How to create an accessible online workplace

Tips from leading experts on how Covid-19 has changed how we work, based on a session on inclusive workplaces at TechShare Pro 2020.

Our panellists were Lucy Ruck, Business Disability Forum; Michael Vermeersch, Digital Inclusion lead at Microsoft; Sara John, NatWest, Neil Eustice, KPMG and Darren Rowan from Eli Lilly. 

How do you create an inclusive workplace?  Watch the recording of our free webinar from September 2021, at 1 pm

How has Covid-19 changed the way we work?

Experts agree that Covid-19 has dramatically changed how we work.

“Business has had to become more flexible allowing those who can, to work from home,” said Luck Ruck, BDF’s Technology Taskforce Manager. “It has been a big shift for everyone, but potentially more so for our disabled colleagues."

“The enforced working from home, brought a sharper focus,” agrees Neil Eustice, Diversity and Knowledge Manager for KPMG UK.

Microsoft’s Michael Vermeersch says Covid-19 speeded development. “We saw an acceleration in the delivery of technology into our products to ensure everyone can work from home and collaborate virtually much better.”

So how can we ensure new ways of working are inclusive? 

Experts tips for inclusive online meetings

There is a range of accessibility features that can make working from home more inclusive for everyone.

Our panellists shared tips on the technology they have found helpful and how to make meetings more accessible.

1. Take advantage of built-in accessibility features

Platforms such as Microsoft Teams have accessibility features built-in, and time getting to know them is time well-spent. 

For example, Teams has a ‘raise hands’ feature that means it’s easier to tell when a meeting participant wants to speak up. 

Microsoft Teams also includes a Closed Captions (cc) feature that will display subtitles of what speakers say on-screen; useful for people with hearing impairments.

Ofcom found that 7.5 million people in the UK (18% of the population) use closed captions (Jan 2020) but of those, only 1.5 million were deaf or hard of hearing. 

2. Be aware of the diversity of user’s needs

Illustration of a laptop with people arranged across it in a tiled effectThere isn’t a one size fits all. Take video-conferencing and online meetings as an example. Some people may prefer to see everyone’s face on the screen. 

However, you may have people with visual impairments involved in the meeting who will need to move closer to the screen to see the faces and, in doing so, they are no longer fully visible on the screen. 

“All they can see is the top of my head about her right ear or something,” said Rowan. "There's no benefit for me, but I understand it because I live in a largely visual world.”

Offering choice is key. There may be another reason people can’t feature onscreen, for instance, if they experience poor broadband. 

3. Understand the impact of different communication channels

Image shows a blank speech bubble on a bright backgroundBe aware of how different ways of communicating impact participants. 

Teams has a chat function, which means people can have a conversation there while a meeting is running. It can act as a great enabler for those who are less comfortable speaking up verbally.

But it also makes for a busy meeting. 

Screen Reader users hear what’s going on in the meeting and the chatter from what’s being typed, making it hard to follow everything. 

“I don't want to get rid of that,” says Rowan, who is a Screen Reader user. “I know chat is an element that is really useful to talk about certain things. It's making sure that it's managed in the right context for the discussions,” he added. 

An alternative to having the chat function turned on is to have someone responsible for keeping an eye on the chat and flagging significant items with the meeting chair. 

4. Watch out for meeting overload

Image shows an old-style analogue alarm clock with bells - it sits on a two-tone backdropOnline meetings can mean we’re ping-ponging from one meeting to another, often without a break. 

There are many ways to manage meeting overload. 

Think about the timing of meetings. Not every meeting needs to last for an hour; starting at ten past and/or ten to the hour allows time for a comfort break.

There may be a flip side to shorter meetings, though. 

“People who need more thinking and processing time are going to get lost in your meeting,” says Eustice.

Ask whether a meeting is the only option, as NatWest’s John said: “[If] everyone's on meetings all day, it isn't great from a mental health point of view."

"We're trying to encourage people to consider ‘do you need a meeting to answer this? Can I send an email, can I do it use a different part of technology to contact somebody?”. 

Vermeersch points out that technology can form part of the solution. Teams enable users to schedule ‘focus time’ using MyAnalytics and change your presence to focusing so that all notifications are silenced.

5. Use etiquette as well as technology

Don’t rely on tech alone for the smooth running of meetings; create guidelines as well.

A good starting point, says John, is to ask people about their needs before the meeting begins. 

“Ask before the meeting, what needs people have for that meeting and address them before it starts,” says John. “Advise people of the different ways that they can join, and contribute,” she adds. 

Eustice agrees, saying it’s important to plan. “Ask people long before the meeting, if you can, because some adjustments take time to prepare."

He added, If you can’t use cloud-based closed captions and need to hire someone to type your captions instead, you’ll need to have them ready to sit in on your meeting,” he said. 

“Moderating online meetings is a sill,” said Rowan.

“One of the ideas we're exploring is having a template that we start with, one slide that gets people in that mode of thinking inclusively,” he added. 

6. Encouraging work-life balance

For many of us, our home is now also our office. It’s important to maintain boundaries. Leaders need to think holistically, says Vermeersch.

“We should be kind to each other and understand that there’s no benchmark for what we are experiencing. Statistically, disabled people generally feel like they, they need to be grateful to have a job and tend to over-perform.”

7. Reasonable adjustments for the home workplace

It’s essential to ensure that people have what they need to adapt a home office and make any reasonable adjustments they need.

“The days are sedentary, and we are sitting still for longer,” said Vermeersch.

“We mustn't forget that that at work, you might have certain adjustments already, like bigger screens and all of that kind of stuff,” he said. “I bought myself a gaming chair because I only have one spine, and I need to treat it well.” 

8. Record meetings for people to review later

You can record sessions so that people can watch them if they’re unable to attend. The functionality is available in Teams and Zoom. 

It’s important to let people know that they are being recorded.

Teams offers automatic transcribing so you can read a transcript as an overview of the meeting if you don’t want to watch it all again. 

9. Accessible content for meetings

Make sure that any content you share during, before or after the meeting is accessible. Microsoft offers an accessibility checker that will check for whether images are tagged with Alt Text. 

“We introduced the accessibility check,” says John. “It prompted people to add Alt Text and to check their colour contrast, that the reading order in PowerPoint is correct.”

Send people documents before the meeting so that they have time to prepare; this will also flag up any problems with the accessibility of these documents.  

10. Match document form to purpose

There may be a temptation to use PowerPoint as the default for meetings, but it won’t suit everyone. Ask if it could be more accessible in Word. It’s still possible to add pictures and to include Alt Text within them.

How AbilityNet can help

AbilityNet is a UK-wide charity that offers individuals support at home, at work and in education.