Hybrid working: Six examples of reasonable adjustments for disabled workers
Author: Stephen Simpson
Employers that are operating under a hybrid working model must ensure that their working arrangements are inclusive, including making reasonable adjustments to the model for disabled workers. We set out six examples of potential reasonable adjustments for hybrid workers.
1. Reduce amount of time attending workplace
Employers that are operating under a hybrid working model will have set expectations around how much time staff are expected to spend at the workplace. For example, the employer's hybrid working policy may state that employees are generally expected to spend 40% to 60% of their working time in the workplace.
However, employers should ensure that their hybrid working model builds in sufficient flexibility to allow individuals' circumstances to be taken into account.
This includes where the employee is disabled and would benefit from additional time working remotely, for example where:
- commuting is difficult for them;
- they have specialist equipment set up at home; or
- they have a mental health condition that means that they are more productive when working from home (with some workers facing difficulties in a busy/noisy workplace).
This means that a potential reasonable adjustment to hybrid working could include allowing a disabled employee to:
- work from home all or most of the time, even if their colleagues are generally expected to split their time between attending the workplace and remote working; or
- split their time between attending the workplace and remote working, even if hybrid working is not generally available for their role.
2. Allow employee to start/finish outside peak travel hours
Whatever working patterns an organisation has set for staff, it is a good idea to think about when it would be appropriate to allow individuals to amend their start and finish times, bearing in mind their personal circumstances and travel arrangements.
This includes potentially amending the start and finish times for a disabled worker, for example where:
- commuting is more challenging for them during peak travel hours; or
- their immune system means they are at higher risk from coronavirus and they can reduce the risk of catching it by travelling at quieter times.
For employers that can be flexible with start and finish times, options include:
- allowing the employee to start and finish earlier;
- allowing the employee to start and finish later; or
- having flexible "windows" for start and finish times.
The arrangement could be permanent or temporary - for example to allow an employee some flexibility until their confidence in travelling at peak times has been restored.
3. Adjust any hotdesking arrangements
Hotdesking has become an important element of many employers' hybrid working arrangements. However, employers need to be aware that hotdesking can put disabled employees at a substantial disadvantage compared with others.
For instance, an employer may have to adapt its hotdesking policy to:
- reserve a permanent workspace for a disabled employee who has specific requirements (for example if they need specialist equipment); or
- adjust how hot desks are allocated - a "first come, first served" approach to their allocation may disadvantage a disabled worker so an option to book a desk in advance may be preferable.
The employment tribunal ruling in Baker v House of Commons Commission provides lessons for employers in what can go wrong with hotdesking arrangements. In that case, the claimant successfully argued that her employer breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments when it failed to prevent the use of her allocated desk as a hot desk during a short absence. The claimant returned from her absence to find that "all her equipment including her desk, chair and workstation had been drastically altered or moved".
4. Provide equipment to allow employee to work remotely
Under a hybrid working model, employers should provide staff with the equipment necessary for them to work remotely. The equipment that the employer provides will depend on:
- the nature of the role;
- the impact of remote working on the specific individual's health and wellbeing; and
- whether the equipment is needed to allow the individual to carry out their work effectively.
However, employers may need to go further to comply with their duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. If the employer provides a hybrid worker with special equipment (such as an ergonomic chair) in the workplace, it is likely that they will need to provide the equivalent equipment at home.
Where this is a reasonable adjustment, it is up to the employer to pay for this equipment.
5. Adapt communication methods and approach to meetings
The duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff extends to all aspects of employment, so that includes the way in which communications are handled and meetings are conducted.
The onus is placed firmly on the employer, not the employee, so line managing an employee who has a disability involves actively thinking about how to support them.
Line managers should ensure that:
- their methods of communication are suitable for any disabled employees;
- hybrid work meetings, where some attendees are there in person and others are joining remotely, do not exclude disabled workers; and
- colleagues are encouraged to support disabled workers.
Mental health conditions can have an impact on an employee's ability to participate in work-related activities, as demonstrated in the employment tribunal decision in Hayes v Rendall & Rittner Ltd. In that case, the tribunal held that allowing an employee to participate in a disciplinary hearing by telephone, rather than via Teams, would have been a "simple, inexpensive and timely" adjustment that allowed him to be treated fairly.
6. Take steps to ensure employee is not isolated
Employers have a responsibility to safeguard employees' health and safety - this includes looking after their mental health.
Employers may find that remote working leads to some employees having less social interaction and feeling isolated. This is a particular danger with some mental health conditions and line managers should be encouraged to have supportive conversations with employees around their mental wellbeing and take steps to help them where necessary.
Under a hybrid working model, it is very important that a new recruit with a disability is provided with support. After a job applicant accepts an offer of employment, the employer should explore what reasonable adjustments might be necessary to enable them to be fully productive.
Potential reasonable adjustments for a new hire who is disabled include:
- their line manager having more regular catch-ups with them than are necessary with existing staff;
- providing them with a "buddy" to keep in regular contact with, particularly if they are working remotely a lot of the time; and
- giving them access to any additional training or support that they need to get up to speed in their new role.
Duty to make reasonable adjustments: the basics
Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled worker is put at a "substantial disadvantage" when compared with non-disabled workers in relation to:
- the employer's application of a provision, criterion or practice;
- a physical feature of the employer's premises; or
- the absence of, and need for, an auxiliary aid.
A "substantial disadvantage" is one that is more than minor or trivial. The employer must take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage.
The duty applies to employers of all sizes but what is deemed reasonable may vary depending on the employer's circumstances.
An employer cannot justify a failure to make reasonable adjustments. Where the duty applies, the determinative factor is whether it is reasonable to make the adjustment.