While most people spend the time before their work Zoom meetings fussing about lighting, their trendy button-up, or the business books carefully stacked behind them, Cara Pelletier is thinking about something totally different.
"I'm anxious before I even turn on the camera," she admits. "I'm thinking about 50 things at the same time and trying to focus, to think about what I need to do on the call."
Cara is director of diversity, equity, and belonging at human resources software company Ultimate Software. She also happens to be autistic. Recently diagnosed, Pelletier says autism offered an explanation for her social and communications struggles over the years--struggles to make small talk, to connect emotionally, to process one thing at a time.
These challenges have been ever-present at work, and though co-workers are unfailingly kind and supportive, she says the anxiety around her condition seldom ebbs.
Enter remote work--a trend that has become increasingly popular during the pandemic and, for Cara, a dreaded must. She worries about her nervous tics appearing on camera, about focusing on the right person, about really getting the emotional subtext of her co-workers' conversations.
Plus, she hates chitchat--it's anxiety-inducing in person and even more so on a Zoom call when it's hard to know whose turn it is to speak. What's more, she not infrequently ends up talking over someone--not to be dismissive, certainly, but because there's just no cue that directs conversational traffic.
Cara is certainly not alone. What we don't realize is how many people in the U.S. deal daily with the effects of autism. While CDC numbers tell us 1 in 54 children is born autistic, it isn't clear that that figure accounts for less severe cases. Also, the CDC notes an alarming increase in the condition; autism diagnoses doubled between 2000 and 2010--a number likely to be repeated come the end of 2020.
This doesn't even factor in other conditions that make communication a challenge, like Asperger's syndrome and Tourette's syndrome.
In short: There's a significant percentage of employed America struggling to make remote work a productive, stress-free daily routine.
Fortunately, however, there are things managers and leaders can do to ease the anxiety endured by those who struggle with the social and communication aspects of videoconferencing.
Those happy hours everyone seems to enjoy? Cara suggests to make them clearly optional, not mandatory, and to pick a day of the week when all of your remote meetings can be held without video. Audio only.
Also, she says, avoid meetings with lots of people if possible -- it makes focusing on the speaker and the topic at hand a challenge. And send out an agenda before the meeting so everyone knows what will be covered. Preparation like this helps ease the anxiety of those who deal with autism--and, really, keeps us all on point.
Lastly, Cara says, identify a signal so individuals in the meeting know when it's their turn to talk. This avoids people talking over others and the general confusion that often ensues.
Oh, and one more thing, she notes:
As someone whose career is wrapped up in the safety, well-being, and flourishing of employees of all abilities, Cara encourages leaders to take their newfound awareness of differently abled employees with them into the office. Start having conversations about what inclusion, accessibility, and diversity mean. This is how truly welcoming workplaces are formed, she affirms--not through contrived HR initiatives.