Remote meetings are not egalitarian
Inside the tech industry we have a horrible habit of pretending everyone is equal all of the time and that we all have the same capabilities and even if we don’t we should be treated as if we do, to be fair! It’s a nice idea that doesn’t model reality one jot, minority groups exist and we need to re-examine our biases and blind spots to prevent ourselves from overlooking the support of others. What I want to do with this article is exactly that, I want us to take a look at a problem that is affecting a lot of neurodivergent people; remote meetings for people with sensory issues… But that’s not an exciting title, so I went with something a little more antagonistic.
My initial plan was to write this as a work presentation but I eventually realised the irony in booking yet another meeting just to talk about meeting fatigue.
I got the idea for the article from a neurodivergent private channel at work where Alicia Crowther mentioned that it’s ADHD awareness month and she suggested that writing or presenting something on this topic would be worthwhile. Given that so many of us have been suffering under long, incessant or overwhelming meetings, I agreed and here we are.
I could forgive you for thinking the problem is having remote meetings at all, because it’s far from ideal. People constantly asking if you can hear them, talking while muted, talking over each other, eating crunchy food while unmuted and all the other unscheduled interruptions that come from trying to do serious work inside a residential home. Unfortunately remote meetings, like all meetings, are the fastest and most efficient way to gain alignment from a group of people on a specific issue, they’re collaboration tools that we are steadily overusing because we lack a common physical space.
To outline the problem let me tell you a little about myself, I’ll try to keep it as brief as I can. I am a 31 year old queer autistic woman with ADHD, PTSD, and hearing loss in my right ear. The tl;dr for how these conditions impact me in a meeting is that communication can sometimes be pretty difficult, even face to face. I’m going to focus on the problems my neurodivergence present and I’ll be talking as a lay expert, which is to say, from personal experience as an expert in my own neurodivergence.
Because of my autism and deafness I have sensory issues with sound, I strongly dislike rustling, crashing or scraping sounds, they make me anxious if they’re loud enough and last for long enough. These sounds force me to disengage with what is being said and focus solely on the distressing sound itself. When this happens all the time it’s called hyperacusis and it’s prevalent in people on the autistic spectrum, for me sound can be overwhelming and shut down my other senses but it isn’t all the time, it depends on various other factors like my stress levels. An example from the other day is a presenter had a lapel microphone that was rubbing against the zipper of their fleece jacket, this sound was like a buzz saw to me and severely damaged my ability to process the information they were trying to convey, I had to turn off my camera because I didn’t want them to think my grimace was at the idea they were explaining. Consistent background noise such as drilling or a car engine, for example, eliminate any chance of my participation or understanding because they swamp out my ability to hear and lip reading is a significant challenge with video conferencing software.
Because of my ADHD I have a differently constructed concentration system, I find it extremely difficult to focus on things that I don’t find interesting and I actually start to fall asleep if I’m bored, this has lead to multiple situations where I have fallen asleep during meetings when a presenter has been reporting high level content in a monotonical drone. I fatigue quickly in meetings, after 45 minutes I get very tired and I am unlikely to have meaningful input or even the capacity to pay attention. This isn’t for lack of trying, with ADHD it can be hard or even impossible to direct my attention once it has been lost. I also require decompression time after a meeting to be able to consolidate any physical or mental notes into coherent thoughts or understandings, the longer and more detailed a meeting, the more time I need to decompress. It often takes me longer to focus into a task and it can be quite distressing to have my focus broken once it’s been drawn, where someone else might be productive in a 15 minute gap I’m more likely to use all of that time to simply spin up to speed.
These are personal to my experience of neurodivergence and others have more difficulties on top, such as a condition called misophonia which is often comorbid with autism where an anger response is triggered by everyday sounds like people chewing, sniffing their nose or notification feedback from someone’s speakers.
The cumulative effect of months of remote meetings that contain the above triggers on top of the stress brought on by living through a worldwide pandemic and being trapped inside my house as an extremely vulnerable person has been profound. I have had increased anxiety attacks, migraines, asthma attacks from stress related inflammation, my productivity is lower because of added decompression time from increased meetings now that we are unable to organically collaborate in a workplace, I’ve had friends talk about increased symptoms of depression and even know a few neurodivergent people who have quit their jobs entirely. I struggle with executive dysfunction like a lot of my neurodivergent siblings which is made all the worse by frequent interruptions and a lack of routine.
