With the potential for even more lockdown life ahead of us, the adaptations made to the UK’s business infrastructure to remain operational seem set to remain for some time. Alongside this has been a hard lesson in humility and humanity that, coupled with our newfound affinity for tech-enabled workspaces, may prove to be the most advantageous of the changes from which there should be no going back. 

 

Flexibility and profitability  

Before buy-in from businesses was required as a matter of safety, flexible working has been proven to have a positive impact on recruitment, productivity, retention and inclusion – not to mention the potential for costs saved on office space, parking, security and other sundries associated with maintaining a physical workplace. For staff, the feeling of autonomy of their own work/life balance is emboldening. And, with so little control of our lives as we once knew them, this is an important luxury that we cannot discount as essential to our continued mental management of this ongoing crisis.  

 

The challenges of creating an inclusive workforce 

With the mention of such huge strides towards a tech-enabled work environment, it would be easy to forget the elephant in the room which is our straining economy and jobs market. 

So far, the greatest increase to unemployment has been seen in young people who have left education or some of the worst affected industries, like retail and hospitality, with few opportunities available to them. For them, the government’s recent cash incentives for employers provide a beacon of hope and it’s important that when used, these measures are inclusive of young people with a range of abilities, wherever possible.  

 

Unfortunately, this fiscal flexibility does not extend to the Kickstart scheme, for which there are more stringent terms on how this incentive can be spent. However, a recent step in the right direction toward inclusivity for young people with disabilities is that SMEs have now been invited to apply for funding. Previously, only businesses employing 30 or more placements would be eligible for this scheme. This is an important move as it will allow the support of a wider range of young people with differing needs. The Kickstart scheme needs to be seen as a programme of learning for all young people, focused on valuable employability skills and the opportunity to be exposed to workplace practices, irrespective of how different they currently look. Access to employers with the resources to support them is imperative for young people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. The widening of the scheme is good news and will help them gain access to the opportunities such a programme will afford. 

 

The future of accessibility and employability  

The ability to work from home and use technology supports employers to ensure that employees, and prospective employees, aren’t put at an unfair disadvantage because of differing needs or disabilities. To revert to how we once thought the workplace needed to operate would be a damaging backwards step.  It would slam a door in the face of those most marginalised who, through the changes needed to support industry during lockdown, have been granted the flexibility they have found so hard to win. For industry, it would be equally destructive, as it would close again the huge pool of talent that is available, if we continue to take steps to encourage it. 

 

Amidst collapsing sectors, there are new and emerging opportunities, businesses, and sectors. We have seen businesses previously bound by process, structure and sign-off move in a direction that was never thought possible. For them, there is no going back, for new businesses, there is no excuse.  

 

If employers aren’t putting flexibility and accessibility at the heart of their employment strategy, they will fall behind, both morally and in profitability. Now, more than ever before, we need a resilient and adaptive workforce and to exclude anyone from that would be to the detriment of our economic recovery.  

 

Dan Howard FIEP 

Managing Director at Skills Forward, Operations Director – Learning for Work at NCFE 

For information on focused and inclusive employability skills testing, education and support, contact skillswork@skillsforward.co.uk You can also visit www.ncfe.org.uk/go-the-distance to find out more about how NCFE together with Skills Forward is taking action against unemployment.

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