If it wasn’t for technology, we wouldn’t have been able to make the switch to working from home. Years of endless discussions about the pros and cons of flexible working, delaying, fear of loss of productivity and the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality was swept away in a flash, argues Sally Bibb.
Now comes the debate about if, when and how much to go back to the office. A regular concern raised about remote working is how much is lost through the lack of ‘water cooler’ moments. It may be true that social bonding and impromptu conversations are easier when people are physically in the same place. What about for shyer, more introverted people who work better in quiet atmospheres? Gathering in the kitchen for spontaneous chit chat is akin to making polite conversation at a party for some. They dread it.
An inclusive work culture is something that many employers strive for these days. Not only because it’s morally important but because it’s a way of attracting people to come and work for you.
How can leaders use technology to help ensure different types of people, in different circumstances, have a chance to be heard?
The rapid adoption of technology that has made home-working effective has benefited some neurodiverse people too. For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for example, being able to work in a quiet atmosphere without colleagues talking or eating near them has been a boon.
Where possible, leaders and their teams should have virtual only or in-person only meetings. Virtual meetings have levelled the playing field for those who aren’t based in company headquarters and who would dial into meetings where their colleagues would be physically present. When no-one is physically present it has a democratising effect; everyone is in the same boat instead of either the group on screen or those in the room getting more focus. There is a tendency for the group who are physically together to either pay more attention to those who are in the room with them or put most of their attention on the screen. By using technology in this way, we shift the dynamic. Neither of the groups receive more attention than the other.
This also gives leaders the ability to spot talent that may not have been spotted before – we are noticing those whose voices were previously not heard at all or less dominant. Also, reduced groupthink and improved decision making are other potential benefits of democratising meetings. In the physical world it’s natural for people to resort, unconsciously, to the hierarchy with the most senior people getting more airtime and credence. In the virtual world that’s much less of a danger. Perhaps we’ll also at last be able to reap the benefit of having four generations in the workplace.
Adapting working practices to be inclusive of neuro-diverse employees
The first thing to say about this is that people are different from each other so don’t assume that, say, all people with ADHD will want to work in a quiet environment all the time. Ask people what kind of environment helps them to do their best work. A person with ADHD is as likely as someone who doesn’t have ADHD but who is an introvert, to prefer an environment that is quiet and where lots of background chat isn’t going on all day.
The key recommendation here is to have line managers ask their people how they work best. Some people may feel comfortable disclosing that they’re neuro-diverse. Others won’t. Some people may well think they may be but have not had a diagnosis. The important thing is to bring out the best of all employees by understanding the conditions under which they do their best work and being flexible to their needs.
Don’t let go of the once strange conventions
Zoom and Teams meetings have given introverts and shyer people airtime they didn’t used to have. In the pre-pandemic world, we didn’t put our hands up to speak in meetings. The very idea sounds infantile. Yet many of us use the ‘hands up’ function now on online meetings. It makes it easier for those chairing meetings to ensure everyone has time to speak and to bring in the quieter voices.
Whether a meeting is in person or virtual, you can continue to use the hands-up convention that we’ve become used to. State at the beginning of the meeting that the chairperson will bring people in in order of them raising their hand. Tell people that you’re doing it because it helps ensure that people get equal opportunities to contribute.
Then there is the chat function. If someone doesn’t want to speak, they can put comments in the chat. A colleague who has a stammer said Teams has been liberating for him because he can say whatever he wants to say in chat whereas he will avoid certain words when speaking because he stammers on them. The same may be true of people who use their second or third language at work and need time to think.
A client recently asked for a session to work on some new product designs. We ran the whole thing via Miro, an online whiteboard app. The hosts were in a different time zone to most participants, nearly all were geographically dispersed, and some were working on external systems. A recipe for low engagement you may think but those involved had the opposite experience. They enjoyed it, were energised by the progress they made and found it “super collaborative and enjoyable”.
Creating a progressive culture
In our quest to make the most of time in the office let’s be careful that we don’t shape post-pandemic office life around the extroverts. Let’s appreciate that whether you thrive best working at home, in the office or a mixture of the two depends on your personality type and strengths as well as your personal situation.
Some people – perhaps those who are reflectors – come up with their best ideas on solo walks. Others may work best in dialogue with one or two others in a quiet atmosphere. Still others may need buzzy interactions in the office canteen. Equally, being at home can make others more confident talking on calls, knowing they’re in a safe environment, and being able to fidget without other people noticing.
Technology is an eco-system now. There is no one solution to meet all our needs. A leader has an important role in ensuring the tech eco-system serves its purpose and brings all the benefits it can to colleagues and clients. As leaders we should all be giving time to learning about how technologies can help us improve collaboration, creativity, engagement and inclusion.
This year and beyond is a chance for the most progressive employers to cultivate a working environment where individuals can work in a way that brings out the best in them. Leaders can do so by creating opportunities for everyone to make their best contributions by supporting them wherever possible to work in a way that works best for them.
Sally Bibb is a strengths and talent expert at PA Consulting.