Who: Das & colleagues
Journal: Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction
Title: Towards Accessible Remote Work: Understanding Work-from-Home Practices of Neurodivergent Professionals
Full paper: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3449282
Working from Home
This paper wanted to look into how neurodivergent people, including autistic people, engaged with remote working
“getting any work done during a pandemic is by itself commendable.”
Disabled people have been advocating for remote working for a long time. The covid-19 pandemic, which saw a large proportion of the workforce moving to remote working, proved the feasibility of this.
However, there are other things to consider, like the various sensory & cognitive stressors which come with remote communication technologies, like video calls.
We can look to neurodivergent professionals to lead the way in best practices for creating accessible & inclusive remote workspaces.
This is a qualitative study.
Participants were 36 neurodivergent professionals from the United States who worked from home during the pandemic.
There were 14 women and 22 men.
14 were aged 25-34, and 10 were 35-44.
27 were white, 2 were Black, 4 were Asian, 1 was Hispanic, and 2 were mixed-race.
All participants were neurodivergent, with at least one diagnosis of the following;
ADHD, autism, learning disability, psychosocial disability, sensory processing disorder, traumatic brain injury, dyslexia, anxiety, depression, seizures, chronic pain
They found that while remote working has important advantages, neurodivergent professionals had to perform additional cognitive & emotional labour in order to make remote working accessible for them
Creating Accessible Physical & Digital Workspaces
Configuring Home Environments for Work:
Many found that they had an easier time controlling sensory stimuli & distractions while working from home, and appreciated not having other people in their workspaces. However, those who did not have space for a home office, or who had family in their homes, found remote working difficult. They also found it hard having their non-work interests in their presence while trying to work.
“It’s hard for me to get anything done in that open environment, because there’s just too much going on, too many distractions, too many conversations that I can hear quite clearly.”
“Anybody that looks at what I’m doing thinks that I’m slacking, but I’m just processing in a different way… I’m constantly flipping between windows. I’ll be writing an email, but then I’ll be kind of on Twitter and then somebody that has this narrowly focused, this one thing, they look at me and is like, ‘what the hell is he doing?’ And so the office has never been a place that I felt productive.”
“[Remote working] is less draining than when you’re in a room sort of elbow to elbow with a bunch of other people, then distracted by the flip of the paper over here or the smell of this guy’s lunch on the other side of the room and that sort of thing.”
“If you are sharing an apartment like most young professionals are, and then you have a desk in your bedroom, how do you relax in the same place that you’re working?… And so all of the rules for good mental health, good sleep are broken when you’re captive to the space that you have… This is not sustainable. And it’s impacting my productivity. It’s impacting my mental health.”
Dealing with Distraction in Virtual Workplace:
People found that their feelings of being in control of their workspace were made more complicated by their virtual workspaces (e.g. Zoom, Teams, Meet). They found themselves easily distracted during work meetings, they struggled with background noise when others don’t mute their microphones, and that seeing other peoples houses, pets, children, and family members could be distracting.
“I think it’s basically brightness and motion. Anything that has a lot of really active colours or book titles that I can read, those kinds of things can be just excessive details that my brain, especially in a moment of boredom is going to be really excited to be engaging instead of what’s coming out of their mouths.”
They also struggled with virtual backgrounds.
“People kind of think that they’re being clever when they’re doing it, and it’s just like the louder they have animation, the more noise and motion that’s happening behind you, the less I’m likely to be looking at you as you talk.”
“Inevitably part of a person’s arm disappears or part of their neck is missing or something, that’s very distracting to me. ’Cause I’m wondering just a whole slew of things around the algorithm and what their actual environment looks like and why, so why is that happening?”
There were other distractions associated with remote working too.
“The notifications in the bottom corner are very distracting and I haven’t figured out how to turn those off… I will sometimes lose focus on what I’m working on to try to X out, close out all of those notifications.”
