Back in the 90’s, I did backflips to convince the people who signed my checks that I would actually be working when working at home. Often my persuasive gymnastics failed. It was a different time. Trust was not in abundance. If you couldn’t see a thing with your own eyes, it didn’t happen. I suppose in that regard, the times haven’t changed all that much, have they?
Flash forward to 2020 where everyone and everything is carried around in our breathable tech-fiber pockets. If we’re not on camera right now, we’re about to be, whether our own or someone else’s. Even with thirty years of innovation in connectivity, trust in the people you’re paying hasn’t improved much.
Until the pandemic.
Forced to physically distance, many types of work are now being done not in collaborative workspaces but from wherever the workers are. Paycheck-givers abruptly lost the option to choose in-person visibility. Public safety is now the priority (hopefully) and, you know, not killing people.
Many of us who find office environments inaccessible, intolerable, or downright dangerous are finally able to contribute our skills just the same as everyone else. The playing field has leveled.
The clock on physical distancing is ticking. As this novel coronavirus is better understood by scientists around the globe, this window of near-parity will close. Those of us who are finally able to virtually participate in the work we’re skilled in, have trained for, and excel at performing don’t have much time.
But time for what? Are we to ramp up an entire career in these precious few weeks, a time when most people are stressed, afraid, and possibly grieving? If we somehow manage to get things going, will we be able to sustain our momentum when the virus is managed enough for the world returns to water cooler talk and spontaneous double-martini lunches?
Even now as some of the barriers to equitable work finally begin to erode, many of us will still be required to perform at superhuman levels just to get by despite legally mandated and easily side-stepped ADA requirements for employment equity.
In addition to my advocacy work, my day job is screenwriting. Yes, really. My work has premiered around the world, taken prestigious festival awards, and even wasted some of your sword-and-sandals-themed binge-watching time. But my differences prevent me from working in an office environment for the standard ten to fifteen hours per day.
That means staff writing on a series is out as is the production office on a feature film. Sure, I can write at home and live the stereotypical picture of the writer’s life but that’s only part of the gig, part of the time. As with any other job, you can’t do 50% of the work and earn 100% of a living. Over my career, regardless of talent and pedigree, I’ve watched my options dwindle partly because virtual meetings weren’t a thing. Asking for any small change from the norm is also not a thing. You become that person.
The pandemic dropped and suddenly it was perfectly fine to request a video call. Now no one blinks when they don’t see you in person for more than a week. Turns out, people are thrilled to see a face on a screen that doesn’t belong to their immediate family. This one accommodation that would have made an immeasurable difference to my 90’s self’s economic viability and self-esteem is now part of accepted daily life. My 2020 self is booked with meetings, introductions and opportunities. The shift happened overnight.
When our collective pandemic response shifts again, only some of these progressive changes in how we collaborate at work will remain. For most, the change will mean not only increased safety but the relief of social life being restored. For people like me, it could mean the end of a brief moment in the sun. My working life might grind to a halt.
Acceptance of video meetings as a social norm is a ridiculously small change that is not only saving lives, it has made an enormous personal impact. Many sidelined competent, reliable, dedicated workers won’t be able to contribute to companies’ bottom lines because they require different small changes that are unlikely to come without some other large-scale dramatic social upheaval. It’s absurd when you think about how little is actually needed to gain so much across the board.
Disabled baristas are baristas. Disabled attorneys are attorneys. Disability does not mean inability to do the job. Hey paycheck-givers out there. You might want to pick up those profits you’re leaving willy nilly on the table. Take back your choice. Hire disabled workers. It’s on you.