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  • Ashley Sims

Return to Office Mandates: What They Mean for Disabled Workers

From higher productivity to a higher quality work/life balance, the benefits of remote work are numerous. Yet, more and more companies are pushing return to office (RTO) mandates. Many companies are reluctant to abandon traditional 9-to-5 schedules and argue that remote employees are less connected and harder to manage than those in person. Yet, the rapid shift to remote work has created vast opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2022, the percentage of people with disabilities in the U.S. workforce hit a record high of 21.3% (up 2 percentage points from the previous year).

Smiling woman sitting at table typing on laptop computer

Disability Solutions is a prime example of a remote structure working for everyone. Having operated as a fully remote team across multiple time zones for the entirety of its twelve-year existence and being an employer of people with disabilities, the company has experienced excessive growth and productivity over the past several years as well as very little turn-over.

Executive Director, Julie Sowash, explains, "I knew going into the office wasn't good for me or my mental health, and I wanted to structure the company in a way that was beneficial for the whole team, giving them the flexibility they needed to do their best work." 

Despite remote work successes, more and more RTO mandates are being enforced during a time when many employers are also scaling back their efforts around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. This poses a significant risk to the progress achieved so far in disability employment.

We, at Disability Solutions, want to shed light on how return to office mandates directly affect disabled workers and help educate employers on the benefits of remote work and the best ways to support those employees, creating happy, healthy, and inclusive workplaces for everyone.

The DEI argument against return to the office mandates

Offices are generally not favorable to marginalized employees, meaning they are largely at a disadvantage in the office. Not everyone is at their most productive when surrounded by people, noise, and distractions (a FlexJobs survey found that 51% of workers are more productive working from home), and not everyone feels comfortable or safe in an office setting.

Group of 5 people in an office, three men sit in an open cubical desk configuration; two women in the background are standing looking at a whiteboard.

Where employees work has a huge impact on DEI progress. Office cultures, policies, and procedures are often built around implicit biases. Being in the office creates pressures to conform to racially biased or ableist workplace expectations. The mandates also put undue pressure on disabled individuals who may struggle with commuting and/or transportation accessibility.

In-office work also limits the available talent pool geographically, as well as from a skill set and experience level. Maybe the top candidate for a job lives across the country and isn’t willing to relocate. Immediately, job candidates are limited by an organization's physical location.

There are many nuances as to why RTO mandates are not conducive to DEI progress and while the idea of everyone getting to work from their preferred location sounds nice, it isn't always an option from a business perspective. However, employers can still support disabled or marginalized employees in their physical office spaces by taking a few meaningful actions that can bring about positive change.

  1. Communicate DEI/disability initiatives across the organization and hold leadership accountable for progress through transparent data sharing.

  2. Provide education, training, and support to all employees on diversity, equity, and inclusion topics, such as disability and ableism. Empower managers with the tools they need to lead inclusive teams (including remote or hybrid workers).

  3. Ensure equitable access for all employees and candidates throughout the employee lifecycle, including recruitment, onboarding, and career development. It is also essential to ensure that diverse employees are well-represented within company policy and leadership.

  4. Optimize physical workspaces with accessible and functional universal design solutions.

Remote work benefits outweigh the alternatives for many workers

More than ever before, jobseekers are taking work/life balance and flexibility into account when considering a new job or leaving an existing one.

According to a recent survey by FlexJobs, “56% of professionals know someone who has quit their job or plans to quit due to return-to-office mandates, with 63% of professionals saying they are even willing to take a pay cut to work remotely.” 

Furthermore, a McKinsey report on hybrid work revealed that employees with disabilities were 14 percent more likely to leave a place of employment than non-disabled employees if hybrid work was not an option.

Remote work has significant benefits for people with disabilities:

  • Removes commute and/or transportation barriers.

  • Offers an accommodating environment and flexible schedule.

  • Minimizes distractions and office stressors.

  • Provides personal and customizable accessibility options based on one’s unique needs.

Man in wheelchair at a desk typing on a computer

By limiting when and where employees can work, organizations are sending a clear message that they don’t trust their employees and they don’t care about the real human needs of their workforce. When people feel respected and valued by their employers, they tend to perform better and stick around longer.

Businesses that include people with disabilities reported a 90% increase in retention of valued employees and a 72% increase in productivity (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Employers should question why they are mandating their employees to work from the office. Justifying it with collaboration or management issues is not sufficient. If there are no concerns regarding employee performance, it may be more beneficial to trust and empower employees to decide for themselves based on their own unique needs. Providing workers with autonomy can foster a positive work environment and ultimately improve productivity, job satisfaction, and company culture.


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