The way many of us work has been completely changed by the pandemic, a period that unquestionably challenged many companies, including Google, to explore what was possible when it came to working together. Now, we continue to exist in this “new normal” that is entirely enmeshed in the virtual world in a way that our lives have never fully been before, from remote education to telehealth appointments to fully online events.
But, it has also laid bare the ways that some tools and programs can fall short of being truly accessible and inclusive of the disability community. Over the past two years, I’ve experienced and seen this increase in awareness around digital accessibility and the continued push to consider how to bring in more people with disabilities.
The reality of remote work is that while it affords many people with disabilities the chance to work in environments that may be more accommodating than a traditional office, the resources and platforms available to them are not always inclusive. Now, as companies revisit their remote work policies and employees either return to an office, remain fully remote, or do something in between, it is important to continue to rethink workplace accessibility and challenge what we believe to be possible.
With that in mind, here are three ways I’d encourage leaders to reexamine their current workplace accessibility and disability inclusion initiatives based on our own work at Google.
Level set with accessibility best practices and inclusive accommodations
With remote and hybrid work models becoming more commonplace, the result is a talent pool that is bigger. This means companies can hire more people from across the country without having to relocate them or limit their search to a certain number of cities. Considering that one in four Americans have a disability, this ensures that many people can continue to remain in places where they may have built a strong connection to their local support system or that they’ll have the opportunity to work from a home that is already well-suited to their needs.
When I made the choice to permanently work from home, for example, a large part of it was influenced by the fact that it would allow me to comfortably use the dictation and voice typing tools I need to be productive, since my repetitive strain injury (RSI) can make it painful to type with a keyboard over long periods of time.
In our return to office planning, we’ve also been mindful of the challenges ahead and have implemented global guidance on best practices, office design experiments, and more to make the future of work more accessible. We’re in the early stages of developing a new room type called a “controlled sensory environment.” This room will allow employees to control their environmental stimuli like temperature, lighting, and noise level. This is a space all Googlers can benefit from, but it can provide critical relief for those who identify as neurodiverse.
Another important time to consider happens even before relocation: the interview stage. There’s a lot of diversity in the disability community and it’s important to ask any potential candidates about what type of accommodations could make them feel most comfortable while going through your interview process.
For example, for some neurodiverse people, the structure of a traditional interview can be off-putting. At Google, we sought to remedy this by working with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project to launch the Autism Career Program, which aims to hire and support more autistic candidates as they join Google Cloud’s workforce. Through the program we were able to leverage best practices put in place by our accommodations team, including offering the options for extended interview time, providing questions in advance, or conducting the interview in writing in a Google Doc rather than verbally on a call. As part of the program, we have also trained more than 350 Google Cloud managers and other people involved in hiring processes to ensure Google’s onboarding processes are accessible and equitable for autistic candidates. Our external partner, the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, also provides coaching and ongoing support to applicants, their teammates, and their managers.
Build a culture of habit around inclusion
One of the biggest challenges of workplace accessibility is making sure that employees have the tools and know-how to create an inclusive culture. To start, providing accessibility training—especially for managers—is crucial to making sure that everyone knows how to do their jobs in a way that’s inclusive.
Accessibility can look like making sure you schedule meetings well in advance and asking members of the call if they have any accommodations requests, but it can also look like having presenters in large conference rooms zoom in on their faces so that people who rely on lip reading can see them.
Little, but meaningful, changes in your day-to-day habits and routines and creating new standards can go a long way when it comes to fostering a more inclusive work environment.
As companies continue to adapt to hybrid work environments, it will become increasingly important to make sure that employers continue to provide and improve upon an inclusive culture. I am taking a more deliberate approach to building culture as members of my team adopt a hybrid schedule, including encouraging my team to be intentional about moving hallway conversations online and considering who on the team may not be there in person, but deserve to be part of the conversation. It’s also pushing my team to continue to maintain their ties with one another through intentional 1:1s and building in focus time to take care of core work.
Empower employees who will make accessibility a reality
It can be challenging to drive change and adopt new ways of working and thinking, but when you work alongside the disability community and amplify the voices of people with disabilities in the process—the impact can touch billions.
To do this, it is important to empower employees who want to work on accessibility programs and initiatives to do so. We’ve been able to work with members of our employee resource group, Disability Alliance, to collect feedback on what an inclusive office space looks like to the disability community.
At Google, we also seek out opportunities to work with external organizations like DisabilityIN and TeachAccess to bolster our efforts. Partnering with these types of groups enables us to collaborate with others who are passionate about promoting accessibility awareness and disability inclusion.
Designing inclusively and with a lens towards accessibility ensures you create better products for everyone. Accessibility tools can help people in a variety of situations. They ensure that when someone has a situational disability, like watching a video without headphones or reading small text, they can use captions or zoom into content on their screen. Over the years, we’ve learned that accessibility drives innovation and by creating teams that include people with disabilities it ensures you can continue to build with that in mind.
Eve Andersson is the senior director of product inclusion, equity, and accessibility at Google.