18 May 2020

By A/Prof Christopher Carter, CEO, North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network and President, Better Hearing Australia (Vic).

Sound waves.

Will we continue to enunciate clearly when face-to-face meetings return?

As the CEO of a health not-for-profit, much of my day is spent in meetings, working with others to improve the health system and care for people. What many of the people I’m meeting with are unaware of is that I have a hearing disability.

And as someone who lives with a hearing issue, the COVID-19 shift to videoconferencing for all meetings has been an unexpected gift.

People have stopped mumbling. They enunciate their words. They’ve mostly stopped talking over each other.

At the most basic, I can actually hear what is being said more or less 100 percent of the time, up from 80 percent on a good day in a face-to-face meeting.

I don’t have to ask people to repeat things, or remind them to talk clearly. In face-to-face meetings previously, when I’ve asked people to do so, they would usually shout for 10 minutes then return to mumbling and cutting over the top of each other.

This vastly improved meeting etiquette can be put down to the limitations of the technology itself. When people talk over each other through most videoconferencing programs, the result is a wall of noise that no-one can understand. So they don’t do it. Microphones and speakers vary in their quality, so people know they need to talk clearly and with adequate volume.

The benefits for someone with hearing loss are therefore probably incidental, but they are no less profound for that.

The question then becomes, if people can do it for videoconferencing, why can’t they do it all the time? I think a large part is that even with good intentions, people are generally bad at identifying and allowing for issues that they are not experiencing themselves. Many people are now getting a taste of what it is likely to live with an auditory system that is less than perfect, and they are adjusting accordingly.

I hope and believe this accidental empathy is spreading even faster than the virus and beyond better meeting etiquette.

Parents trying to keep their kid’s education on track while keeping their own lives in order are gaining a vast appreciation for the work of teachers. Doctors and nurses have long been heroes for many, but who would have thought last year that we would be singing the praises of our brave supermarket workers and others, risking their own safety to keep us fed and comfortable while we shelter at home?

Our entire concept of working is being turned on its head by the great work-from-home experiment, proving that flexible arrangements and productivity are not incompatible. The world of work will hopefully become a more balanced and satisfying place in the future as a result.

No country or person is immune to the impacts of COVID-19. In Australia, our hard-won health victories are beyond fragile, resting on a delicate web of personal responsibility, robust health systems and a good dose of luck. Our economy is far from unscathed, the full damage yet to fully be revealed but already very real for millions of Australians.

But we will recover. And if we can bring with us the positive things we have learned during the pandemic, such as empathy and communicating more clearly with one another, we can not only get back the world we had before – we can build one that is better.

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