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Building an Inclusive Workplace to Foster Creativity
Research in China confirms it pays to modify work environments and conditions for needs beyond just physical disabilities
by Louisa Wah
Over the past three decades, organisations everywhere have been changing the workplace to accommodate the needs of their employees with disabilities. They believed this would increase employee diversity. Plus, they considered diversity an asset that would allow untapped potential and creativity to emerge and flourish.
But the question remained: Would expanding workplace accommodation practices to employees without disabilities unleash even more potential and creativity?
A group of researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen (CUHK-SZ), and Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, decided to find out. They designed a study carried out in China using an “identity-blind” approach. This meant that they would study the effects of workplace accommodation practices on all employees rather than merely focusing on the people with disabilities. The results of the study were published in a recent paper titled The Positive Effect of Workplace Accommodation on Creative Performance of Employees With and Without Disabilities.
“Companies should provide appropriate training to employees with more severe forms of disabilities to help them better utilise their skill sets in dealing with workplace accommodation issues,” – Dr. Sun Cong
Sun Cong, a lecturer at CUHK-SZ’s School of Management and Economics, explains that existing workplace accommodation research focuses narrowly on the positive effects of such practices on people with disabilities but overlooks their potential benefits to others. “Organisations should focus more on integrating all diverse groups to provide them with equal and inclusive environments,” Dr. Sun says.
He cites older workers, pregnant women, employees with family responsibilities and those with religious needs as examples of employees who could benefit from workplace accommodation measures.
“Family-friendly practices and flexible work schedules are some of the changes a workplace can introduce to accommodate these employees’ needs. As a result, all employees will find it easier to perform their tasks and we’ll see a fuller utilisation of employee talents and creativity,” says Dr. Sun.
Origin of Workplace Accommodation
Awareness of workplace accommodation rose sharply after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 in the U.S., and the U.N.’s adoption of its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006.
Gradually, workplaces around the world, particularly in the West, put into place practices that would make it easier for employees with disabilities to carry out their jobs. These included modifications in the work environment, work process, or work conditions that reduced physical and social barriers for these employees. People with disabilities started to enjoy an equal opportunity to be hired and to perform the same types of tasks as their co-workers without disabilities.
The years after the landmark legislation and international treaty, businesses and organisations have used workplace accommodation as an important diversity management strategy. It makes sense: When a workplace makes life easier for employees with disabilities, it attracts a more diverse workforce. When the playing field is level, these employees have time to complete their tasks unhindered. They can contribute their talents despite their physical limitations.
The reality, however, is that not only people with disabilities need special accommodations at work. Many other types of employees also need them. Surely, some companies have implemented workplace practices designed to accommodate different employees’ needs. These practices, such as flexible work schedules and family sick leaves, are often considered “perks” in human resource management practices to attract new hires. But seldom are they viewed as practices to bring out the human potential of employees.
Dr. Sun points out that there is a lack of research and knowledge in how workplace accommodation exerts a positive impact on the creative performance and psychological well-being of employees.
“The lack of knowledge prohibits the promotion of workplace accommodation in organisations and limits the utilisation and development of employees’ human capital—regardless of whether they have disabilities,” he says.
Dr. Sun, along with his fellow researchers Prof. Man Xiangyu and Prof. Zhu Xiji at Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, collected sample data from 300 employees. These employees came from two different companies—a manufacturer and a medical equipment company, both located in Northern China.
The study examined the relationship between workplace accommodation and employee creative performance. It found that workplace accommodation promotes employee creative performance by increasing their creative self-efficacy.
“What this means is,” explains Dr. Sun, “when an organisation plans to accommodate employees’ needs, these employees turn out to have a greater confidence in their ability to complete their tasks creatively or find creative solutions.
An interesting finding of the study is that the positive impact described above doesn’t equally apply to everyone at the workplace. The researchers found that employees with less severe disabilities benefit more from the positive effects of workplace accommodation.
Employees with more severe disabilities are often stigmatised and have an inferior status in the workplace. They often feel discriminated by others, and that they have a lower level of competencies. As a result, they are less likely to thrive at work than their co-workers without or with less severe disabilities.
In addition, there are fewer successful models for employees with disabilities than those without. That, along with the dissimilarities between the learner (with more severe disabilities) and the role model (with less severe disabilities or none), makes it much harder for employees with severer disabilities to learn new skills on the job.
“Our finding suggests that companies should provide appropriate training to employees with more severe forms of disabilities to help them better utilise their skill sets in dealing with workplace accommodation issues,” says Dr. Sun.
By investigating the effects of workplace accommodation on employees in China, the researchers hope their paper will facilitate proactive workplace accommodation measures in China. As the sample size of the data was relatively small and collected in only one country, more evidence is needed from different countries to support the generalisation of the results.
“We hope our work will lead to a broader exploration of workplace accommodation in the diversity management research, and contribute to the diversity workplace accommodation practices, maximising the utilisation of all employees’ knowledge, skills, and abilities,” says Dr. Sun.