Sonic setbacks: Is a poor audio experience impacting your work?

Frustration, irritation, annoyance. Stress, embarrassment, and a lack of confidence. Not exactly the list of workplace requirements to boost employee wellbeing, performance and productivity. Yet, with 1 in 6 people in the UK alone suffering from hearing loss or impediment, how many of us are considering the impact of less than optimal audio experience on our teams?

Sonic setbacks

According to the recent Understanding Sound Experiences Report, which surveyed 2,500 people, 95 percent of audio end-users and decision-makers experience problems relating to sound that affect their concentration or efficiency at work. Poor sound quality on calls, whether in the office or working from home includes background noise (42 percent), having to repeat yourself (34 percent), and asking for information to be repeated (34 percent). Theis Moerk, Vice President of Product Management, Enterprise Solutions at EPOS, who conducted the research told us, “Sound-related pain points within businesses vary, but one issue that seems universal is the added stress caused by a less-than-optimal audio experience. Our research found that 35% of end-users feel frustration, irritation, and annoyance due to bad audio quality, whilst 25% experience moments of stress, and 15% feel moments of embarrassment or a lack of confidence. All this adds up to a potential reduction in performance and productivity.”

THE AUTHOR

Luke Budka, head of digital PR and SEO, at B2B growth agency TopLine Comms

Luke is head of digital PR and SEO at B2B growth agency TopLine Comms. He’s interested in how PR powers SEO and doesn’t think there’s a lot of a difference between the front page of a newspaper and the first page of Google’s search engine results pages.

Hearing loss at work

Clearly EPOS has something to gain from this research, being providers of good quality audio equipment, but it is entirely fair to accept that bad audio plagues employees and impedes their ability to do their job. When working remotely we tend to assume that everyone has a great broadband connection that can accommodate a stable and strong video and audio experience, but of course, this is not the reality for many. For those of us with perfectly good hearing, a less than perfect broadband connection (welcome to rural UK!), coupled with some distinctly average laptop speakers or headphones, can be enough to drive us potty. Speech that breaks up, that stops intermittently, fluctuating volume, background noise, crackles, echoes, time delays – these all impede conversational flow and can seriously affect our ability to get our work done effectively and efficiently. And it certainly takes any joy out of the process!

While we may have put up with it for a few short weeks, the prospect of battling longer-term with poor broadband is a step too far, making every team meeting a chore, every conversation a challenge, causing fatigue and frustration. If poor audio affects the performance and productivity of those with perfectly good hearing, it must present a significant challenge to those with any degree of hearing loss.

Our reliance on technology to maintain business continuity has grown considerably during these last few turbulent months and the indication is that, for many, working from home will continue to be the norm. And if that’s the case, we have to ensure that employees have an audio experience that is fit for purpose.

According to Action on Hearing Loss, about 1 in 6 of us – that’s around 12 million people in the UK – suffer from some sort of hearing loss or impediment. Of these, 5 million are of working age. That’s a staggering statistic and one that employers cannot ignore.

We have talked to people to find out how their audio experience impacts their work and what steps they are taking to mitigate this. Collecting just a handful of these personal stories has demonstrated the need – and the opportunity – for employers to take notice of this issue and pay attention to the audio demands of their employees.

Zoom fatigue

For Sara Hawthorn, Managing Director of InFusion, specialist energy, manufacturing, and built environment sector PR and marketing communications agency, work certainly became more challenging when COVID led to lockdown and her work became online only.

“When the articles about Zoom fatigue started appearing, it was something that was already familiar to me and countless people with hearing loss. Brain fatigue is something many of us battle during face-to-face meetings and events and when everything shut down and became online-only, this switched to navigating Zoom and Teams.

“The biggest challenge, aside from the brain fatigue, is keeping up with conversations in large groups – delays, bad connections, people speaking over each other – it can all make you feel excluded and lost. As someone who relies heavily on lipreading, the switch to online meetings presents another challenge. Bad lighting, distance from the camera, and pixelated video make lipreading nearly impossible when there is more than one person with whom to engage.

“Very few of the main video calling platforms have decent accessibility features – there are captions on Google Meet, which are hit and miss – more miss if you have, say, a strong Scottish accent – Zoom requires 3rd party apps, and Teams has a captioning option but caveats it with asking people to speak slowly and clearly and avoid any background noise. That’s not always possible.”

