Communication – isn’t one size fits all

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Dr Nancy Doyle C. Psychol. AFBPsS, is a psychologist, the founder and CEO of Genius Within, and was the expert featured in the BBC’s series Employable Me and in A&E’s The Employables. She works with people with neurodiversity in the workplace and supports people experiencing anxiety.

Alison Boothby spoke to her to get her perspective on team communication during the Coronavirus, working from home and the impact on mental health.

 AB: How easily can we expect our colleagues and employees to get to grips with home working?

ND: “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.

“All employers 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.”

AB: What sort of impact does working from home have on mental health? 

ND: “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.”

AB: How important is it to maintain a sense of loyalty, team spirit and camaraderie?

ND: “It’s clear that without regular informal communication our teamwork could suffer and relationships may strain. Create frequent opportunities for people connect both for work related, and social reasons. Be aware that 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. Consider creating peer to peer circles of support so each team member has buddies they can check in with at any time in their preferred way – it’s good to talk.”

AB:  Do we need to make allowances for and compromise on productivity and relationships?

ND: “In short, yes. But I encourage all managers to have the conversations about what is allowed. Agree some formal and informal rules and expectations that everyone can sign up to. Some employees will be going above and beyond to prove they are not shirking; others may be almost paralysed with a sense of being overwhelmed by it all. Either way, it’s our job as managers to give our colleagues permission to do what’s right for them; permission to be unavailable at times; permission to not be visibly productive all the time; ultimately, to trust them.”

Dr Nancy Doyle

AB: How can we best avoid misunderstandings? 

ND: “The best thing is to predict that there will be some misunderstandings at this time. We’re flicking between our ‘reptile brain’ that keeps us alive, our ‘mammal brain’ that holds our values and social abilities and our ‘neo-cortex’ where we can think and make decisions. It’s a roller coaster. Our reptile brains can overreact to things, so I recommend practicing pre-forgiveness.”

AB: For line managers, what tips you do have for getting the best out of a team meeting or conference call, for example?   

ND: “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. And select technology that works for the widest group of people. Video conferencing technology such as Google Hangouts provides a simultaneous translation facility, free of charge. Some of your colleagues who may be hard of hearing, or find their home environment distracting, could benefit from this. This is a great opportunity to really hone your meeting chairing abilities. Action focused agendas shared in advance, clear accountability, not allowing a minority to dominate, inviting relevant participation from all, swift turnaround of meeting minutes – all good meeting etiquette.”

AB: What can we do about fake news and misinformation?

ND: “In any work channels push back on fake news, misinformation and anything that is scaremongering and black data. Obviously, what gets shared in non-work channels we can do little about but do have discussions about the reliability of sources – second nature to pyschologists! – and encourage the sharing of good news stories and facts from reliable sources. If you are aware of someone who is impacted by the negativity, task them with sharing good news stories with the wider team. Stories that have action potential, like the nurses that could not find food after a long shift which resulted in so many people providing meals for NHS staff, can generate good positive outcomes as well as helping to alleviate any sense of helplessness.”

AB: What’s in it for line managers?

ND: “Many managers have a habit of doing too much themselves, reluctant to delegate as ‘it is quicker to do it myself.’ Now is the perfect opportunity to delegate, give power to the team, to give permission to others to step up to do things. You’ll be amazed at how many people shine!  At times like this we need some fresh thinking. I wrote about this just last week.     

AB: What happens when we go back to work as we used to know it? It won’t be quite the same. What are we likely to feel and experience?

ND: “This is a great question. It’s one I’m going to write about in due course. And it’s really important. Are we going to get caught on the hop when we return to ‘normal’ in the way we have been caught on hop now? Will there be a sense of injustice and unfairness at how individuals have been treated, and how they have or have not contributed to work during the home-working period? Where’s the sense of organisational justice? How will this impact the psychological contract you have with your employees? As managers, start thinking about this now. Think about what you’d like to know when we get back to the office. What will you ask your people? What’s important to them? What have they learnt during the home-working period? What do we all need to do our best work? How do we feel about work now? This is not an HR process. Rather, see this as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and have crucial conversations with those who matter most – your team.”07