The world as we know it has been shaken to its core. While we continue to live our lives with the persistent impact of the coronavirus looming over our heads there are significant object lessons that leaders should absorb to be prepared for the future of work so that business can thrive in the years ahead. Due to the coronavirus, there have been substantial restrictions placed on people’s ability to gather, socialize, and participate in our natural behaviors. For persons with disabilities, these restrictions and social isolation have been part of the long global history of this community. It has taken a pandemic for the majority of the world to share in this experience that has impacted this community in various degrees for a millennium. However, it is at this moment that offers organizational leadership a means to reframe the status that disability plays in how we redefine the very nature of work and develop the tools needed to create a culture of innovation and cultivate a management strategy that embraces the needs of individual employees to be more productive and in turn give back to the collective goals of the company.
A prime example of this innovative change comes from the University of Washington in partnership with Microsoft through the launch of the Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technologies and Experiences (CREATE). Building on there decade long collaboration in this space, Microsoft and the University of Washington’s goal is to continue to push the boundaries of innovation and drive forward the need for accessibility research. The partnership has continued to thrive leading to ongoing internships and career opportunities through engagements with the Ability Team at Microsoft Research. With the new Center, the partnership will build on existing research and launch new projects that include developing the audio-first representations of websites for smart speakers as well as understanding how the perception of software developer job candidates with autism may impact hiring decisions to sign language recognition and mental health.
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie has been quite vocal about our dependency on technology and states that “We need more research investment thought leadership when it comes to accessibility. If anything’s brought that more to light, it is the times we’re living in right now.” The new Center will be led by numerous University faculty from across several disciplines such as the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, The Information School, UW School of Medicine, Mechanical Engineering, Human-Centered Design & Engineering, and the Disability Studies Program. This highlights the need to view disability at the crossroads of innovation and strategy to enhance our understanding of the future of work and shape the next generation of corporate culture.
As the nature of work continues to evolve so do employees’ requirements which must change right along with it. One of the key drivers to facilitate that change are Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s). ERG’s are focused on building a community for people with shared identities and experiences. In the wake of this pandemic, the need to develop a stand-alone mental health ERG group has become more glaring than ever before. According to the recent Harvard Business Review article How To Form a Mental Health Employee Resource Group writers Jen Porter, Bernie Wong, and Kelley Greenwood wrote that “Despite the significant need for more programs like these, they are not yet widespread in the United States. Consider that nearly 60% of U.S. employees experienced mental health symptoms last year, and yet eight in 10 workers did not seek treatment due to shame.” Leaders must see the critical importance that developing a mental health ERG group can play in laying the groundwork for improving an innovative corporate culture that can sustain these turbulent times and beyond. Those with disabilities within the corporate environment are in a unique position to serve as an ally in helping to shape a stand-alone mental health ERG group. The disability experience is quite diverse, fellow travelers in the disability community can be there for the long-term or just passing through. For those with invisible disabilities which is often synonymous with mental health issues, they can offer a unique perspective and be of guidance through many of the mental and physical manifestations that go along with the struggles of mental health from panic attacks, depression to anxiety. In this post-pandemic scenario, being able to see our shared experiences and build partnerships are crucial in creating sustained value for the long term. Corporate leaders need to understand that employees require a safe place to share their stories and a viable mechanism for companies to invest in these opportunities to press the need that mental health is inherent in the longevity and business success of any organization.