AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Diane Lightfoot – CEO of Business Disability Forum

April 08, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Diane Lightfoot , CEO of Business Disability Forum.
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Diane Lightfoot – CEO of Business Disability Forum
Show Notes Transcript

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Business Disability Forum’s 450+ members employ c.20% of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide. They range from FTSE 100 companies and central Government departments to technology and construction companies, retailers and public services bodies.

Diane is co-Chair of the Disability Charities Consortium and a member of the Disability Confident Business Leaders Group. She is a member of the Steering Group for the Global Business Disability Network, hosted by the ILO and is passionate about the role of good work in transforming people’s lives.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript. AXSCHAT Diane Lightfoot

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by one of our good friends, Dian Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum. Debra is having a few problems with her Wi-Fi today so if she does pop up great but that would explain her absence right now. Diane, it's great to have you with us. Always love the work of the BVF and I was particularly honoured to be on a panel recently where you were talking about mental health and the impact of Covid and technology and the Pandemic and I thought actually this is a conversation we need to have with a wider audience. So, can you explain a little bit about what the discussions were and what prompted you to start that conversation?

DIANE:

Sure. Well firstly hello and thank you very much for having me back. I think last time I was on Axschat it must have been the summer of 2018 because I remember it was absolutely boiling. It was that huge heat wave. So lovely to be back and yes, the conference that we are delighted to have you at Neil was on 30th of March. And we called it Time to Re set and it was about mental health and technology. And it came about really from two angles and the first really was thinking about the Pandemic and it being a digital Pandemic and the reliance on tech workers in actually transforming the way that we worked, two years ago, literally overnight. And it was a couple of months ago, maybe back in January, when we were starting to plan this event that I learned of the really, really awful horrifying news that so many more tech workers had taken their own lives during the Pandemic, presumably though we won't know for sure, as a result of the enormous pressure that there were under. And I was reflecting then, as I said at the event that technology is one of those that we totally rely on and 99% of the time when it works smoothly and beautifully, we don't even notice let alone say thank you to the people that make it happen but for the 1% when it doesn’t we risk jumping up and down and making a fuss and actually the tech workers are really, really trying to do their best and I say this as a non techie person but with a lot of techie people in my friends and family and of course work and so it made me think about mental health and support and that whole piece around psychological safety, love it or hate it as a term and who is actually supporting tech workers. And then more broadly, just the impact of technology on our mental health. And obviously, this is a tech channel. Axschat is about tech and there are loads of wonderful things that technology does, not least bringing this webchat to life but also, I was reflecting on some of the negatives and some of the downsides of that and looking at ourselves on screen all day and the effect that has on self-image and some of the stuff around social media and younger people and the rise in heavily doctored selfies and I saw fairly recently the Dove campaign around reverse selfie which is amazing but also horrifying and then just speaking to colleagues just always on culture, the fact that we can now cram so much more into our days and some of that is positive but the blurring of professional and home lives is to such an extent that it's you almost can't separate them anymore and that is not necessarily good for us. So, we were looking at the impact of burnout and where technology fits in and how he we might make sure that technology is working for us rather than the other way around.

NEIL:

Excellent. And I think we have talked on Axschat a number of times about how flexible working has been a long-term thing that the disability community has been asking for and that Covid and the transition to homeworking overnight suddenly made it clear that it was not impossible for businesses to deliver. But I don't think we really talked about the sort of the downsides or also the fact that the cultural change has an impact on the community in particular in terms of we stalk about Spoon Theory for example. You know, a lot of the disabled community have energy conservation issues, you know, me included. We do talk about about having a limited number of spoons or a limited amount of energy to do all of the stuff we need to do. And the expectation that you are going to be always on. I think again has profound implications for the long-term health and even the short-term mental health of the disability community as well. So, I think there is an awful lot to sort of unpack in the culture there. Yes, we want flexibility. But if that flexibility just means that you can be at home working all of your waking hours when are struggling with your energy levels anyway. Are we really winning?

