The typical office days are over. When she used to walk into the office pre-pandemic, Divya would find herself not hearing the conversations around her well. As she entered the coffee room, she observed the watercooler chats. Equally, as she sat waiting for a meeting in the boardroom to start, chatter among her colleagues would occur and leave her clueless. Or when she joined a table for group conversations at the lunchtime cafeteria, not a word could be heard well or understood with a room full of adults raising their voices in the background. All these situations always had her feeling left out. In contrast, the transition to Zoom during the last two years has been refreshing for her. But the return to a hybrid workforce is now putting her on edge again.
While I can’t predict the future, I can say that things will change after experiencing a pandemic. People with hearing loss naturally learn to adapt or develop a habit or a system to manage their environment. However, as things in the world have changed, the new work world will be another learning experience for many people who have hearing loss. This article will highlight the challenges, but I will not leave you hanging without any solutions.
Many people with disabilities were left out or ignored during the pandemic. For this reason, it is now time that we have a strong comeback. We should return to a new workplace thriving and more productive than ever before. So what exactly is that going to look like? How do we even begin? First, we should highlight the changes we predict or expect to happen in the hybrid workplace. This includes companies that allow employees to choose to work from home or companies that hope employees return to work for some days during the week.
In a hybrid world, there are days when all team members can not be available in the same place or all online at the same time. Consequently, when we return to work, we will start to see many in-office team members gather around a single camera for a video call to connect with remote team members. Yet, when the audio is far away from the speaker, many other sounds, like air conditioners, chit chats and people talking over one another, get muffled together. All of these noises get picked up by the microphone. As a result, It will be harder to hear the conversations. In like manner, the experience would remind you of being back at work pre-pandemic.
In some cases, your company may ask everyone to bring their own laptop to the meetings to appear like you are working from home. However, when everyone is using the video streaming software simultaneously, this can cause problems with connectivity issues. In addition, when many people use video streaming applications, it increases the internet bandwidth and is not eco-friendly with the power consumption. Furthermore, some people might naturally talk away from the camera to other team members in the same room. Instead, they should be looking directly at the screen to engage everyone in the conversation.
We will see a lot of managers struggling to understand how to evaluate their employees’ performances. In the past, attendance was necessary for a good performance evaluation. In this case, the battle between those who work remotely and those who come to the office will create a divide.
Being social is part of many work cultures to foster relationships between employees. However, the hybrid workplace will increase the lack of interactions for relationship building and may cause one to feel left out. Even worse, people working from home may be unaware of things because they may not be at the right place at the right time. Therefore, businesses will have to get better and more strategic at sharing information, so no one is out of the loop.
Some companies may limit the use of office meeting spaces altogether because they do not want to encourage employees working from home to be at a disadvantage. Environments that encourage meetings among team members can cause silos and group thinking. It is much easier to gather several team members together than plan time in the work schedule and set up the online video conferencing tools. Hence, if people have impromptu meetings in person, those not around will not have access to information or may find themselves excluded from work assignment opportunities.
The pandemic has brought about new ways of working, which means new innovative technologies appear out of nowhere and become the default tool everyone uses. For example, even email might be replaced with quick video chats called asynchronous video communications.
Remember Clubhouse or Zoom without any accessible closed captioning features at the beginning of the pandemic? New technologies are often inaccessible at the beginning because the tech companies are pressured to move fast and be the first to market. They are not incentivized to spend time and capital to make their technology accessible from the start unless there is a lawsuit that can light up a flame under their tush.
Your manager may feel like they have no control over the situation when a new inaccessible tech platform appears. In addition, they may outline that management really wants the technology to help meet their corporate goals and maximize productivity. Also, they may argue that they will not remove the new technologies because they don’t want the majority to lose out to a minority (meaning you) who are experiencing the problem. In fact, some companies inexperienced with working with people with disabilities may start to play their undue hardship cards. Furthermore, the worst case would be that they respond by readjusting your job responsibilities and giving you work tasks that look like a demotion.
Schedule confusion can get a bit unclear which supervisor to rely on at times. Consequently, you may find yourself reporting to different people every time you show up at the office. Before, your manager was just the only person that knew about your hearing loss and supported your accommodation needs. That may change in this new work world. In contrast, you might have to reveal to many more people about your disability to get the accommodations or support you need. What was none of their business became everyone’s business.
Your tasks of informing whoever is onsite may hinder your rights legally. Some provinces or states protect you from not having to disclose your disability to other team members. The only people you are legally allowed to share information about your disability are your manager or the person you report to. Also, your manager is not legally allowed to tell others about your disability. Ableism can thrive in these situations when there’s no structure and protection for an employee with disabilities.
What about requesting accommodations? Who exactly would be your point of contact. Some companies treat the home as a place of work and their responsibility. To manage all of the various needs, as more requests for accommodation occur, the volume and demand for accommodations may be higher than usual.
