We are experiencing a working environment that no one could have prepared for. Even the most thorough crisis management plans wouldn’t have considered a national lock down or the need for so many of us to manage our work and teams remotely. Some might consider it straightforward to slip into a virtual team, relying on technology to connect with colleagues and keep productivity high. But, for many of us, the cognitive load that comes with self-isolation and the need to juggle family life with work responsibilities, exacerbates anxiety and causes distress.
HR & L&D professionals have a duty of care and it’s important to factor in the neurodifferences of our colleagues when working towards an inclusive and supportive culture, especially when attempting this remotely. 15-20 per cent of the UK population has a neurodevelopmental or acquired condition. Whether it’s an individual with ADHD, dyslexia, mental health issues or anxiety, or a mixture, it’s clear neurodiversity needs to be taken into account when considering your workforce’s needs over this extended period of self-isolation.
Working from home is not necessarily problematic. Some neurominorities find they can focus on their work better and become more productive, free from the distraction of day-to-day office life. Others find the lack of structure, the new communication channels and navigating new software without colleagues on hand to guide them cognitively draining or anxiety-inducing. The most important thing you can do is vocalise – don’t assume that your teams will pick up on the need to do things differently, or speak up if there’s a problem. You need to hold some time in their diaries to establish the ‘new rules’. These might include times of day that people are working, or how to interrupt in an online meeting if you do’t understand, or setting up circles of informal support between peers. There’s going to be an increased likelihood of misunderstanding and jumping to the wrong conclusions – can you discuss this in advance so that people are prepared to assume the best of each other? What do your staff need from each other, and you, to work at their best in this new normal?
We’re hosting daily webinars to share information about the cognitive issues at play and what we know from the latest research on working from home and the “always on” culture. The demand is there because the way each organisation handles this crisis now will establish working practices that can keep their companies afloat and support their employees over the months ahead.
It’s clear that without regular informal communication our teamwork could suffer and relationships may strain. But communication needs to be handled in a way that takes into consideration the wide range of people who you are reaching out to. In order to support our neurominority and hidden disability colleagues, a provision of adjustments ought to be put in place from the start. Employers who adopt a one-size-fits-all remote working strategy may exacerbate stress and productivity difficulties.
Some straight-forward adjustments can benefit neurodiverse and neurotypical people equally. For example, sharing some basic visuals like bullet points in a Word document in advance of a group call can help to anchor attention and quell anxiety. Keep conference calls short, with strong chair, breakout pairs and comfort breaks. And select technology that works for the widest group of people. Video conferencing technology such as Google Hangouts provides a simultaneous closed captioning facility, free of charge. Some of your colleagues who may be hard of hearing, or find their home environment distracting, could benefit from this.
All of us in the HR sector are working hard to help all our colleagues through this difficult time. Look after yourself too, and don’t rely on your gut instinct to navigate this challenge. There is evidence-based help and guidance. Take the time to hunt it out and take heed. You’ll feel more confident in your strategies and your remote colleagues will see the positive impact of a well-planned approach.