A:

It's not effective either. I love the Spoons Theory and kind of related to that I remember reading some years ago that apparently, we make some crazy numbers of decisions a day the number 75,000 springs to mind but it might not be that but it's a huge, huge number and it was basically making the point that we have finite capacity to make decisions. So, you know that thing when you in the old days get home from work and you can't decide what to have for dinner, which is a real thing. You have run out of the ability to make decisions. And if you're still working, at the time when you have run out of the ability to make decisions surely, you're not going to be working productively well or making good decisions. I think it's not good for the business either. I think we're all caught in this cycle of guilt really and not productivity and not even presentism. But feeling that we have to do that bit more and that bit more and of course becomes a self-perpetuating thing that bleeds into everything we do and is very infectious.

NEIL:

Yeah. I think what was interesting for me was that the people that were on the panel were conscious and still exhibiting those bad behaviours ourselves.

DIANE:

Totally. I went into the office, I' m going into the office occasionally, mainly because I like it and I like seeing the few people that are there. But also, I find the days I go in are more relaxing because I have planned them that way because they can't be, it's hectic. We spent the afternoon, the three hours, doing that conference, recording it, talking about exactly this. We finished at five and I was knackered and about quarter past five I came out of my office and I said to the people who were there, only two, I said, I'm going to go home now because I'm really knackered and it was quarter past five and they said you don't have to explain why you're leaving at quarter past five. And I thought, and I am saying this after we have just spent three hours having that discussion. It's crazy.

NEIL:

I know. And my working day you know goes from before sunup to well after sundown and yes, there is some flex and sometimes you can go out in the middle of the day, and you can deliver stuff asynchronously, but the expectation is that you are always connected. And I do think that that has to stop. And there has to be some kind of leadership on this, I think you know you're seeing it in France with the Right to Disconnect. Where workers are allowed you know, effectively just go no.

ANTONIO:

That permission is after five and you need to disconnect during the working day after spending, I don't know, seven hours in meetings, which is when you need to disconnect. You need time to think, time to stop, time to breathe. You now?

NEIL:

Yes.

ANTONIO:

On top of that I have seen you know many organisations that acknowledge that kind of a Pandemic of timings, Pandemic of meetings is taking place and then okay and then we have a mental health app that is going to assist you. I don't think that is going to help, you know. After that you are going to talk with the bot. So I don't think that is going to you know, that is not going to end well.

DIANE:

No. And we, I think firstly we have to give ourselves permission because nobody can do it for us and you know, like I have just said I know I'm my own worst enemy and I paid for it yesterday. So I speak about having depression sort of fairly regularly, boringly often, you may say and yesterday actually, some of the content of Wednesday was very, very powerful and particularly the last part we heard about this amazing suicide prevention tool that a woman called Alice Hendy has developed, it's called Ripple and it's a disrupter and if people are, people have got this downloaded into their browser and they are searching for ways to end their own life or self-harm, it disrupts that with positive messages. So, the content was really, really intense and even the content that was talking about the more work life balance stuff. It's really quite profound stuff and yesterday, I was really struggling. I was really struggling and yet I felt guilty about taking any time to do that and the only person that can give me permission to do that to take some time out is me. Particularly at home because no one else is there to see it. I think we have to be brave and do it and then tell people we have done it and that we need to do it and then make it okay. Otherwise, we just get faster and faster and faster all trying to show up with our game faces and feeling like a little husk inside.

NEIL:

Yeah. I think that I look at a lot of things and that acceleration and the acceleration of expectations, the communication acceleration is almost like you're expecting an answer before you sent it. We can't get much faster and yet you have got fragmentation as well. People are frazzled, you know. And neurodivergent people are extra frazzled, if you like. But everybody is frazzled. So, I am not going to claim a special flag. But I do think that that ability to step away is missing where at the moment you know the culture that has, we have all contributed to creating is difficult to break out of that cycle but it's not delivering good quality. You know? I think that as you say, we are taking bad decisions and short-term decisions and decisions whilst tired and isolated and emotional, you know. Emotion is not a bad thing, in fact decision making but essentially all of the decisions we are taking at the moment are all decisions taken under like a sort of at least a minimum low-grade stress and probably quite a bit higher. And so, what impact does that have on the things that we deliver? The products that we make. The policies and decisions that can affect our lives and the people's lives that we serve and that our organisations serve, and would it not be better to actually step back and cogitate and Antonio is right, actually you need to take time during the day because I quite often, people laugh at me.

