Still from The Brady Bunch showing each family member in a square, creating nine squares on a grid. The middle grid has been replaced by a photo of some trees.
Still from TV Show 'The Brady Bunch,' with a photograph from Mark Pickthall in the centre.

Softer edges of online-ness

Now that online meetings and remote working are the norm, Sarah Pickthall argues for a softer approach that builds access solutions in from the start.

Moving too quickly goes against every grain of my being and what I know about the importance of thinking things through. For creating space for ideas to breathe and for plans to emerge and for both to become stronger for it.

Here’s some reflections on how we might create and sustain some softer edges for living so much more of our working lives online.

I began the process of writing this blog by totting up the time I had spent online since the pandemic hit home. In just eight working weeks – in lectures, webinars, workshops, coaching, mentoring either delivering or consuming – I have notched up over 150 hours to date. Yet for each meeting, I was able to clearly remember how I felt each and every time I pressed the ‘Leave the meeting’ button. There have been a few sighs of satisfaction but for the majority: overwhelming waves of relief.

I’m not alone. I’ve seen so many postings from colleagues with and without impairments across social media, frazzled by the way that meetings are curated, moderated, and continued when they should have been kept to time (and not by access streams faltering or breaking, though this is of course important).

There are some really dexterous resources to tap into with advice on how to meet access requirements, like great blogs from Drake Music and Limping Chicken with online meetings with a D/deaf perspective. But what else can we all do to create the ease we need now for all our virtual meet-ups?

The multitude of pressures we face online are different in a way that we can’t quite yet put our fingers on, other than knowing that we might feel deflated when a meeting hasn’t been held well or has gone on too long. I for one have found myself feeling frustrated and hurt if I’ve been misread, or not let in, or my question has been left sulking in the Q&A box.  So what can we do?

Why not:

  • draw up protocols at the top of each and every meeting around turn taking and taking our time for clarity and access?
  • programme regular breaks as best practice and keep to them?
  • be honest with colleagues about what is working in meetings and what isn’t, reviewing online meetings regularly, unpicking difficulties together?
  • acknowledge that people are experiencing things online very differently and that this may vary from day to day?
  • avoid reading too much into people’s behaviour online – it may not convey how people are actually feeling? If things continue to feel difficult, pick up the phone and have a conversation.

There is an important issue to as to how we reveal ourselves online too. As someone living with chronic pain, does it matter that I am lying down in bed or on the sofa from time to time?

I don’t think so. It makes me no less professional if I’m reclining. It is the only way I can be the best I can be from one moment to the next.  Other people’s surprise and bias might make us all feel otherwise, of course. But we have the potential to really challenge the culture of reclining and rest in our very own ‘relaxed performance,’ positioning it as a fundamental right for all as we spend more time online.

Why not:

  • manage and model our physical states without apology – that goes for everyone – stretching and reclining when we need to?
  • have cushions and sofas to fall back into and rest on during calls and in breaks?
  • use hydrating beverages to sustain us as well as our caffeine hits?
  • have snacks at the ready to graze on, the good and the bad?
  • encourage people to look down from the screen when their eyes get tired?
  • mute our mics to ensure people can concentrate on what is being said, or allow the moderator to do this for all?
  • explore how meetings might be recorded for catch up and access?
  • take some time to wind down and look after yourself after the meeting is over?

To add to this, if we want to be seen, heard, and understood, make sure you spend some time curating your space so your face can be seen.

If you’re using a virtual screen behind you:

  • check that this isn’t too distracting and get friends to help you curate ‘the perfect view.’
  • have a few different views and ask if they’re working for people.
  • tidy up your space and have minimal clutter for optimal virtual working. It will make you feel better!

In board meetings with Access All Areas theatre company, we’ve been designing great holding pages as people arrive at online meetings, to ease the way for accessible meetings online.  This has proved to be a winning feature which we follow up with reminders for people to go easy, take turns, and refrain from jargon.

Meetings may still all be about furlough and funding and fear for the future but making our meetings enjoyable and reflecting and checking-in to how we all might be feeling is part of our online company culture moving forward.

And what of ease in our performances and art works online? Disabled and Deaf artists and their projects are champions at challenging restriction and barriers. This includes making powerful creative access streams that level up and leave a lasting impression, creating online ease for all.

The recent GIFT Festival in Gateshead took its programme online. I watched Sophie Wooley’s Augmented on the afternoon of Saturday 2 May. The play’s beautiful, integrated creative captioning design was a compelling ethereal part of its streaming, accompanied by its audio description and captioning stream options as standard.

Unlimited, in its encouragement for artistic commissions to consider access streams, has not just proven the business case for integrated accessibility, but also softened the edges of our viewing and created embedded access solutions that are bold and exciting.

So, what steps are you taking to soften the virtual strides, allow space and time to breathe, and build better spaces for us to meet and make together?

It is with our partners and allies that we can shape virtual spaces together. If we don’t, we won’t just be discriminating but disenfranchising everyone. Let’s make being in this together be about making it work for all.

Sarah is a Consultant, Coach, Digital producer and ‘digital includer.’  She’s also on the Transition Advisory  Board for Unlimited and has previously Chaired our panels. @sarahpickthall.