Sensible consideration

For Sara, there are a few very straightforward and simple things that everyone can do that together make an enormous difference to anyone with a degree of hearing loss. She continues, “To help, keep meeting attendees to the minimum – does the whole team need to be there? Keep to a time limit on calls and limit how many online meetings you hold in a day. Also consider whether it could just be a telephone call if that’s something a colleague with hearing loss can do. I often will plug headphones in and take a call that way as it enables me to focus on the voice at the other end and minimise the risk of missing information. In a similar way to in-person meetings, send a summary around to all attendees post-meeting with all the important points discussed and any assigned actions. That way you remove the responsibility for inclusion from the person with hearing loss to the person running the meeting (if this is not the person with hearing loss) and all attendees get the same follow up. Remember that if you’re feeling the ‘Zoom fatigue’ your colleagues with hearing loss with be experiencing this too, perhaps in a more pronounced way, so whilst the temptation may be to have a quick Teams call, it might not be the most suitable or inclusive option.”

Mark Shanahan, Associate Professor and Head of Department for Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading, is one of the estimated 7.1 million people in the UK suffering from tinnitus, and working from home has not helped. He told me, “I have tinnitus and it’s markedly worse than normal at the moment. My speculation is that it’s partly down to my environment being much quieter than normal – working from home so no buzz of students, less traffic noise and few ‘real’ voices. Coupled with three or four hours a day on Skype and Teams, the tinnitus is more noticeable and intrusive. I started with a headset for calls but I, like so many others, found these uncomfortable for prolonged periods and have abandoned these now. I wonder if processed voices through cheapish PC speakers have an impact too on my audio experience?”

Cultural barrier

I also spoke to Adam Breeze, Business Development Manager at Sign Solutions UK, a language and learning company specialising in interpretation support for Deaf people. Adam has been profoundly deaf from birth and his first language is British Sign Language (BSL). What I hadn’t fully appreciated before my meeting with Adam was that BSL has its own grammar and is structured in a completely different way to English. For this reason, for many like him for whom BSL is their first language, their English reading and writing is not brilliant which means that merely relying on email exchanges and written documents is not the answer to workplace communication. In Adam’s case, he prefers face to face communication with a qualified BSL interpreter. Adam is a champion for the Deaf community and works tirelessly to give them a voice. “There’s too much focus on why deaf people can’t work, rather than why they can,” he said. “Deafness and hearing loss doesn’t have to be a barrier to people working and excelling in most jobs. Employers need to feel comfortable employing deaf people and build confidence and understanding around how to support them in the workplace. Part of that is understanding the personal communication preferences of each individual.”

Disappointingly, research from Action on Hearing Loss suggests that more than half of employees with hearing loss (54%) put off telling their employer about it, for fear of a negative reaction. It’s a cultural barrier that needs overcoming and there is plenty of help available for employers and employees in this free guide. The government’s Access to Work scheme provides financial support towards the cost of practical workplace adjustments for people who are deaf or have hearing loss and a Workplace Assessment, initiated by the employee, can tell you what adjustments might be needed and suggest any assistive products that may help them perform to their best ability.

What is the role of comms?

Amy Grace is Group Communications Manager at Globeducate, has some hearing loss and slightly slower auditory comprehension. Her full story appears below, but she is well placed to comment on the role IC has in ensuring a quality audio experience for all, “I think Comms plays a vital role because it is our job to create channels of communication, not only for distributing information and bringing teams and individuals together but also we have to find the best way for each person to feel competent and valued. Comms teams will often have the most touchpoints in a company and so I think it´s fair to say that, combined with HR, we have to lead by example and ensure that everyone is enabled and empowered to make the best contribution they can.”

Making internal communications accessible

No stranger to the IC community, Rachel Miller, Director, All Things IC has her own personal experience which she has shared openly on her blog. She adds, “As someone with hearing loss, I know only too well how we adapt to the world of work to help us communicate. I can only hear 30% of speech, but having had a hearing aid fitted recently, it’s transformed my ability to hear, and increased that percentage dramatically. However, video calls present their own challenges. To date (and pre-hearing aid), I have lip-read, which is fine when there’s a small number of attendees on a video call. However, lots of attendees make their screens smaller and their mouths harder to read. We joke a lot about the need to go on mute and it features in lots of memes, but when people don’t, it increases background noise and reduces everyone’s ability to hear and concentrate.