“I’m absolutely struggling with how do I maintain control over, when I get these notifications that popping up in my face, which ones do I need to be distracted on versus which ones do I just let pile up?”
“I started to put a post-it over where the notifications are. But then you also have this sound issue.”
Developing Strategies for Maintaining Attention:
They had a variety of strategies to support themselves with distraction. Some preferred their videos on, some preferred them off, and some kept them on but covered their own image with a post-it or kept the screen minimised.
“I find if I don’t turn my video on, I get distracted. I could put the meeting up in one corner, and I can look at email. I could do all sorts of things… So yeah, the biggest key to me paying attention would be literally turning on my video.”
“I think turning on the camera is stressful when I’m seeing all these faces in the camera and what I do is that I usually minimize that screenshot so I can focus on what’s on my screen.”
“[I use a virtual background because] my closet is open. It’s got stuff on the shelf, and the camera happens to point directly at [that]… That’s probably my primary reason for using this background, that is actually to allow me not to see the mess.”
Several people suggested that having the ability to control other peoples backgrounds or audio would be useful.
“If somebody’s background is distracting you, would there be a way for that person to keep the background, but you change what you see in their background to just solid black or solid whatever colour you choose?”
Many said that they did not feel comfortable asking the presenter to repeat a point if they got distracted.
“It would be really great if we had an icon like we have the hands up or the applause buttons that said, ‘where are we now?’… It could be like ‘need a recap’… because I really lost attention.”
Negotiating Accessible Communication & Meeting Practices
Keeping Video On to Support Nonverbal Communication:
Many participants found video calls really difficult, for a number of reasons.
“I think it’s harder to read someone’s mood over Zoom. It might be because you can’t see someone’s full body… I speculate that most people would struggle with this, but it just made me extra aware of the ways in which I’m less able to use social cues as a result of remote work.”
“If someone doesn’t have their camera on, I’m like, ‘well, hang on.’ The clues I’m used to using to ensure that this meeting goes well, that I care about, especially because of my autism, I wanted to make sure it goes well. You’re not there. So that’s frustrating.”
“When we have meetings with just us, with my regular office, everybody will make sure that they are on the camera because of me, because they already know, they are more than aware of what my disability is and what I need and everything.”
However, they also found managing their own needs with the needs of others difficult.
“If I’m the only person with video on of 20 people, I eventually feel guilty about 20 minutes and I’ll shut mine off.”
“I don’t wanna put somebody in a situation, ’cause I don’t know what their own issues maybe, why they’re not on the camera… Because not everybody is comfortable with their disability or talking about it.”
“[There is] a certain amount of peer pressure around video.”
Managing Challenges in Turn Taking:
Due to limited social cues over video, participants found managing turn taking difficult. Some utilised the “raise hand” button to indicate they wanted space to speak.
“When asking questions and trying to find a place to give a question, I might use nonverbal communication to signify that to the presenter [in person]. But now there isn’t that. . . And also when I’m in the meeting, there’s a pressure when and when not to ask questions and it seems a little bit less clear in the [remote] meetings versus in person.”
They found there was more interrupting of one another due to video lag.
“[Interruption] frustrates the hell out of me, when three people jump in at the same time and then there’s that chatter back and forth like ‘go ahead’, ‘No, you go ahead’, ‘OK, well’, and then they go. And then they all start talking again.”
“If people were talking at the same time, I was not listening. I couldn’t process that. I think that’s probably a struggle for people sometimes even who are not autistic… but I think it’s just kind of multiplied for people on the spectrum.”
“When I get very stressed out, sometimes I can’t speak right away. I need some time to – if I’m overwhelmed – to think about what I want to say and I need people to not be pressuring me or talking over me. So people are not used to giving that quiet time for people to think through. And so, I had an experience once with a boss who didn’t understand autism and I was on a call with a client. The call was very stressful and I just needed some moments to collect my thoughts and my boss was in the background doing these hand motions like ‘hurry up and talk.’ And so that made it so much worse that I couldn’t function.”
