Harkin Institute Executive Director Joseph Jones was one of nine Central Iowa professionals to share insights leaders should keep in mind during the COVID-19 recovery. Jones’ column about creating workplaces that work for everyone is available below. All nine columns can be read on the Business Record website.

Building post-pandemic workplaces that work for everyone

At The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement, signs of progress toward overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic are all around us, quite literally. Since early January, the new Tom and Ruth Harkin Center at Drake University, home of the Harkin Institute, has served as a vaccine clinic, where thousands of Iowans have received their coronavirus immunizations. 

As they leave, they post messages of hope: “I’m excited for fewer Zoom meetings.” “I can’t wait to meet new colleagues in person.” 

It is exciting to think about a time when we’ll no longer need to physically distance, wear masks and stagger our work schedules. As we cautiously begin to return to normal, it’s important to remember that the old way of doing things didn’t work for everyone. 

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged us in many ways. It has also created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reevaluate how we do business and restructure our workplaces to make them work for everyone.

In December, the Harkin Institute hosted its first virtual (fifth annual) Harkin International Disability Employment Summit, and during that event I heard many examples of how our adjusted workplaces had brought about unexpected opportunities for equity and inclusion. Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions with Principal, shared how she has seen increased engagement from employees who didn’t speak up at in-person meetings. In the virtual space they have contributed in new and exciting ways. Two professionals who use wheelchairs noted that they don’t look any different than their peers across Zoom. 

During her remarks, Friedrich noted that Principal was well prepared to move employees to remote work because the practice was already common within the organization pre-pandemic. For many companies, that wasn’t the case, even though people with disabilities have been asking to telecommute for years. How much better equipped would we have been as a society to shift to remote work had we listened to their requests instead of too often writing those requests off as unrealistic and unnecessary?

When we stop to think about it, accessible innovation and services can be seen everywhere in our day-to-day lives, from audiobooks and cruise control to electric scooters and voice-activated dictation. The technology behind each of these products was brought to market to assist people with disabilities. And as we’re learning with remote work, their broader applicability was quickly appreciated and the technology was adapted into products and services for mass use. 

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed us all to make our businesses more inclusive and accommodating for customers and employees, in both our brick and mortar spaces and our telecommuting practices. As you consider ways to make your workplaces more inclusive post-pandemic, I encourage you to consider the ABCs of Inclusion outlined by Linda Carter Batiste of the Job Accommodation Network. These strategies will help make your businesses more inclusive, not just for people with disabilities, but for all Iowans. 

A: Adjust your attitude. It is important to make people feel welcome in your workplace, and that starts with recognizing the value they bring to your organization. There is a strong business case to be made for a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities. As I highlighted above, people with disabilities are problem-solvers adept at overcoming challenges, and study after study has shown businesses who employ people with disabilities perform better. 

B: Build in accessibility and flexibility. It goes without saying that employees can request accommodations. You can help make them feel valued by implementing elements of universal design and flexible workplace policies that allow for greater inclusion without requiring employees to ask for them. 

C: Change your culture. Efforts to make your workspace more accessible won’t feel meaningful if employees don’t feel like welcomed members of the organization. In addition to adjusting your own attitude, it’s important to make sure your staff is on board. Consider training on disability awareness and etiquette. Look for ways to engage people with disabilities in discussions about inclusion and accessibility and ensure they have opportunities for professional development and career advancement. 

If we think creatively and strategically about how to build back our workplaces, we can grow stronger businesses that work for all Iowans. We all have seen a glimpse of the path to get there; let’s stay the course.

Address: 2429 University Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50311 Phone: 515-271-3623 Fax Number: 515-271-3631 Email: harkininstitute@drake.edu Office Hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.