In the past, your supervisor or the peer buddy was looking after your welfare. Some offices had a designated health and safety officer and a backup officer if the health and safety officers were sick. Furthermore, they kept you posted on all the events because they knew that you might not be aware while at the office. So, what if you are the only one in the office or, because of social distancing protocols, you have your desk far away from the central area of the office? How can you be aware of the emergency notifications without your buddy system or someone who can inform you without people forgetting about you? Unfortunately, these situations can happen without developing any plans to prevent them from occurring.
I’m not going to leave you behind in this maze of confusion that we are entering in. So instead, I will share some technologies that will help you as you transition to a hybrid work model.
Note that the accommodation I am sharing with you is an example of tools that can perform the desired function. Lisnen does not receive any compensation for highlighting these tools. These productivity tools are more of a reference to help you start a conversation with your employers.
Whether in the office or at home, clear audio communication will make all the difference to help you hear or pick up speech in various circumstances. If hybrid meetings become a norm, then meeting rooms must be accessible. So when requesting accommodations, your employer should be looking for devices that can perform the following functions:
Microphones should filter background noises and only pick up speech sounds. If the audio system in the meeting room picks up any sounds, it is difficult for remote employees like yourself to filter out the humming background noises from appliances in the room.
Video conference systems should indicate the number of speakers allowed for each microphone in the meeting room before the quality of sounds deteriorates. Some devices limit the number of people that will be able to hear clearly based on the number of people around the microphone. It will be advisable for your employer to purchase additional microphones for meeting rooms that can host many people or at least meet the meeting room capacity. Hence, the microphone will be able to pick up all voices from anywhere around the room.
One camera may not be sufficient to give visibility to all the faces in the meeting room. Even more so when you need to read lips. They may not be able to provide a close-up view of everyone in the room.
Avoid cameras that can pick up voices and automatically position themselves to face the speakers. They will be inaccessible to interpreters or other people communicating by sign language. For this reason, the camera will block them from appearing on the camera because the camera operates for oral communications only.
Speaker systems that have Bluetooth as the main feature will be helpful if you wear hearing aids. You will find that the hearing aids will pair with the speaker via Bluetooth to send sound directly from the speaker to the hearing aids without any background noises. When you are in person for a meeting, or if your employer can provide a device at home, you will be able to pick up conversations a lot easier.
Many video conferencing devices will be compatible with many software used throughout the pandemic like Zoom, Microsoft teams or Google Meet. However, if they operate with their own software, they will need to plug-in other speech-to-text or live captioning applications. More importantly, you should be able to leverage any speech-to-text software like Ava, Otter.ai or Imanyco to translate speech to text and display it on screen.
Some live captioning features are not inclusive in the video conferencing experience. For example, you may have to access the transcript via another link or site. In this case, you may have a laptop or a smartphone to read the transcript live while everything is happening around you. However, I believe that the closed captioning or live captioning should be directly on the screen where everyone can see it. This will help instill this as a standard practice and enable you to engage with your remote employees. No one should have to bounce their head around the room, looking at their device, team members in the room and the tv screen all at once.
I’ve heard that tools like Jabra can assist both at home and work. It ticks all of the boxes to help with video conferencing.
Slack and other chat platforms may continue to be used to manage conversations and stay up to date with work activities. However, having a full view of who is at the office and who is not will be helpful. Tools like Scoop will be able to identify and manage in-person visits at the workplace. You will be able to see who you can connect with onsite for immediate support. These tools will also be helpful when interpreters are required to be present at the workplace, especially when many places are enforcing a restriction on the number of people entering the building at any given time. If the interpreter needs to be remote, they can join the video chat.
Furthermore, the schedule management platform should be good for communicating and reporting any potential spread of the covid virus. For example, based on records of who was at the office at a specific date and time, people at your workplace can be informed immediately.
Managing your accommodation request with your manager before involving HR will need to be addressed virtually. A simple online form or virtual documentation would help speed up your request without delay. Hence, the app will allow you to keep track of your request without informing or reporting to other team members.
Should you be in a situation where your workplace can’t manage a buddy system with everyone on a flexible work schedule, or you do not want to disclose your disability to the whole team, there are other ways you can manage.
For one thing, our employer’s key area of concern will be your health and safety. Furthermore, safety should also be your key concern both at home and at work. You should have completed safety training and understand the evacuation procedures, not relying on someone else. Moreover, you might want to consider an automated sound awareness solution like Lisnen to help alert you to sounds that require your attention. Make sure your soundscape is added to our database.
The workplace is changing, and things will not be the same. As you adjust to the new ways of work, these suggestions provided in the article will help you manage your new work life. My goal is to have you be more productive than ever before and one that you rightly deserve.
If you are looking for more suggestions or ideas to help you or others manage the workplace, reach out to me here to chat!
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