Adapting to Complexities of Multimodal Communication:
Participants had come up with their own ways to communicate effectively across the different mediums.
“My speech is not always 100% fluent, and that’s definitely a bigger problem remotely than in person… And sometimes it’s just a little faster and easier for me to get words into typing them than speaking… particularly if it’s a call with more than one person, I’ll ask if I can use the chat to type instead of talking.”
“[I use the chat because] you have the ability to kind of structure your thoughts and map them out a little bit easier than sometimes when you’re kind of put on the spot, it can be hard to organize your thoughts.”
“It would be nice if there was a way that the captioning went with the person, and not just doing it as it’s part of the group…. Because sometimes you see the thing (caption), but it’s like, who the hell said that? But if they caption it with [mentioning] whoever was saying it, then who actually said what and who was talking [would be clear].”
“[I use dictation software to write.] It’s not that I prefer, it’s something that I need. Because of my learning disability, I really do need to be able to use something where I can dictate in order to write for me, ’cause if I write on my own, technically, I’m really writing almost like a Seventh grade level.”
“If it takes me 5 minutes [to] put together whatever I wanted to ask, I missed 5 minutes of the meeting. So even if it (text read-aloud feature) was in there (video conferencing tool), I’m not sure which is more important for me, to listen or to ask the question.”
“It’s difficult for me, someone with ADHD, to focus on what’s on the screen and then have [a] chain of conversation going on the right [in chat bar]. I sometimes just leave it closed, because if I’m reading or trying to respond to anything that’s going on in the chat, I am not going to see what’s going on in the screen.”
Advocating for Sharing Materials in Advance and Post-Meeting:
Many stated that they advocated for and benefitted from receiving materials in advance of meetings.
“If I don’t have any information about what the meeting’s about and they want some feedback on their product, it takes a lot of energy for me to look over the product and then also listen to what’s going on in the meeting.”
“Not just having agenda but having someone in the meeting who is doing the work of keeping the meeting to that agenda is important too.”
“I cannot keep up with the chat window at all. That’s why, after the meeting that there’s something I need to read there, I can read it at my own pace, where I’m not trying to read real time and answer to somebody real time.”
“A meeting that would take an hour in person, ’cause I’d get most of what was happening, I now spend an extra half hour to an hour going over the meeting a second time to get stuff that I couldn’t catch the first time, which is really hard.”
“Everything just needs to be shorter, more to the point, ’cause listening to a meeting recording where it’s like, you have to listen all the front matter and all the pauses, that’s awful, that’s painful too.”
Reconciling Tensions between Productivity and Wellbeing
Balancing Scheduling Demands with Fatigue:
Participants found that not only are they more productive when working from home, but that they could also minimise anxiety-inducing situations.
“[In the office, if I needed a nap, I had to] pretend that I was not tired, probably fall asleep in a meeting or go find a place to hide and really not get anything done, because you’re spending all this energy pretending that everything is OK, when it’s not.”
“[I can] take a nap, and then come back and get some work done and be productive for the rest of the day.”
“My productivity has skyrocketed! Before, my day was just about surviving the day… I lost so much in the travel time… I’d need a day of just to recover from that. And so doing everything from home without having to have all that recovery time from that intense anxiety has just opened everything up for me. I’m getting more focused.”
They struggled with an increased number of meetings which aimed to compensate for the lack of impromptu water-cooler conversations and “walk-bys” that used to happen in office environments. They felt that these were pointless and could have been a message or an email, and that they prevented them from getting into a good headspace for working.
“People think like ohh, we’re like machines. So we can just seamlessly switch right in. Particularly as a person with ADHD, I cannot do that. It takes me time to warm up and I have to get in the headspace to do productive work… How am I supposed to do data science in one two-hour block and then an hour block?”
“I even look at my supervisor’s calendar basically trying to figure out the hidden rules… I’m tired of making all these predictions.”
