that we all have different capabilities.
Óscar Velasco is a Partner at Olivia Consulting