3 ways to meet the needs of a diverse workforce

by Ana Lopez

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

Mental health, wellness and stress management will be given priority status as employees demand work-life balance. This is good news for disabled workers, but how will business leaders be able to meet this need? Executives will work harder than ever to create a more inclusive, welcoming and accommodating environment to attract and retain these creative and productive employees. Learning to listen, communicate effectively and make changes in how teams work together can go a long way in creating an environment where everyone feels safe and respected.

Instead of a “sink or swim” approach, leadership can meet employees where they are. This is where a business leader with a disability can use intuition, see areas for improvement, and change workplace dynamics so that needs are understood and met. Business leaders need to focus on three main areas to meet the needs of a diverse workforce.

1. Empathy

When an employee with a disability applies for a job in the corporate sector, he is often afraid that the staff will not accept him. They are often afraid that they will not be heard when they ask for housing. They may be concerned that what seems easy to everyone else will be difficult – or impossible – for them. Empathy is the quality of compassion that allows us to feel what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes. It is the action-oriented part of compassion.

It’s not about the number of deviant employees a company employs; it concerns the work experience of the employee. Leaders can demonstrate that they are aware of the unique needs of the workforce and are willing to meet those needs. Leading with empathy means understanding that someone in the office or on the other end of a remote conversation may have a disability or impairment that they don’t want to share. It means taking the time to get to know the employee on a more personal level and responding to their needs in a meaningful, timely manner.

Related: Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever

Being open about different skills starts with the company website, the company’s reputation on the internet and the application process. From the start, a potential candidate with a disability can see if a company is open to discussing their needs, the adjustments that may be necessary and how a disability might change aspects of the work experience. A leader with a disability intuitively asks the right questions. Should a new employee communicate differently from other employees? What about physically navigating the building? How can the team best deal with an employee’s condition?

For executives without disabilities, learning to be open and accepting of employees with disabilities, striving to communicate more effectively and helping employees feel safe will not only benefit disabled employees, but will also improve the work experience for all.

As a leader, you may feel uncomfortable asking questions or seeking feedback from disabled employees. The truth is that empathy is as straightforward as being a good listener, a good observer, and a good mentor. When you create a culture that celebrates the contributions of employees with disabilities, they can be open about their needs. An employee with dyslexia may need a team member to enter data into an excel sheet. A staff member with PTSD may need to schedule telehealth visits during breaks. If these employees hide their needs from you, the cost can be an overwhelming stress for them. There is also a lot at stake for the company: rising turnover, absenteeism and low productivity.

Related: 5 ways employees with disabilities help maximize a company’s growth

2. Accessibility

A manager with a disability has an advantage when it comes to creating an environment that is equally accessible to everyone. Chances are a wheelchair-bound executive circled the parking lot looking for a ramp or handled oncoming traffic in a parking garage trying to reach the elevator. A legally blind corporate executive has experienced more than a few meetings where important information was presented only on PowerPoint. If you are a non-disabled executive, you may never have considered how many potential candidates would find your building or information inaccessible; they may have reached the parking lot and quietly left without pointing out that their lack of access made them feel helpless and left out.

A leader with a disability will look at the business space from a challenging perspective. A disabled executive will ask, “What barriers will a disabled person face trying to work here?

Do your meeting rooms meet different needs? Ramps, elevators, the width of doors and aisles between desks, lighting and closed captioning are just the beginning. If an employee with anxiety needs a quiet place to unwind, or if an employee needs to keep moving to reduce chronic pain, is there a place they can go? What about transportation? Can the company offer a car service or a monthly stipend to cover a ride-sharing?

However, it is not just about disabled employees. The need for housing can arise at any time. Non-disabled workers may break limbs, undergo painful surgeries, be wheelchair bound or use crutches. Executives can anticipate how the workspace may become a burden on staff and make adjustments.

Beyond the physical environment, business leaders can embrace technology to help diverse employees reach their potential. Technology has moved beyond closed captioning and speech accessibility. Think about how you can make technology more accessible to your workforce. A simple solution is to create meeting transcripts. These can be emailed to staff, including the hearing impaired.

Some apps allow people to take pictures and have documents read aloud. There are apps that magnify text for people with visual impairments. Young engineers work with AI on more effective communication between the hearing impaired and people without that disability. Executives can fund training and innovations that meet employee needs. Both staff and business leaders will be challenged to find different ways of doing things, working together to find solutions so that everyone can be more productive. By simply offering material and information in different ways, everyone gets better access.

Related: Employers Need Employees. Now they realize the untapped talent of these people.

3. Team Building

Even as business leaders grow in their understanding of diverse workforces, the next step is even more important: Management can bring employees together to learn from each other. When staff members hide in cubicles or a remote office with no community, mutual understanding cannot develop. One of the most innovative ways to find common ground in the workplace is to use team building exercises.

What if the office meeting wasn’t just the usual grind? What if some of that time was spent on team building? This can be done online or at the office. A manager can help staff clarify team and individual goals. Employees can share their hope or their vision for their lives. Leaders can walk around the room asking the same question, such as, “What are you most proud of?”

Another option is to bring in a corporate trainer to build synergy. This can be done across departments to bring a fresh perspective. Trainers can give the teams “assignments,” such as a project to complete, a problem to solve, or a series of tasks that force them to rely on each other and carry their own weight. Members of the team are pushed out of their comfort zone. They learn how to accommodate different abilities in their group by using resourcefulness, recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and filling in the gaps when necessary.

A corporate retreat is an opportunity to get employees out of the office and into an environment where they can open up and share things they wouldn’t normally reveal in an office environment. Employees can relax, share their fears and be vulnerable. Whether the retreat is for a few days or a week, they can get to know each other. After a retreat, employees often feel they have gained trust, respect, and a sense of purpose where they work. They may feel more in control of leveraging the diverse capabilities of their team and the workplace.

Final thoughts

A leader with a disability can have the advantage of anticipating the needs of employees of different abilities; however, leaders without limitations can find ways to maximize the potential in all employees by making empathy, accessibility, and team building part of the corporate culture. By celebrating your team’s unique skills while working on their individual needs, you create the kind of environment that allows the most talented candidates to thrive.

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