When Teams can feel lonely


What is it like to run a workshop online as a deaf facilitator who has never quite trusted technology? Jane takes us through the experience of running a full-day online workshop with a group on Teams. 

I am all geared up to facilitate 6 hours of workshop. Checked my internet connection. Got ready to join the call. The workshop schedule and printed slides are festooned across my desk. (I know, I know – I shouldn’t destroy trees, but I know it’s going to be hard enough trying to keep up with what is said and shown, without having to abandon both by skipping to a different online page; I need all the help I can get). 

The delivery team arrives online including two lovely lipspeakers from my fabulous regular team. They relay everything that is said and, crucially, show who is speaking and how they are expressing themselves. It is always so reassuring to see their calm, positive faces appearing on the screen. I pin the first lipspeaker so their video is large and easy to lipread. Gradually participants join. I try to check off all their names, but it is difficult when the conversation is flowing quickly already as I need to follow that via the lipspeaker.

As a side note, if you work with colleagues who are hard of hearing or deaf (1 in 6 adults are), you may wonder why those colleague don’t just lipread the videos. I cannot speak for others, but I can hazard a guess. First – as a lipreader, even in the best organised meetings, you won’t know who will speak next so if you try to rely on lipreading you will always miss the first things the person says as you locate who is speaking. And often the first thing they say is important as it gives the topic or frames their point. Second, less than half English sounds are lipreadable, so a lot of guesswork would be involved, and the results are likely to be patchy to say the least. Third, many people do not annunciate clearly enough to be lipreadable. In my experience people in very senior positions who may be used to being listened to attentively, can sometimes be the least lipreadable. If your senior boss is holding forth on a call, and you are junior to them, you may not feel confident enough to ask them to speak more clearly.

I love the chat function in online calls. A legacy of being a poor student is that I had to learn to touch type in order to type my own dissertation. I can therefore type almost as fast as I can speak and I can use this to support the group. But if I type, I cannot watch what is being said. 

And we are off! I am always surprised by the pace and complexity of online sessions. There is so much happening all at once that it is hard not to feel swept away. I try to keep focused on the verbal dialogue as relayed by the lipspeaker and keep an eye on chat too. We work with a lot of people with disabilities or who have long-term health conditions or who are neurodiverse and for some of them, chat is the most accessible way to communicate.

A colleague starts to show our Powerpoint slides and da dah! the slide covers most of the screen and the lipspeaker shrinks to postage-stamp sizes so I cannot lipread them. I click on the lipspeaker video and the slide shrinks to a size where it’s impossible to read the text on it. Drat! I finger my precious printed copy nervously.

The hiatus this causes means I lose track of who is speaking. I remember that if you click on the participant list, it usually lights up with a circle around the video of whoever is speaking. So, I click on this and two things happen: first the Chat disappears rather than showing up alongside the list and second, the ‘lighting up’ doesn’t seem to be working at the moment. So I have wasted a precious 30 seconds and feel even further behind. As a coach you get good at coaching yourself, so I tell myself not to panic, take some breaths and rejoin the discussion. Just as well as I am up next as presenter. My colleague smoothly hands over to me…. 

And just at that moment, the lipspeakers swap (they co-work) and the second lipspeaker is nowhere to be seen. I try not to let this show in my voice as I present my section and try to get the slide to a visible size. It turns out that due to the size of the group (more than 15) the second lipspeaker is, by Murphy’s law, on the ‘second page’ of videos. The non-working lipspeaker switches off their video (an agreed practice to make clear which one is working) and I am staring at a large black square which is not terribly useful. At a safe moment, I nip to ‘page 2’ and locate the working lipspeaker. I can pin them both of course but this means the video is half size and on a long, fairly tiring day, the bigger the better basically!

We describe ourselves at Result as ‘confidently different’ and encourage everyone we work with to be as open as they can. So, for the next 5.5 hours, I try to practise what I preach and let the group know when I am losing access especially if they may think I am not paying attention. We know that everyone’s experience of an online call can be different, and others could be experiencing barriers of their own. I hope that they feel encouraged to make us aware of this if they wish. 

One of several frustrations about working on Teams in particular (I find other platforms a bit better) is that online working requires ‘hyper-attention’ – being super alert just to keep up, let alone contribute well. It makes doing a so-so job about three times as tiring as doing a great job in person.

Why, you may ask, don’t I just use automated captions? I will be the first to express gratitude for the recent improvements in captioning quality. As usual, it took something which affects everyone, not just D/deaf people (the pandemic) for technology to improve. People were having so many online meetings that they needed a way to take efficient notes and with the increased demand, AI-enhanced captioning got better.

Don’t get me wrong, automated captions are definitely better than nothing but there are 3 big drawbacks to the captioning on Teams. First, you don’t know who is speaking (remember, I and other D/deaf participants cannot hear speakers’ voices), second you cannot pick up the emotions of the speaker – which in our personal development work can be crucial and third, you have to watch your own speech appear on screen curiously mangled (and sometimes downright rude words!) because AI is trained on ‘normal’ voices and struggles with deaf ones – which is distracting and confusing. 

So what to do? Online group working is here to stay. Preparation offline before we start helps a lot. At Result we always try to make best use of this. And having a ‘safety net’ of what to do if everything goes pear-shaped is a good move. My job is probably unusual in that we facilitate whole and half-day events. But when you are in an online meeting with a colleague who you know is deaf or hard of hearing, having read this blog, spare a thought for them. If they seem to keep quiet, it could be that they don’t want to contribute. But it could also be because they are not being given sufficient access.

There is one failsafe way of feeling ok on an online call. It’s about being in a team, rather than on Teams. Being able to trust the people you work with means you never feel alone because you know they always have your back. I feel incredibly lucky to work with brilliant supportive colleagues at Result so even if Teams does its worst and I occasionally lose the plot, I know they have my back and I will get back on track. And feeling pressured in online calls is, of course, not unique to D/deaf people – most people experience this and we can all help each other by being open and not making assumptions.

Interested in learning more about working with D/deaf and hard of hearing colleagues? Check out our blogs on this topic or contact us for a chat about our training and consultancy work.


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