Remote meetings are not egalitarian

… you’ve talked too long and I can’t focus anymore

noise in a meeting is noise in my mind

Introduction

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.

The problem

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

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.

Stagger meetings

Factor in decompression time

Allow for heads down time

Mute your speakers

Avoid microphone gore

Avoid clashing or busy colour schemes

Reduce number and frequency of meetings

Could this be a group text chat?

Always Be Muted

Reduce meeting length

Video conferencing software is a bad place for a party

Indirect attention

Mandatory webcam

Takeaway

All we need is a little support and consideration.

Thanks.

Remi Butler is a British computer girl who writes creatively on patterns, neurodiversity, software, productivity and processes

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