Working from home and engaging in remote meetings is a difficult task to navigate for neurodivergent people.
Considerations and mitigations
So, what can we do to lessen the sensory and concentration breaking impact that these triggers can cause during remote meetings?
The first thing to do is acknowledge that the issue exists at all. A lot of companies are pushing to redefine our current situation as a new “normal” that we should have begun to adapt to, when in reality we are being traumatised by isolation en masse. This isn’t an easy time for anyone and accepting that we might need to change the way me communicate is an important step toward supporting each other, even outside of considerations for your neurodivergent colleagues.
There are no silver bullets, everyone on the autistic spectrum is different and the same goes for people with ADHD or anyone else that’s neurodivergent. We are all very different and the first thing you should do if you are considering improving the life of people who are neurodivergent in your remote meetings is to ask them what they need. Outside of that and any reasonable accommodations asked from by HR, here is a list of things that would help me.
Back to back meetings are hard for everyone, but they are especially hard for people with ADHD, consider adding a 10–15 minute break between each meeting.
Factor in decompression time
Creating decompression time at the end of a meeting can help people with ADHD and Autism to better retain any information or outcomes from the meeting, this can be as easy as creating a short summary as a group.
Allow for heads down time
Scheduling a time of day or several days a week that are uninterrupted head down time, free of meeting stress can be highly beneficial to the working patterns of neurodivergent team members.
Mute your speakers
Reducing all background noise is improbable at best but there are steps you can take to help your neurodivergent team embers out such as muting your speakers during a presentation or meeting so that notifications and other computer sounds don’t get distorted through your microphone.
Avoid microphone gore
Microphone gore is the feedback crackle you get when you tap or otherwise touch a live mic, these sounds are often deeply troubling for people with sensory issues, avoid tapping your laptop or lapel mics whilst they are live. Even rustling against clothes can be incredibly loud.
Avoid clashing or busy colour schemes
Many neurodivergent people can find busy slides and clashing or complex colour schemes to be overwhelming, keep bullet point lists to short sentences and 3 or less examples as well as using as few colours as possible and reducing visual clutter when presenting for neurodivergent people.
Reduce number and frequency of meetings
Neurodivergent people can feel compelled to attend every meeting they are scheduled into and while meetings are an important part of business, not all meetings are important, reconsider your frequency and number of meetings, double check all participants really need to attend. If you don’t know why you’re having a meeting, cancel it.
Could this be a group text chat?
In tech especially we have lots of different communication methods to keep in mind for chats that don’t need to be meetings, like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom Messenger, all of which could be used to have a discussion that isn’t in the form of a meeting. Some catch-ups can be done asynchronously and without interrupting work flow.
Always Be Muted
A good way to reduce background noise for a remote meeting is to always remain muted when not speaking and to get into a regular cadence of checking your microphone status as well as gaining enough familiarity with the programs that you are using to be able to mute and unmute without effort.
Reduce meeting length
A lot of neurodivergent people struggle with meetings that run too long, either because of concentration or because of building sensory issues, you can achieve this by reducing the scope of meetings or by utilising an agenda to stay on track.
Video conferencing software is a bad place for a party
All of the issues above are compounded when people are talking over each other and laughing loudly down microphones or even drunkenly tapping along to music in the background. This is sensory overload just writing about it. I’m throwing this one out to the comments and feedback, I don’t have a strategy here other than to say do not make these meetings mandatory.
Neurodivergent people do not always look directly at you when they are paying attention, we may stare into the distance, fiddle with something close to us or even have our eyes closed, this does not mean we didn’t hear or understand you. We are paying indirect attention. We process information in a fundamentally different way and indirect attention, looking away, is one of the ways in which some of us free up space to be able to process the information you are sharing.
Sharing a live feed should always be optional, whether a neurodivergent person requires seeing other peoples faces to feel at ease or whether they are deeply uncomfortable with seeing or being seen mean that having a mandate on sharing webcam feeds is a source of stress for many neurodivergent individuals.
We need to take conscious actions to support our neurodivergent colleagues and family members, the biggest part of this is opening a line of communication. Paying more attention to your microphone, letting people have their camera off, staggering meetings and adding decompression time, these tiny things can have an enormous impact on the mental wellbeing of your family and colleagues.
All we need is a little support and consideration.