Returning to neurotypical expectations of office life

Context: this is an anonymised version of a response I wrote to the announcement that my organisation will, over the course of the next few months, phase in an expectation that all staff (no qualifiers given) return to working on site at least 3 days per week.

I read our chief executive's recent announcement of the next phase of our “return to normal” with sadness and a sense of inevitability. For over two years now, many of us at my organisation have worked hard to not only survive our new situation but thrive, keeping those services that did not require our physical presence on site running without a pause, even while public recognition from our senior leaders was given exclusively to those whose work remained visible on site. That recognition was deserved many times over — our colleagues working to look after our physical assets, to begin opening our buildings safely to the public and provide services for them to use, to make sure staff, visitors and the buildings were kept safe and secure, and much more besides, were asked to endure risks that those of us working hard in our kitchens and bedrooms were not. It also left many of us wondering if the work we did was valued at all.

For those of us with (visible and invisible) disabilities, personal situations or other circumstances which lead us to be more productive and creative when in control of our space, or spared from distracting sights, sounds and smells, or able to avoid the physical barriers to work that don't exist for our colleagues, working from home was a revelation. I am autistic, and until 2020 never fully understood how much of my potential was being sucked up coping with the constant barrage of sensation of working in a noisy, constantly-changing open-plan office like that in the building I work in. My support needs are low and I am a successful professional: I can't imagine the relief that must have been felt by colleagues more severely affected.

The organisation asks us to live by a set of values, and I do my best. Two of those values relate to respect, fairness and diversity, so it's frustrating to see what, to me, is a clear imbalance in the changes to rules on hybrid working. Those whose physical or mental health, personal or family situation mean that they are happier and more productive working on site have the flexibility to do so up to 5 days a week; by contrast, those who are most effective working from home are free (from September) to do so no more than two days a week, and must work in suboptimal conditions for the remaining 3 days.

One argument is that those people still have a legal right to flexible working requests and reasonable adjustments. But by making one way of being the expected norm, those of us who don't fit that norm are made to jump through administrative hoops to justify our right to have our basic needs met. This doesn't just apply to the formal processes for agreeing such an arrangement: even if my line manager agrees to me working the majority of my time from home, other colleagues know only that I seem to be breaking the “rules”. Should I have to disclose my disability, one with significant stigma attached which may impact judgements of my capability and competence, just to satisfy a colleague I only interact with a few times a year that I'm not being given unfair treatment?

In my case, I only learned a few years ago that I am autistic. Until then, I had thought that everyone struggled constantly, as I do, to focus enough to be creative and collaborative in a busy, noisy open-plan office. When lockdown came in 2020, it was incredibly stressful, but at least I was lucky enough to have that offset by being able to work in a quiet, calm and stable environment: had I been obliged to continue working on site as well, I would certainly have rapidly burned out.

Instead I thrived: I knew that other members of my team would be struggling much more with the isolation and lack of stimulation, and worked hard to make sure we took advantage of the new technology being made available to us to continue having the social and collaborative interaction we all (even me) needed. For those of us living close to each other, I suggested we meet locally in small groups when it became safer to do so.

It was hard work, but I gladly did it, as did many of my disabled colleagues here and elsewhere, because I knew this was a way I could use the new found benefits of my situation and my lived experience to support my colleagues and our users at a very difficult time. I also wanted to prove that this new ability to work in a situation that fully suited me could benefit everyone.

It's particularly galling, therefore, to see the apparent desperation of the organisation's leadership to abandon that work, and to tell me that in fact I have not been creative, productive or social as I had thought. How could I be? I'm told I need to return to that open plan office to experience the benefit of these things. I've even heard thinly-veiled suggestions from colleagues that people working from home are simply skiving, and no attempt has been made by leadership to correct that misapprehension, instead focusing on how glad we will surely all be to get back to normal.

Normal did not work for me. I am a highly successful professional with a deserved and hard-earned national and international reputation in my field. It took a global pandemic for me to understand that others in my position did not have to fight the same constant headwind and to give me a taste of a situation where neither did I. I have so much to give and for the first time I don't have to give quite so much of it just pretending to be like everyone else.

Another professed organisation value expects us to innovate and adapt to change. Overall, the Library's leadership have done that throughout the pandemic, as have we all. It's sad therefore to see them rushing headlong now to discard the hard work and benefits of our recent listening, innovating and adapting by trying to return to the world of 2019 that no longer exists.