The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has given workplaces no choice but to adapt and become more flexible. With practices like remote work becoming increasingly commonplace, many now offer options the disability community has been seeking for years.
“I think for all employers, it has forced us all to really examine our work products, what is involved in creating the work and/or outcomes, how we assess for quality and efficiency, etc.,” says Jenn Ramirez Robson, Northwest Center’s vice president of Employment Services. “There seems to be a greater realization that one size does not fit all, and blanket policies and practices have to now be more granular and individualized. Employers are realizing more than ever that flexibility is key to supporting productive teams.”
Northwest Center is ahead of the game when it comes to helping foster inclusive environments that leverage diversity and individuals’ unique talents. For more than 55 years, Northwest Center Employment Services has played matchmaker in the workplace, helping people of all abilities uncover talents, develop skills, and find employment matches that are meaningful and valuable to everyone involved. The organization’s main goal is employment that is successful for both the employee and their employer — and to not only help people “get a job,” whether with a large Fortune 500 company or a small local business — but to cultivate a path toward career growth and independence.
Since the pandemic began, Ramirez Robson has watched many employers discover that simply seeing someone at a desk doesn’t always equate to high productivity. “When managers had to evaluate quality and quantity of actual work produced,” she adds, “it caused a mind shift from perceived productivity to measured productivity.”
It’s not surprising that certain barriers — both physical and digital — have arisen with this transition. Ramirez Robson uses the example of Northwest Center, where pre-pandemic, all job coaching and job readiness work with clients was done in person. “When the entire state went into lockdown,” she says, “we obviously could no longer work with clients in person, yet we needed to be able to bill for this work in order to retain our staff. Plus, we knew it could be detrimental to our clients to not receive this support during such a tumultuous time.”
So Northwest Center switched to remote coaching and deployed tablets for many clients, even though several have severe developmental and intellectual disabilities and were, historically, nonverbal and unaccustomed to using technology. “Much to our delight, most clients adapted to new devices just fine, and many of our clients learned sign language or other new ways to communicate with their coaches so they could retain or build their skills,” Ramirez Robson says. “Not only were staff open to trying new ways to accomplish our mission, but our clients were open to adapting as well – and they did!”
Ramirez Robson believes that barriers arising from fluctuating circumstances (like remote work) can encourage leaders to break down job descriptions for the positions they manage into quantifiable tasks with measurable outcomes. “We often work with employers to do just that in order to identify roles that might be suitable for our clients who may be able to do part of a job and free up other staff to do more of what they are skilled at doing,” Ramirez Robson says. “If a manager is clear on work expectations and measurable outcomes, it also makes it easier to consider different ways to achieve those outcomes, rather than relying on old ways of doing the work.”
Ramirez Robson would challenge employees to do the same thing. “Think about the work that they do every day,” she advises. “Then, if it isn’t measured now, propose how they would like their work to be measured and their outcomes assessed. Present that to their manager to see if it aligns with their expectations. Once that is established or confirmed, then the employee and manager can work together to explore other ways to accomplish the body of work and even improve the outcomes.”
Increased workplace flexibility might be a long-lasting positive to emerge from recent challenging years. Ramirez Robson sees how changing the relationship between employees and managers could be an amazing outcome for work culture. “I see a manager’s role to be one of setting clear job expectations and goals, and then ensuring that their employees have the tools and resources to reach those goals,” she says. “I call this ‘creating conditions for success.’ This also creates a work culture where it is the norm, and even encouraged, for employees to identify supports or resources that they need in order to be successful, whether that be related to a disability, life situation, or other challenges.”
Ramirez Robson acknowledges that it’s not standard at most workplaces for managers to look at job descriptions in this way, or for employees to feel comfortable asking for supports that they may need. “At Northwest Center,” she says, “we have experience working with employers in doing this and welcome opportunities to partner with other employers to foster more inclusive workplaces.”
Northwest Center has led inclusion efforts since 1965: Our founders wrote the first laws guaranteeing all children an education. Our therapy, education, and employment services for people with disabilities maximize potential and create diverse schools and workplaces that benefit everyone.