I have my lunch at 11 or 11:

30. Right?

DIANE:

Is that funny?

NEIL:

No, but they were surprised because also I work with a lot of Southern Europeans.

DIANE:

Okay, so that is a breakfast really.

NEIL:

Yeah. But basically, I'm up well before six. So, I'm quite often on calls for like seven so by the time it gets to 11 o’clock I have done half a working day.

DIANE:

By 11 o’clock you need a small sherry probably. Which goes quite nicely with frazzles. I do like frazzles. Though not being frazzled.

NEIL:

Yeah.

DIANE:

I think what Antonio was saying about the App and obviously that is something, yet another thing you have to do and tune into and yet another bit of kit after you have done everything else you have to do in a day and where some of this came from was I had, I was a round table. They are all round tables. When they are actually a load of square boxes on a screen at the moment, where one of our partners and it was around mental health and it was around mentally healthy workplaces and how you can have supportive conversations and how you can encourage employees to share how they are feeling and all really, really good stuff and not just well meaning but with a genuine desire to make things better. And it was as the conversation was going on I was thinking yeah, but if you have a supportive line manager that is great, and it definitely makes things better. But if your job is fundamentally too busy, too full, too much, it's still too busy, too full, too much, even if someone is nice to you about it. It doesn't actually solve the problem. It might make you feel a bit better than have somebody shout at you but it's still too much and that is when I was just thinking about all of us collectively as a society needing to be mindful and needing to slow down because if we all have expectations like you say an email is going to be answered before we sent it or that a product is going to be delivered the same day or whatever it is then we'll never ever break that cycle and we have all got to be mindful about it and I know that sounds a bit ambitious and possibly hippish but we have managed global movements before, you know? There were days, not that long by when no one took their own bags to the supermarket and now you almost sort of get publicly vilified if you don't you? But it's a total, total change. And I think as you say that thing about getting faster and faster it doesn't necessarily mean better but unless we make a conscious effort to slow it down it will just keep getting faster.

NEIL:

One of the things I have been watching is some of the companies switching to four-day weeks. Now, it does not deal with the speed of tech but at least you've got some decompression time.

DIANE:

I suppose so. As long as you're not expected to do the same amount of work in four days as you would in five.

NEIL:

I mean that is sort of, so there are two different ways of approaching this, one is compressed working week which is essentially where you do but you get more clear delineation between your personal time and your work time and so it's like you're talking about going to the office and shutting the door on it kind of thing and the other is actually yes, just expecting people to only work four days and taking the shorter time but recognising that because people are more rested they are able to be more creative, be more productive, they have got you know, they are in a more fit state to be able to produce good quality work and good you know make good decisions.

DIANE:

It's a nice idea.

NEIL:

We are not got there yet.

ANTONIO:

I think for that you need to put a KPI on the number of meetings that you are allowed to have per week. You need to limit the number of hours you're able to be on meetings on a weekly basis and people might say, oh, we are going to work slower, maybe you're not going to work slower but you need to deploy that somehow within organisations for everyone to comply with that because I think, where we are going, even if we have a four day workweek, we are going to have you know four days of meetings. So, I don't think one thing is not going to help the other either.

NEIL:

So yeah. I hear you says the man that has 60 meetings a week.

ANTONIO:

I know. I know.

NEIL:

And I am aware right, that I then spend my evenings and my early mornings trying to do the stuff that I have agreed to in those meetings to and trying to eke out that brain space. Right? Because when you're in the meetings all you're doing is taking those, is making snap decisions or sending distracted messages to people whilst pretending to concentrate or having one ear. And yet there doesn't seem to be a very well adopted or good way of managing stuff outside of meetings now. A few organisations have done it. But they tend to be smaller ones. There aren't many really, really large organisations that have managed to sort of do a synchronise communication and really reduce the meetings other than by replacing them with something that is eating up as much time because I think you know that we in ATOS have tried various things over the years like we, in 2011 we were the zero email company.

