I remember the day exactly. It was an unspectacular Sunday and I was headed to the last job I would ever take working for somebody else. It was a low-paying, hourly, management position for an animal nonprofit and just about the only benefit of the job was that I was in charge of making the schedule. This Sunday, like most Sundays, being at work was my norm. Since days off need to be used for chores and errands, tasks that I only dare to complete during the weekdays, I worked every weekend to ensure that I could take off two weekdays for my dreaded adulting. That was my only “accommodation,” but that was about to change. That Sunday, I would ask for what I needed. Afterall, I had gone without any true accommodations for the requisite first 90 days. In that time, I had not only done the job required of me, but I had reformatted the tasks of the role to increase profits over $14,000 in those three months. To be sure, asking for some flexibility now would be greeted with a resounding YES. All I wanted was one remote workday a week to do admin and data entry tasks in the quiet of my own home. I mean, I proved my value through my performance, right? WRONG! I could not have been more wrong.
I think we would all like to imagine that my experience was a rare occurrence, a blip in the radar of the otherwise kind and caring world of work. Alas, it wasn’t even a rare occurrence for me. It was definitely not the first time that I have been open, honest, and upfront with an employer, only to be told no, “that it was against company policy.” Or maybe that, “nobody gets special treatment.” Or perhaps, “if we do it for you, everyone will want it.” Or my favorite, “this is how we have always done it.” GRRRRRR! Never has a more counter-intuitive statement be made in business than that! And yet, if I had a nickel for every employer…But, I digress.
The reason for telling this story isn’t to show you the inane thinking in American working environments. I am telling you this story because, as I sit here typing this, the world is making its way through an “unexpected” pandemic, and in the middle of all this chaos, most American businesses went almost fully remote in less than a week. Yes, you read that correctly. Less than a week. The very same accommodation that so many of us have asked for time and time again, only to be told no because a brick-and-mortar existence is how “we have always done it,” became a reality before our very eyes. Imagine our surprise when, almost miraculously, businesses across the country, big and small, closed their doors and said, “we can make this remote thing work.” Many of us sat back, mouths agape, and speechless because, after the resentment passed, this could mean the possibility of sustainable work for millions of autistics, and the entirety of the disability community.
Think about that. As long as remote work has existed, disabled people across the globe have begged for remote work and flex schedules to be made available so that work, and all of its benefits become a realistic possibility for many of us. And now, after years of rejection, the world just turned around and poof, businesses have caught up to the opportunities that tech provides. Not to mention what disability advocates have been saying all along, all in under a week. Truly a “festivus” miracle.
Now this is not to say that remote work is for all autistics. How could it be? It’s not a fit for all humans. There are many for whom the type of work that can be done remotely isn’t a fit for their strengths. Others of us, like all humans, are actually extroverts and miss the human interaction. Still more of us, specialize in the kind of work that must be done in person, like construction. But for a good chunk of us, remote work is a perfect fit, and, up until now, it was the forbidden fruit. It only took a global pandemic for businesses to see the value in it.
When employers give the option of remote work, they are also opening themselves up to some really great benefits. First off, roughly 53 million American adults live with a disability (CDC Press Releases, 2020). If only a quarter of them are qualified and could be accommodated by remote work, we are talking about 13 million human beings who want to be working but could not in pre-COVID-19 America. Think of that potential! Oh, and did I mention that those 13 million individuals will be some of the most productive and loyal employees to ever be hired. For those of us who benefit from remote work, landing a job you can sustain is like finding out you have a golden ticket in your Wonka bar. It’s a major win for all involved. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, how about the hidden benefits like lower overhead and less paid sick days. But again, I digress. That’s a business discussion for another article.
So, what happens when this pandemic passes, and we attempt return to normal?” Here we are, having witnessed a global “festivus” miracle, and word on the street is that the very convenient remote work option is not going to stick around. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “All but 5 percent [of businesses] said they expect their workforce to return to pre-crisis levels [brick-and-mortar] within six months” (Maurer, 2020). While we might not be returning to “pre-crisis levels” in as soon as six months, it lets you know that, despite remote work saving all of them from having to declare bankruptcy, and all of its now proven potential, the goal for most of American businesses is to head right back to how we “have always done it.” There are exceptions, however. Some, like Twitter (Twitter Announcement Heralds “New Normal” of Permanent Remote Work – Virtualization Review, 2020) and Square, (Square announces permanent work-from-home policy, 2020), have already announced that a remote work option is going to be a permanent policy.
Here we sit, a few months into the pandemic with no end in sight. Remote work has been implemented and none of the worries employers had about remote work happened. People didn’t kick back, take their paycheck, and sit home unable to control their urge to watch tv on the clock. Productivity didn’t drop, and it turns out that most of those in-person meetings really can be emails. Yet the discussion surrounding remote work continues. Will it be taken away when we attempt to return to “normal” or will this pandemic kickstart a new age in employment? I am certainly hoping for the latter. While it is too late, and too traumatic, for me to ever imagine working for anyone but myself, there are so many that can benefit from a remote work option being a permanent facet of employment, and there are even more who could benefit from the business mindset shifting from the way we have “always done it.” None of us knows how long the pandemic will affect our way of life, but we are all walking through it together. Let us take the time to pause and pay attention to what the pandemic is teaching us about how we have chosen to live and work as a society. We owe it to humanity to do better because we CAN do better.
Becca Lory Hector, CAS, BCCS, is an autism & neurodiversity consultant/author/speaker/advocate based in Colorado. You can find more of her work, sign up for her newsletter, and follow her social media by heading to her website, www.beccalory.com. You can also email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CDC. 2020. CDC Press Releases. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0730-us-disability.html [Accessed 20 May 2020].
Maurer, R., 2020. SHRM: Employers Say Remote Work Not Here To Stay. [online] SHRM. Available at: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/shrm-covid-coronavirus-employers-say-remote-work-not-here-to-stay.aspx [Accessed 20 May 2020].
Virtualization Review. 2020. Twitter Announcement Heralds ‘New Normal’ Of Permanent Remote Work — Virtualization Review. [online] Available at: https://virtualizationreview.com/articles/2020/05/13/permanent-remote-work.aspx [Accessed 21 May 2020].
The Verge. 2020. Square Announces Permanent Work-From-Home Policy. [online] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/18/21261798/square-employees-work-from-home-remote-premanent-policy-ceo [Accessed 21 May 2020].