“I know live transcription is now available for example through Teams and Zoom and this is a critical move to aid communication for people who are deaf, have tinnitus or hearing loss. If you don’t know how to make your internal communication accessible, I encourage you to ask your employees with hearing loss to determine what their needs are, or to check out organisations such as the charity Action On Hearing Loss for advice and guidance.”

Amy’s story

Amy Grace is Group Communications Manager at Globeducate. Here she explains how her working life is impacted by her hearing challenges, and the steps she has taken to improve her working experience.

Tell us a bit about your hearing challenges, what does it mean for you on a day-to-day basis?

My main hearing challenge is still under investigation actually but I have suffered for a while and physically it manifests itself as a constant echo in my right ear, some hearing loss and slightly slower auditory comprehension. So, although I can hear the sound of the voice, it takes me slightly longer to process what is being said. Actually talking isn’t all that comfortable for me although I do it all the time!

Day to day it means that I generally prefer to communicate by email than on calls – for most people that’s really convenient, but there are still those who prefer to pick up the phone or switch Zoom on. With my role being global as well, I am regularly communicating with people from 10 different countries and although English is the official corporate language, listening to people speaking English with foreign accents can cause me to process what I´m hearing a little more slowly or prompt me to have to ask people to repeat what they´ve said. Sometimes this makes me feel really bad because I feel that the person on the end of the phone might assume it´s their fault! Mostly this is a problem for me if there is any online training and lengthy calls/presentations.

As someone who leads in comms, what impact has it had?

I still feel uncomfortable admitting to having a problem, especially because it has no official name. It hasn´t held me back because I find ways to get around it but I would say it does impair my comfort and ease at making presentations and doing online conferences and training if there is a lot of talking involved.

How have you adapted to virtual ways of working?

I have been working virtually for a while now before Covid-19 started. I prefer it to working in an office in terms of calls and zoom conferences because I need a really quiet background, but since my son has been at home since March, doing online lessons right behind me, that has added a new layer of challenge!

I usually have to have an earphone in one ear and have to have the volume really high, which isn´t that comfortable!

Have you used any tools/ tech to support this shift?

Mainly earphones at the moment but I am looking into new technology and am interested to find out more about what might be available. The company I work for is really open to suggestions and so as Communications is my role, I am looking into ways to make everything more accessible for others as well.

How have you managed others who perhaps don’t know you have trouble hearing?

Managing others hasn´t been an issue – I work with a team of colleagues, Marketing Managers and Marketing and Admissions Directors, and IT and Systems mainly, and a lot of teachers too as part of my role is managing a global project across our group of international schools. I have never really had to tell anyone that I struggle. I will automatically suggest emails or normal phone calls as I find those easier than video conferencing. You might think that the face gives extra cues and clues for meaning but actually the delay and glitching you sometimes get makes it worse than a normal phone call!

What advice would you give to others in the same position?

I would say that if you have something – anything – that adds an extra challenge to your job on a day to day basis, try to be honest with those you feel comfortable talking to and together find the best ways to work around it. I have always been exceptionally good at building rapport through emails and my best tip is to find the way others prefer to work and see how you can match your needs to this – and be honest when something might pose a problem.

What do you see as the role of comms on this topic?

I think that Comms plays a vital role because it is our job to create channels of communication not only for distributing information and bringing teams and individuals together but also, we have to find the best way for each person to feel competent and valued. Comms teams will often have the most touchpoints in a company and so I think it´s fair to say that, combined with HR, we have to lead by example and ensure that everyone is enabled and empowered to make the best contribution they can.

I am only commenting on hearing limitations but I think that with virtual working, companies have a responsibility to make sure that those with any impairments are equipped with the tools that help them do their work.

Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach by companies. It shouldn´t be a case of “We supply x type of equipment”; within budgets agreed, there should be scope to provide all employees with the best equipment to help them do their work with ease. Perhaps Finance and IT departments need to be fully on board with this in the future and be working with Communications Teams to find the best ways forward.

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