Bring your whole self to work – and how accessible technology can help small businesses

<span>Photograph: Morsa Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Morsa Images/Getty Images

Many of us will have heard the expression “bring your whole self to work”.

It has become something of a rallying cry for those who realise that the freedom to be your authentic self in the workplace – instead of having divergent personal and professional personas – can be incredibly empowering.

It enables employees to be more impactful, productive and happier. Staff who feel empowered to be their true selves are unafraid to express their values, ideas and opinions with confidence. Likewise, authentic workplaces also foster more inclusivity, creativity and innovation as employees are less likely to fear taking risks, and staff report a strong sense of belonging. Creating a more welcoming, inclusive workplace is something that smaller businesses can excel in, with a tighter-knit culture and environment fostering a sense of belonging.

However, as hybrid and flexible working arrangements become the norm for SMBs, creating authentic workplaces can be a challenge. While the increased blurring of boundaries between our workplace and homespace may have bolstered authenticity in some respects, it has also thrown up myriad practical obstacles. For example, the increased use of text-based communications and the inability to communicate face-to-face or take natural cues from people’s body language.

“If you can’t be authentic at work then you are being someone else and that requires masking and other coping mechanisms, which use up so much energy, increasing stress and cognitive load,” explains Michael Vermeersch, accessibility go-to market manager at Microsoft. He highlights how technology can play a vital role in the creation of an authentic workplace. “When technology takes away some of the barriers to authenticity, you can focus on being your true best self at work.”

How inclusivity empowers everyone

Tools with inclusivity built in are key to empowering all employees to be themselves at work, and this has been a guiding principle for Microsoft. It has long put questions of accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people in the workplace at the heart of the design process for its products. In 2016, Microsoft updated its mission statement: to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. “That’s every person – not 50% of the population or 80% of the population but really, truly, everyone – and that includes the 14 million people in the UK with disabilities,” says Vermeersch.

Vermeersch explains that disabilities may be physical, cultural or social, and can be permanent (for instance someone with loss of vision), situational (for instance a driver being suddenly faced by solar glare), or temporary (for instance an eye infection).

He highlights the idea that sometimes people are disabled by their environment – “So it’s the absence of a ramp or a different means to get into a building that is disabling to potentially everybody, but most definitely to the person in the wheelchair.”

Microsoft’s inclusive design principles have also demonstrated that if you design for the few, you can extend to the many. For example, the option to reduce background noise during a video meeting hosted on Microsoft’s Teams can empower neurodivergent employees, and can also reduce cognitive load and support those having to deal with barking dogs, roadworks or crying babies.

Tools such as live captions can support deaf or hard-of-hearing team members, but also help someone working from a noisy cafe, while PowerPoint’s Speaker Coach is an AI-enabled tool that can empower those lacking in confidence, helping staff feel more assured and more engaged.

The ability to participate remotely in hybrid meetings via chat also empowers people who are introverted or neurodiverse to share their opinions, whereas they may find speaking up in a room full of people difficult.

Technology is also helping to bridge the disability divide in the workplace, making it easier for all employees to be themselves. Windows 11 was originally designed with enhanced tools by and for people with disabilities, while Microsoft runs a Disability Answer Desk, where customers with disabilities can go to get support.

Raising awareness

The availability of accessible technology is only part of the picture, however. For it to be truly impactful, people need to know that it exists. Microsoft is therefore also trying to raise awareness through free education and training in an effort to support truly authentic workplaces. “You need to learn what helps you – and creating awareness around assistive technology, both for people with disabilities and for the IT teams deploying it, is really key,” Vermeersch explains.

Related: Tools, tech and etiquette: best practice of hybrid working for small businesses

Investing in assistive technology is one step small business owners can take towards creating a workplace culture where employees have a voice and feel valued. Likewise, increasing representation, by including people with different work styles, backgrounds, and education levels, can improve loyalty and engagement. Ultimately, empowering everyone in the workplace is about giving people confidence and promoting wellbeing – and realising both their potential and the potential to enrich the business culture and produce better outcomes.

Improving diversity and inclusion can fuel more creative thinking in businesses, as well as lift the problem-solving capabilities of teams, which can in turn improve productivity. Likewise, it can broaden a company’s skills base and result in richer insights. And of course, it can be critical for employee retention.

“When you engage people with disabilities you have different perspectives – that is the richness that diversity can bring,” says Vermeersch. “We are not 80% of the people on the planet, we are 100% people of the planet, so why should we not harness that talent, get more creative, and innovative? You will have more inclusive products and services when you have the right workplace culture. Why would you not use the lived experience of people with disabilities in your workforce to create better services?”

For more on getting the right technology and systems for your SMB, check out the Small Business Resource Centre and other articles in this series on how to reduce the stress of being a small business owner