As this wave of the coronavirus pandemic abates and more organizations settle into their respective futures of work, leadership teams are considering how the many factors around the management of work and people will need to evolve.
While some organizations don’t want — or can’t — change where people work, those that can have numerous considerations beyond where employees will be physically located. These may include: how often people will work remotely; whether there will be specific days when everyone will be expected to be physically present onsite; necessary changes in technology, real estate or other supportive aspects of work; whether an organization’s potential talent pool can change or broaden; and human resources policies.
In addition, hybrid work arrangements can provide employees with flexibility and variety with opportunities for in-person collaboration, but they also create a more complex environment to manage. These complexities include: keeping employees engaged and connected to their teams and the organization; sharing information effectively and maintaining safe environments away from a controllable bricks-and-mortar location; and disability management and accommodation.
Although the move to a more permanent hybrid work arrangement includes both advantages and disadvantages, one advantage is accommodation for chronic health conditions and disabilities. A remote work environment removes barriers to physical accessibility and can better support people with both physical and mental disabilities if time and schedule flexibility is also part of an organization’s future of work strategy.
In the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, respondents confirm that the ability to work from home helped them better manage their chronic health condition. In fact, 77 per cent of respondents agreed that the home environment resulted in less work missed due to their condition.
At the same time, the survey indicated that plan sponsors anticipate different health and wellness challenges arising from a hybrid workforce. The top three concerns all relate to mental health: claims due to stress or isolation from working from home; anxiety among employees returning to the workplace because they’re unsure if co-workers have been vaccinated; and identifying employees struggling with mental-health issues. These concerns could also show up as a complicating factor in disability claims, potentially impacting both the path to recovery for claimants and claims durations.
After several years of either consistently or periodically working remotely throughout the pandemic, employees may be more interested in fully remote work than organizations are willing to allow. Separating preference from precaution may be an employer’s biggest disability challenge.
“Where technology changed the characteristics of work duties and task in certain occupations enabling them to be done remotely, the test for workplace accommodations becomes ‘why not?,’” says Jessica Gobran, senior director disability in group solutions for People Corporation. “Employers will now need to continuously assess how hybrid models of work can accentuate the inequalities under a duty to accommodate.”
Gobran also cautions about the double-edged sword of the remote portion of a hybrid work arrangement when it comes to accommodation. “The fact that a virus forced many organizations to push through the social and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, now has the potential of lending itself to discrimination based on the protected grounds described under a duty to accommodate. It will be difficult for employers to demonstrate how remote work interferes with their operations under a duty to accommodate if faced with hesitation or reluctance by the organization.”
Another significant consideration in adopting a hybrid work arrangement is updating HR policies to reflect new realities with this change. While many HR policies will need to evolve to align with hybrid work, among those requiring review and potential modifications is your disability management policy. At their core, HR disability policies lay out — for both the organization and employees — how a medically-driven absence will integrate with sick leave, salary continuance or short- and long-term disability adjudication, what’s expected of an employee and what an employee can expect of their employer and adjudicator.
Material changes to how and where an employee works may require revisions or additions for legal compliance, as well as how disabled employees will be expected to engage end to end in the process. The policy should take steps to spell out what return to work will look like when work is at home. And, when fully remote work is an accommodation, it’s important to create clear expectations that this arrangement is temporary and the goal is a return to a hybrid or fully in-person work.
It should also be noted that a permanent change to hybrid or remote work may have an impact on the terms of an employer’s disability insurance policy or rating. Organization should check with their insurer to make sure their policies are compliant with any go-forward work arrangement and that the change in risk is being accounted for correctly in the insurer’s rating. A conversation about what defines total disability under the contract, how that applies now and how organizations can make accommodations with the current pandemic environment — and post-pandemic environment to come — sets the stage for a collaborative approach at the outset.
Additional leadership training may be required for organizations to help leaders understand changes to policies, how to navigate disability management in a hybrid environment and how to manage both accommodation and return to work in this context.
Hybrid work arrangements were likely already gaining traction for many organizations, even before the pandemic hastened their arrival. While this arrangement can be a benefit to organization and employees alike, it can also create a more challenging workforce to manage and a more challenging disability portfolio.
Clear and thoughtful construction of HR policies and procedures in the new arrangement, as well as collaborative conversations with disability insurers as the evolution happens will create a solid foundation to help employers and employees navigate the new complexities when a disability claim happens in 2022 and beyond.