“The genie is out of the bottle”, says John Cook, director of Ideas for Ears, in this insightful post giving his perspective on workplace practices.
John is software engineer working in the Edinburgh’s exciting FinTech sector. He passionate about social inclusion and building workplaces that attract and welcome people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
A silver lining to coronavirus
Terrible though the black clouds of coronavirus are, they have come with a few silver linings. One of those silver linings is the spotlight that has been placed on our methods, styles and experiences of communication in our work and social lives.
Coronavirus has forced us to rapidly transform into a nation of people who do things remotely. Where once we met face-to-face, we are now using video calling platforms or settling for a phone call.
This seismic shift in communication practices is presenting a very real opportunity for employers, HR teams and line managers to make their workplaces more accessible so they more naturally, easily and fully permit the inclusion of people with hearing loss.
The UK now has 12 million people with hearing loss, including at least 10% of the working age population.
An unavoidable dependency
Hearing loss affects how well and easily you can hear and follow what other people say and by doing so it creates an often unwanted, but nonetheless unavoidable, dependency on other people.
Let me explain how things are for me. I have hearing loss, having acquired it about ten years ago. It is partially managed through use of hearing aids.
I say ‘partially’ because a huge portion of my overall hearing experiences is down to the actions, behaviours and awareness of others. In some situations and with some people, I will hear perfectly and without any trouble whatsoever. In other situations with other people, I will barely hear and follow anything at all.
Pre-Covid, I regularly attended work-related meetings that were a struggle to properly hear and follow. I regularly found it tricky to catch everything said with colleagues in the open plan office, canteen or other communal space.
The difficulties were created by noise and acoustics, and by people being too far away to hear easily or placed in a position that didn’t allow me to use my fairly basic lipreading skills. And the big one, of course, was the clarity with which people talked.
So what’s changed?
The clarity with which people talk hasn’t altered (though there is huge scope to take strides towards this). What has altered is communication method.
The shift to video conferencing means everyone sits individually in a quiet room and looks directly at a camera. They each have a microphone to pick up their voice. Their voices all feed through into the earphones that I am wearing.
I can hear them more easily. I can see them more easily. This all, of course, depends on people video calling from a room with good acoustics (i.e. quiet and without echo), and on them using decent audio-visual equipment and having the lighting set up to fall on their face.
Assuming these things are done, by and large it works well. And in addition, I have the option to easily and unobtrusively use the assistance of automated subtitles delivered via the video platform or a third party app onto another screen.
When it comes to quicker exchanges with colleagues, that’s now being done by email – or again via video calls. It has transformed the ease with which I communicate, removing the disadvantage that previously plagued me and freeing me of stresses that to be honest, I hadn’t properly appreciated I was carrying.
We need to keep what works
As more of us start getting ready to physically return to our workplaces, this doesn’t mean we have to revert back to previous ways of doing things. If remote meetings are equally effective and also more accessible, then why go back to holding them in person?
If there is a risk of catching Covid-19 if I wander over to a colleague’s desk to talk something over, why don’t I simply video call my colleague. This not only avoids the risk, it also means I am more likely to fully hear what is being said, assuming a good quality webcam and headset that clearly picks up the voice and cuts out office noise is used.
I mentioned the growth in use of phone calls. This is where there can be a weakness in remote working, but that too can be overcome. Either transition calls away from phone to video, or accept greater use of phone calls and off-set the access issues by equipping staff with proficiency in clear-speaking so phone calls are easier for people to hear and follow.
The genie is out the bottle
We know remote working can work and that it can level the playing field for groups of workers and allow them to perform more effectively and efficiently. The genie is out of the bottle and we cannot put it back.
Of course, not every person with hearing loss will find video calls easier but many of us will, especially when combined with subtitling tools, which are not perfect but are getting better (If you haven’t read Pippa Highfield’s experiences on this, do so here).
And I think as most of us have discovered thanks to weeks of practice during lockdown, for video calls to be any good for anyone, they do need to have decent quality audio-visual equipment and lighting.
Reflecting on my own circumstances, there is no doubt that the potency of my input has improved with remote working. Meetings held by video rather than in-person reduce the cognitive effort involved in me listening to what’s being said. It frees me up to focus fully on evaluating, analysing and responding to the discussion. It is also less stressful and less tiring.
The opportunity for boosting workplace productivity and staff well-being through flexible meeting practices designed around access needs seems clear.