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Why Microsoft Saying Employees Can Work from Home Permanently Matters for Accessibility

Oct 11, 2020

Microsoft announced new workplace guidance on October 9 that includes flexibility in work site, work hours, and work location. Most roles will be able to work remotely permanently, at least some of the time, under the new guidance. Because of Microsoft's large number of employees, their track record of innovative thinking in accessibility and connectivity, and a highly-competitive tech employment market, this has the potential to become a major boost toward accessibility.

In response to the 2020 health crisis, major companies have announced that employees can work from home until at least 2021 and in some cases forever, so the concept is not necessarily new. However, the case of Microsoft may be particular important for accessibility for a few key reasons.

Microsoft employees will need to be connected and engaged

Most employees, except those whose roles require them to be physically on-site, can work part of the time from home (less than 50%) as the new standard. Probably, many workers will work from home more than 50% and some will be entirely remote, as Forbes reports that managers can approve permanent remote working if employees ask.

The first challenge, then, is almost purely logistical: if huge numbers of employees will be working from home in an even more-distributed arrangement, they will need to be connected and engaged with one another to do their jobs. It's absolutely conceivable that Microsoft will need to continue to innovate so that employees are properly equipped. It's also possible that employees who didn't need or request accommodations in the past will come forward with requests as work and home spaces morph into one. As a matter of business continuity, accessible solutions may emerge.

Microsoft has a lot of employees — and a lot of engineers

Part of the reason what Microsoft does is significant is its size in terms of personnel. According to their Facts About Microsoft page, global headcount is over 166,000, with nearly 100,000 employees in the United States. Any corporation with so many employees directly touches a lot of lives and families, and many of those would be employees with disabilities.

Microsoft also reveals that 58.5% of its employees serve in an engineering function. With a huge global presence and as a result influence from all over the world, a ton of employees, and tens of thousands in the engineering world, Microsoft seems to have the pieces in place for emerging breakthroughs.

The world may benefit from solutions Microsoft initially creates for its own workforce

Of course there are no guarantees, but if the management of a global remote workforce does in fact lead to accessibility innovation, it's possible that Microsoft would decide to polish and market those solutions for broader use. Maybe that would translate to innovations that are available to general consumers, maybe to other corporations, or both.

Especially considering how so much of the working world uses Microsoft products and platforms every day already, from Word to Outlook to Windows itself, the company is a fixture in corporate technology. Therefore, even accessibility improvements to existing products like Outlook, which are mostly used in the business world, would have potential implications for employees with disabilities everywhere.

Inclusion and accessibility done right could force other tech companies to follow — or miss out on talent

Microsoft is already considered by many to be a leader and innovator in accessibility. If permanent remote working does improve accessibility and inclusion, and it's hard to imagine that it wouldn't, Microsoft is going to become an even more attractive place to work.

Tech is hungry for talent and the major tech players find themselves competing for the same talent. This means changes to one organization don't affect that organization alone. Rather, they set off competitive ripples, and because of Microsoft's influence those ripples can force others to follow suit or lose the talent battle.

Flexible schedules and locations have accessibility implications, too

Finally, Microsoft's changes to flexible work arrangements include updates to work hours and work location, both of which could have positive impacts on many employees with disabilities.

Here is what they've noted for hours and location (copied exactly):

  • "Work hours (the hours and days when employees work, e.g. workday start and end times, full- or part-time): Work schedule flexibility is now considered standard for most roles. While part-time continues to be subject to manager approval, our guidance is meant to facilitate an open conversation between a manager and employee regarding considerations."
  • "Work location (the geographic location where you work, e.g. city and country): Similarly the guidance is there for managers and employees to discuss and address considerations such as role requirements, personal tax, salary, expenses, etc."

Certainly, these updates may benefit anyone, but what may be less obvious is that the abilities to work on a schedule that suits the individual and perhaps be geographically closer to certain people or facilities can be particularly helpful for some people.

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