10 tips for More Effective and Accessible WFH Communications

COVID-19 is forcing more of us to work from home than ever. Here is how you can effectively communicate with your co-workers during this time

Home office desk set up with macbook in front of a window
Home office desk set up with macbook in front of a window
Photo by Grovemade on Unsplash

Pick the Appropriate Method of Communication

Email, slack, text message, phone, chat, conference call — there are so many different communications channels at our disposal these days. But think about your audience:

  • Do they have a disability which makes it easier for them to perceive a conversation betteri using one communications form over another?
  • Has the person you are communicating with expressed their preferred channel? If not, have you asked?
  • Is English their first language?
  • What timezone are they in?

The answers to these questions may influence which communications channel you choose. Also make sure people know *your* preferred channel so they can most effectively communicate with you.

Pick a sensory friendly location

My husband and I are both working from home right now which makes this tricky in our incredibly small house with fairly bad acoustics. He works in the living room, and I work in our bedroom, because that is where each of us is the most physically comfortable. The most important things from the accessibility perspective when assessing whether or not your location is sensory friendly are:

  • Try to keep ambient noise levels down so participants with hearing loss don’t struggle trying to distinguish speech from background noise (aka “the cocktail party effect”)
  • Try to keep the camera out of direct sunlight so you don’t overwhelm people with vision loss or who are migraine-prone with glare
  • Choose where you will be seated so there is the least amount of distracting motion behind you. I literally had a call once where the environment behind the person I was speaking with was the person’s young children chasing chickens. Hard to stay on the business topic at hand with that going on.
  • Run your deck through the Powerpoint accessibility checker before you present, and make the deck available ahead of the call, preferably with the attachment in the meeting invite. That way people who have magnification needs can zoom in to their hearts content on their local large screens, or read the output on their refreshable Braille display.
  • Ask everyone not “can you see my screen” (a standard conference call meeting starter) but “is the font size comfortable for everyone” when presenting something visual. This is especially helpful for those who may be participating from a mobile device. It’s a really minor language difference, but it says “I care about your comfort” rather than forcing people with disabilities to ask “can you enlarge that?”

Captions are a must

Caption transcripts are great for putting together meeting notes after a call.

  • With autocaptions, you can review the transcript, copy, paste, and correct when (note I said when, not if) necessary. Autocaptions are available through Zoom and MS Teams.
  • If you have someone on the call with hearing loss, use a live captioner. Not negotiable. My preferred live captioning vendor is ACS Captioning via Zoom. There are some nitpicky Zoom configuration things you need to do the first time you set this up, so make sure you test it before the first use.

Turn your video camera ON

Conference calls feel more like face-to-face meetings when your video camera is on. Even if you can’t see the people, people want to be able to see you. Also, studies have shown that if you are trying to pitch something, body language feedback is important. You present things differently when you know you are being watched visually. Your face and hands will be more animated, which in turn will change the intonation of your voice.

Take periodic breaks

At work you are frequently up and about — to the break room, to the restroom, to the printer, over to Suzie’s cube to ask her a question about that awful project timeline she just sent you. Not so much at home. And you start to get a little run down if you don’t take breaks and eat regularly, which affects your energy level which in turn impacts your efficacy.

Prepare for glitches

They are going to happen. Your satellite internet stops working because it is raining too hard. Your dog thinks you are about to be murdered by the UPS person who just showed up. Roll with it. Store your files or videos on a google drive in advance if you think sharing a deck live is going to be problematic due to a glitchy low-speed internet connection. And if something does go wrong, try not to let it derail the conversation.

In addition to reducing your chances of contracting the Coronavirus, remote work is a really great option for people with disabilities in general.

  1. Being able to work remotely reduces the burden of commuting. For some people with disabilities, commuting is merely tiring. For others, commuting on a regular basis may impossible. Just because you can’t commute doesn’t mean you can’t do the job, especially in tech !
  2. Being able to work remotely reduces the effort of preparing for work. For people with mobility issues, preparing for work can take much longer than for people without disabilities.
  3. Being able to work remotely also allows people with disabilities to work around whatever schedule their disability imposes. A few examples of schedule modifications people with disabilities might need include frequent small meals, extra trips to the restroom, or starting early and ending the work day early for physical therapy.

Work from home is specifically identified by the EEOC as a potential reasonable accommodation for someone with a disability. So an organization whose official or unofficial position is “we don’t support WFH, ever, period” may be acting illegally in the United States with respect to its employees and eligible contractors with disabilities.

So take those COVID-19 lemons

and make accessible lemonade

Written by

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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