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Microsoft: Making the Move to Remote Work

Employer Case Study: Find out how Microsoft ensured its shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic was inclusive of employees and candidates with disabilities. 

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Microsoft is one of the world’s leading technology companies, employing more than 180,000 people across the world. Founded in 1975 and headquartered in Redmond, Washington, the company’s mission is to, “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” In this vein, Microsoft has a long history of workforce disability inclusion efforts, including a neurodiversity hiring initiative launched in 2015.

Given both its industry and existing emphasis on inclusion, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Microsoft was well-positioned to have all non-essential on-site workers move to 100% telework. However, as most employees worked on-site prior to the pandemic, quickly shifting a workforce the size of Microsoft’s to a mandatory work-from-home policy was not without challenges.

“Before the pandemic, we had remote work, but the majority of folks were on-site. Clearly, everything changed in March of 2020, and so we’ve all had to kind of lean in to being remote and what does that mean and how do we learn to do our jobs 100% remote,” says the company’s Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility for Microsoft, Neil Barnett.

Surprisingly for a tech company, some of the challenges involved employee comfort with using technology such as video conferencing platforms. “Just preparing for an interview, downloading Teams or Google Meet or whatever people were using, it was still a challenge for folks,” said Barnett. Microsoft found that the solution to addressing these issues is preparation, so it now holds a “tech day” before events to help ensure they run smoothly—and that all employees and stakeholders, including people with disabilities, can participate.

The company also wanted to determine the best ways to ensure true inclusion in a virtual environment. This involved adjusting some policies and procedures previously assumed to be inclusive. “In the very beginning, when we were all remote, everyone talked about having your camera on (during meetings) for connection,” says Barnett. “But it became really clear that, for example in the disability community, having your camera on may not be the most inclusive thing. So, if you’re neurodivergent, maybe not having your camera on, for some people, is preferred. Or if you’re blind or low vision, maybe it’s not preferred.” 

Despite the challenges, moving to remove work has brought benefits. “I think the biggest benefit from a remote work perspective is that you’re increasing your pool of candidates,” said Barnett, adding that this has been especially beneficial with regard to attracting candidates with disabilities. “If you think about the disability community, a lot of folks with disabilities may have a great support circle at home—their family, their friends, their doctors—and having to uproot and start all over again is tough, and so unconsciously you’re screening people out.”

Going remote also meant changing the way Microsoft interviews job candidates. According to Barnett, to ensure equity and accessibility in the recruiting process, inclusion must be top of mind, and hiring managers must consider what the virtual interview experience is like for candidates with and without disabilities. “It’s the continuation of having good listening systems out there and trying to understand what candidates really want, and how we can be there to meet their needs,” he says. 

Barnett believes that moving to a virtual hiring process has been beneficial for Microsoft, and that the company will likely continue to use it, or a hybrid approach, going forward. “The virtual interviewing has worked very well for us….for the work that we do in our programmatic events, let’s say the Autism Hiring Program or some of our Ability events, if things were to change tomorrow, I would still continue to do a lot of virtual interviewing. It just creates flexibility and scale—there’s a lot of benefits to it.”

For both applicants and employees with disabilities, accessibility of the technology used to power remote work is essential. Accessibility of products and services was already a priority for Microsoft prior to the pandemic, but the switch to remote work highlighted its value far beyond the organization. However, challenges arose when employees used products developed by other companies that were not fully accessible, shining a light on the importance of accessibility in procurement of technology products and platforms. “That’s such an important piece of accessibility. It’s not just the stuff that you’ve built yourself, but all of your partners and suppliers,” Barnett says.

But technology is only one part of the equation. Content also has to be accessible, regardless of whether or not an employee with a disability has requested it. “Unfortunately, you’ll see people that say, ‘Well, there’s no one that has a disability on my team,’” Barnett says. “But what happens in a lot of companies is your information gets forwarded around. So, now another team member can’t use this great work that you’ve produced. So, I think there’s been a good learning on the key role that we all have to play around creating accessible content all the time, not just when you think you need to.”

Providing accommodations remotely, whether technology-related or not, presented another challenge during the pandemic. Many of the accommodation requests Microsoft received early in the pandemic related to ergonomics and equipment needs, such as alternative keyboards and monitors that employees may have had in their office, but now needed at home. Microsoft was able to ensure employees obtained what they needed to work effectively and have streamlined the process to address these requests moving forward. 

For the foreseeable future, Microsoft, like many other companies around the world, plans to implement hybrid work models. To help other businesses do the same, Microsoft offers tools including “Hybrid Work: A Guide for Business Leaders” (PDF) and articles and blog posts on the topic. The goal is to seize the benefits gleaned from a challenging time—chief among them a more adaptable, inclusive workforce—and continue to foster them long after the pandemic has subsided.