DIANE:

Wow.

NEIL:

We declared that email was you know eating up everybody's time it was really bad for productivity. So, we were going to stop doing email and that we were going to use online collaboration platforms like we are using with Teams and Yama and all of that ten years ago. The trouble is now we have got we have got WhatsApp and email; we have got Teams we have got Yama. So rather than solving the problem we have just added to that.

ANTONIO:

But Neil as you know all the mainstream collaboration tools that we have today are basically replacing a kind of email on steroids you know. Teams or Slack basically almost create that immediacy that is even stronger than email.

NEIL:

Yeah.

ANTONIO:

So that doesn't help and those tools they were mainly developed for developers not for everyone else. So maybe we need to step back and make decisions about what are the resources and the tools that you need to collaborate on a daily basis and even you were mentioning that the subject of meetings and how difficult it is to end all that narrative. But if organisations are concerned with mental health and employee wellbeing, they are spending money someplace else, okay? Just to fix all these issues. Why not fixing the problems at the source you know?

NEIL:

I agree. I think it's really, it's really tricky because I'm torn on this. We have, I remember when ten plus years ago when we started the accessibility team, we were all co located. So we didn't need to arrange meetings with each other because the chatter would happen while we were surrounded by each other and we would break together maybe have a drink, yeah shocking. And yeah, the intensity was not as great. We still got stuff done. And then as we have grew what we were doing, we started doing stuff in different teams and I this the the challenge now is if we have, if we go to remote working, even though you have may have some teams in the office everybody is going to essentially be remote working because you have got to connect. So, the hybrid working thing means you are still all going to have to be on calls or in meetings because you have got to bring those people together to have those communications in some way or be spending time in these tools which are designed for small teams as Antonio was saying. Developers tend to work in like small groups, and they work really well in small groups, so I know when I’m on a particular topic and you're in one of these tools it can work nicely. But when you're in an organisation with hundreds and thousands of employees suddenly you have got 300 different teams and those might have people pinging left right and centre. How do you work out the signals when the noise becomes really, really difficult and we know that even the tech companies have worked out that this is a problem because if you go to Outlook Online, it gives you filtered inbox, the problem is the AI is not good enough because it filters out lots of the important stuff and then you don't see it. So, I think there is a mixture of humans taking back control and that is really difficult because the notification culture, what you were referring to is the Pingdemic really does, we are hard wired to respond to this stuff and respond to the dopamine hits.

DIANE:

Yeah. I miss, I know this makes me sound like a dinosaur and I am a dinosaur, I miss a good sidle. You know being in the office and where you can just go up to some, have you got a minute and what do you think about this, and it might take five minutes probably tops. Yet you either wouldn't organise a meeting to say that or if you did organise a meeting, you would probably feel it was a bit rude to make it anything less than half an hour and it's just not the same. Those little chance things where you, as you were saying Neil when you work in that immersive way with a team of developers that you can then just share stuff rather than it all being scheduled to the nth degree and longer than it needs to be. Because time always and meetings always expand to fill the time available; don't they?

NEIL:

Yes, and I was quite a big fan of management by walking about.

DIANE:

Yes, yes.

NEIL:

And that is not possible anymore. You can't do that virtually. Well maybe, maybe we'll turn up in the Metaverse. So, we'll be virtually walking about with our headsets on, from our desks sidling up to people.

DIANE:

Sounds quite creepy.

NEIL:

Yes, it does.

DIANE:

Maybe it will be good and those human interactions and it's funny as well, at the event there was a lot of discussion about time spent in meetings verses time spent working and I thought, where did we get to a point where meetings are not seen as being actually work and therefore not useful, if you see what I mean? It's like when people say I spend all my time managing rather than working and I say, being a manager, particularly if you're doing it, well is work. It's part of your role, you know. So, if a meeting is productive and useful and is the right length then it should be considered work in a positive way. Does that make any sense at all or is this just?

