Discussing the best ways to communicate is crucial to a team’s success.
Somebody broke the office. No need to point fingers, it was just the perfect storm. Recent news shows open workspace plans are killing productivity. Then there’s technology, which Americans begged to have available 24/8. Sadly, research shows it is now decimating people’s ability to focus and communicate. As if that’s not enough, there are still significant challenges to honoring the diversity of thought and culture in the workplace. Office culture issues are complex. Searching for the answer is basically the equivalent of asking leaders: So how do we make the office more human? For a lot of institutions, there is a process to change—and for a lot of real people, that change can’t come soon enough.
As a writer on disability, I get a unique perspective on office culture from professionals who have both visible and invisible disabilities. In general, people with disabilities can be some of the most creative, flexible, empathetic co-workers. They’ve spent a lot of time learning to manage challenges and misperceptions and their experience is valuable. Here is some of their advice on bettering the work environment for everyone:
1. Remember That Honesty Rules—And Can Be Contagious.
For decades, work hasn’t been a place most people get personal. We expect people to leave their issues at home. Some people have the option of not bringing their whole selves to work and leaving their challenges behind. They have visible disabilities. “In some instances, early on in my career, I felt that employers weren’t looking at me, my Ivy League degree or my work experience when I walk into an office, they seemed to see my limp first,” says Steve McEvoy, a disability employment specialist who writes about disability on LinkedIn and lives in Brooklyn, New York. McEvoy is living with mild cerebral palsy and says his approach to changing office culture is fairly simple: To overcome people’s initial reactions, he suggests being as honest, open and approachable as possible. “That way people can connect with me and see me for the person that I am,” he says. Experts say this has the power to create feelings of acceptance that travel far beyond a single employee in the organization.
2. Discuss Your Team’s Work Styles In Depth.
People with learning disabilities (that’s 1 in 5 people in this country) are often described as highly-creative, intelligent, unique, creative, passionate thinkers. They can also have quirky or unusual work styles. That difference tends to affect co-workers in ways that go unspoken. From my own experience and others, it seems the unspoken issue becomes the unsolved issue. “When a problem is clearly explained and solved as a group, particularly when it comes to working style, it can boost morale and efficiency,” says Tiffany Sunday, TedX speaker and author of Dyslexia’s Competitive Edge and ou Posted What!?.
Take the case of a 20-something marketing associate in New York City. Several years ago, she was told that she was not paying attention during meetings because she was tapping her fingers during a training session. She addressed the issue by asking if she could bring something to fidget with to the next session, and assured the presenter that by fidgeting, she was actually much better able to focus. In her case, she told me, she felt good about confronting the problem head-on. She says she’s learned to open meetings with colleagues she hasn’t met yet by explaining how she works best—with lots of feedback, with meeting recaps, and face-to-face communication. The team then talks briefly about the work process, planning and how they work best. No formal work accommodation needed.
3. Don’t Underestimate The Value of Being A Supportive Co-Worker.
Researchers found that on average, employees with depression took more days off work if their managers avoided talking with them about depression. The greater the prevalence of managers actively offering help to employees with depression, according to the study, the higher the days they came to work. This is particularly true if you can relate personally to a co-worker’s challenges. One new study by Michigan State University and Texas Christian University research shows that the more support women receive from their colleagues, the better they do with breastfeeding. In fact, the study found that female coworkers practical help and encouragement had a stronger effect than the support of family and friends.
4. Encourage Diverse Thinking Every Day.
“If you say you are going to be a diverse company you need to be truly diverse. It is an epic journey. We are in it together and stronger together,” says Brian Schulman, Founder & CEO of Voice Your Vibe,who lives by the motto Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe. “There is really no higher honor than to mentor people. The reality is we don’t make progress by ourselves, especially if we are living with a disability,” says Brian, who grew up with a neurological disorder that caused him to have uncontrollable twitches and tics. While he has outgrown most of his challenges, he says, “it’s a rite of passage to send the ladder down and help people like yourself. If you know what it’s like to be bullied or teased or not seen for who you are, be an encourager and a source of support.” He’s been called everything from the Central Nervous System of Networking to the King of Community, on LinkedIn.
These suggestions may feel difficult, but that’s exactly the point. As times change, the office does, too. The bottom line: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and communicating more in person, because surprisingly, it’s the quickest way to make everyone more productive.
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