“Before COVID, you couldn’t have a meeting that stopped at 4:58 and [another] start at 5… you can stop by the bathroom or see a colleague or just stare at something that isn’t a screen… I guess it feels more draining with remote meetings… because you don’t have these built-in pauses that came with interacting in a natural, physical environment.”
“[I] try to be careful about how many things I schedule in one day and how close together.”
“Most people I work with know I’m autistic and so, it’s not like this is some big shock when I tell them, ‘I have some sensory issues with video calls sometimes and I might just step out and then step back and don’t wait for me.’”
“The biggest challenge for me has been, everybody else’s expectations and time management shifted so much that now I’m having trouble kind of keeping my work up to date… because I already have trouble with prioritization and time blindness, and things like that. So, since the COVID thing started… I definitely have taken a huge kind of hit to my ability to manage things and it’s been much more challenging for me.”
Discussing Accommodations and Mental Health alongside Productivity Expectations:
They found that the pandemic meant there was more of a push towards mental health support. They found that their neurotypical colleagues became more open about their mental wellbeing, and they felt a “shared sense of struggle”.
“Now it’s more acceptable to say, ‘Do you feel good today? You’re happy with what you’re doing?’ where before I don’t think that that was on the upper end of the priority stack… It’s become more than just a nice-to-have… but I hope it doesn’t go away… if and when we go back to that, it just be like, ‘Oh well, yeah, that was nice, but we just did that during that time of struggle.’”
“It has really enabled me to be more upfront with people about what I find challenging. Obviously I’ve had the same challenges my entire life, so it’s not like my challenges are a new thing, right? But more so in the last few months, I’ve been able to openly articulate things that I find challenging with the work environment, and I think it’s just because we’re all in the same boat to a degree and people are more understanding of the multitasking, constant interruption, distraction kind of thing.”
“I said, ‘Look, one of the things that I find really hard is transitioning between de-focusing and then coming into something like this. So if I’m vague and confused for the first few minutes of this meeting, just be aware that I’m still transitioning from something.’”
Others were still hesitant to share;
“I don’t wanna come in and say like, ‘Hey, by the way, my mental health is really having a hard time.’… I don’t know if there would be a backlash – conscious or not – but I do feel like I need to push myself a little bit to perform well as I start out. Otherwise I do feel like it could negatively impact my career.”
“It’s harder to find people to talk to about what kind of stress that I’m experiencing, because people may not understand autism or they think I’m already doing a lot better than they are, especially those who have family responsibilities like childcare centers are closed.”
Those in managerial positions found the power dynamic difficult.
“Not only do I have to do my job, but I also have to be somewhat of a therapist at times and say, ‘It’s okay if you need to take a mental health day. How can I best support you?’ So, it’s trying to implement supports for your team while trying to maintain productivity and keep metrics the same.”
Others found there was a tension between mental health support & their managers desire for productivity.
“It just feels like there’s a disconnect between what they (managers) say and then what the next sentence they say.”
“The deadlines don’t stop, and if anything, things are ramping up… So, there’s definitely this dual messaging of like… ‘Well, take care of yourself. Be good to yourself,’ but there’s really not a lot of like, ‘Well, we can push this back’… So the business is going, stronger in some cases. So there’s not many opportunities to slow down.”
“I think I’m going to prioritize my own mental health before I prioritize any sort of productivity… getting any work done during a pandemic is by itself commendable.”
“It’s almost not fair to call it productivity, because I’m acting as if I’m supposed to be doing what I would have done last summer, and I’m not supposed to do what I did last summer. Because this summer I lived through a pandemic… your health, other people’s health, your productivity, keeping your job— I’ve never had a summer where I’ve had to think about all of that. So, it’s not apples and apples… the demand is so much higher, but we still feel like we’re supposed to produce the same.”
Allow Customization of Global and Local Notification Settings.
Support Refocusing after Periods of Distraction.
Integrate Access Technologies into Virtual Collaboration Tools.