NEIL:

It does. When I first transitioned to being a manager, I struggled with the idea that I was not doing, and my role was to get other people to do stuff successfully. And that it is a difficult transition for people to make. I think also the fact that we now, we are aware of the mental health issues that people are facing. So, what we are then doing is booking in meetings to check in with people and we do need to do that pastoral care but then we have got two types of meetings that are happening, we have got the meetings about meetings because you are trying to progress stuff. The check in type meetings and all of that kind of trying to get some progress done right? Which stakes longer when you're not sort of co located. Right? It can work and we have seen that it's worked, and we have proved that it's still possible to do business and all of that but there is a time cost. And then, there is all of the additional time costs of those booked up bits where you have these missing those micro interactions that how are you, good morning, grabbing a coffee. You know that. And I think that is another reason why people are feeling exhausted because then they go well actually when am I going to do the stuff that came out of that first set of meetings of progressing and that is how we end up working these ridiculous hours.

DIANE:

And those things I am really stressed about, when I'm going to do them, and they feel like they are hanging over me and that actually when I do them probably won't take as long as I fear they will but the actual spectrum of them looms very large.

NEIL:

Yes. Absolutely. This is why I have stopped with the to do lists and started trying to diarise stuff. The other challenge is, I spent the last seven years, my diary has been completely open so anybody could view my diary and they could see what I was doing and I believed in doing that because well it was partly a matter of principle, you know of transparency but I have turned it off in the last couple of weeks because people were then deciding that things that I had got in there weren't important enough.

DIANE:

Oh, right for them not to override.

NEIL:

To not override it and put stuff in.

DIANE:

Oh, my goodness.

NEIL:

So that lack of transparency now just shows as a block of being busy.

DIANE:

You talked about other people taking over your diaries and many years ago, I mean like probably 15 years ago, I worked with a consultant who used to say diaries are a repository of other people's priorities, which I always really liked.

NEIL:

Absolutely. That is such a great line.

DIANE:

It's good, isn't it? I remembered it. I remembered for 15 years. I trot it out every now and again and I always really like it. But I also like that thing that I think it was Sarah from Nat West about it's okay not to be available all of the time.

NEIL:

Yes.

DIANE:

And it is okay because actually how many things come into us in our day that are genuinely, if you're not there that split second, the world is going to fall apart. Not very many. We should not admit this really because it will take away our aura of magnificence and omnipotence but unfortunately, it's true.

NEIL:

Yes, absolutely.

ANTONIO:

And you need to disconnect to think about, to have ideas. You know when you're under pressure of, oh I need to go to my next meeting. I need to do this PowerPoint. I need to be connected. You're not going to be able to let your mind wander and it's important to let yourself wander into other things. Otherwise, you know you're not going to be productive or you're not going to be innovative, and I think it's very important to have that disconnect, to have that time just for yourself to let yourself flow in a very personal way. Everyone is different. So that time of disconnecting is particularly precious for us.

NEIL:

I would agree. It feels, modern work, feels very much like you're in a sealed room with a kettle and my brain is a bit like, sorry my brain on modern work is like a sealed room with a kettle and at the beginning of the day it's fine la, la, la but as you go throughout the day, the steam from the kettle builds up and you get this kind of brain fog and it's only really stepping away and doing something like hard exercise, just clears your brain for you to be creative again because it really does feel like you're full. Your head is so full of all of these things that you have become, as you were saying earlier incapable of making a decision. It's sort of paralyses you because you can't, you really you know your brain is unable to process that stuff. And particularly neurodivergent brains where we have less neurons connected anyway. So I do think that it's particularly important for us to step away. And at that point we step away from the camera because we have reached the the end of our time. So, I need to thank our friends My Clear Text for keeping us captioned. Thank you, Diane, for being our guest. I am really looking forward to you joining us on Twitter and for us to continue this conversation.

DIANE:

That has flown by. Thank you so much Neil and thank you Antonio. It's lovely to chat with you both.

ANTONIO:

Thank you.