Transcript: ‘I miss the office banter’

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This is a full transcript of 'I miss the office banter' as first broadcast on 25 September. Presented by Simon Minty

KIRSTY -What a rollercoaster the last few months have been. With government guidelines constantly changing we at Ouch are very mindful not to add to any confusion. Therefore, this is just a little note for myself, Kirsty Brewer, the producer, to point out that the following podcast was recorded when it felt like the world of work was potentially opening up again.

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NANA -What I do miss is being with my colleagues, having a banter.

SIMON -I have a colleague, we used to meet for lunch and then we would do some work in the afternoon. Since COVID we don't meet for lunch, we would just meet and go straight into work, and we started arguing all the time.

NANA -You know, disabled people, we feel excluded as is, and then for me to work from home and be shielded, I feel more excluded than I was just in normal everyday life.

SIMON -Hello, this is Cabin Fever from BBC Ouch. I'm Simon Minty and I'm working from home, recording this from my office. I've done it for many years, but how is working at home going for you? Maybe it's a relief not to be doing all that potentially inaccessible commuting to the office, or do you miss dressing up for work? So do you do it just to go to the shops? At the same time, a recent survey from UNISON found that three quarters of disabled staff felt that they were more, or just as productive, working from home. The government has said it will extend the Access to Work scheme to give financial support to those who want to continue working from home longer term. To discuss all this I'm joined by Nana Marfo and Lilu Wheeler.

NANA -Hi there, my name's Nana Marfo. I live in sunny South London, Deptford to be precise. I'm an employment officer, so it's all focused on people with disability and just showing employers that, with support, with guidance, with empathy, people with disability can be employed. And I live permanently with a tracheostomy tube.

SIMON - Oh goodness, what's that?

NANA -A tracheostomy tube is an artificial tube inserted in my trachea and it enables me to breathe and speak.

SIMON -Thank you. Lovely to have you. Lilu.

LILU -Hello, I'm Lilu and I'm a project manager, so I manage projects in the NHS, and I live in East London. And disabilities include auditory processing difficulties, dyspraxia, ulcerative colitis and diabetes.

SIMON -Goodness me, you win the day on that one. Now, we've got our credibilities out. Now you have both been working from home since March and you used to go into the office, so how has it been, Lilu, for you?

LILU -It's been a bit like a rollercoaster actually. It was a relief at the start to be in your own home, but then it got very claustrophobic.

SIMON -And how about you, Nana?

NANA -Well, I used to go in four days a week. It was great, having to meet customers, having to be in an office environment. Then lockdown happened. We had to work from home full time. It was great and then it became, hmm yeah, it became a bit numbing and mind daunting and it wasn't what I thought it would be. And even to get reasonable adjustments I had to contact my employer for them to deliver some of my adjustments to my home. It was stressful when I didn't have my adjustments.

SIMON -I can imagine, because you're kind of working, forgive the sort of pun, one arm tied behind your back. That's really tricky and frustrating.

NANA -Yes.

SIMON -UNISON, the union, said, "Many feel they're being less productive from home because of the lack of reasonable adjustments, such as adaptable keyboards or speech to text. Over half of disabled people said they'd received no adjustments at home."

LILU - Yes, to start with it was less productive because of the environment that I was in. I didn't have my headphones, I could hear all the noise and the calls that my partner was making. Yeah, I think it's been slower to do them at home, to be honest, because you haven't got the administration there, you haven't got people to run down to and bug and say, "Oh, can you just get this order in for me and chase it up?" It's not the same.

SIMON -I see what you mean, that sort of just informal, natural, just get things going because you can go and see them. Yeah. Nana, you said it started off okay and then it sort of drifted a bit. What is the best thing for you about working from home? Is there anything you thought, I never even thought about this, this is great.

NANA -Working from home I can get more done, but what I do miss is being with my colleagues, having a banter, remembering to go for lunch. Because being at home I'm stuck on my computer and sometimes my missus has to say, "Oh, you've clocked off now." I'm like, "No not really, I've got stuff to do." So working from home in terms of remembering to get up to even go to have a toilet break, you know, having that time just to let my eyes rest.

SIMON -I have a colleague, Phil, he's got a lovely line. He says, "You've got to book an appointment with yourself." So book seven video calls in a day but book one or two in for yourself and that's your half an hour, your hour out, because otherwise, you're right, we don't do it. So if you had to go back what would you miss about working from home?

NANA -I think I'd miss waking up late to get my work done. [laughter] Not having a structure, working from my bed, in the luxury of my bed. Just relaxation and not being in that structure mode where I'm having to… I've got a meeting here, I've got to see a client here, you know, just having that lazy kind of approach but the work gets done.

SIMON -I'm with you completely on that. Lilu?

LILU -If I had to go in what I would miss is me just being me. So sometimes you want to sort of be up later because you've had a bad night, you know, related to your disabilities, for example. Having to drag yourself out straight away, you haven't got that. And also, you know, round my house I've got things that support me and help me that are specific to me, and that's true flexibility where you can sort of say, okay actually, my condition's kind of worse at this time when it's winter, for example, and I need to have a break at three o'clock. Or I take my meds at a certain time and I'm going to have lunch at 11 o'clock actually. Or have spaghetti for breakfast. That's something that normally we wouldn't be able to do in the office but now you can just do you and how you work best.

NANA - Part of me is itching to go back, but a part of me knows it's to the detriment of my health. I think if I stay away I'll miss what's going on, I won't be in the know. New stuff that's happening over in the workplace I might not be in the loop. Yeah, you can get an email but when you're around people it's a different vibe. You know, disabled people, we feel excluded as is, and then for me to work from home and be shielded, I feel more excluded than I was just in normal, everyday life.

SIMON -Yes, when we're all in the same boat at home it's okay, but I see your point. And there's no two ways about it, I still think there are some things we've got to be in the same room for, you're right. Lilu, how does this resonate with you?

LILU -So where I started to struggle was you have agendas and meetings and you're invited to meetings, but what I was missing out on was that watercooler conversation, the corridors where you asked people, you know, "What project are you working on at the moment?" and you think through it together. And with my auditory processing bat ears I managed to hear conversations that I'm not necessarily a part of and say, "Oh, what's that? What's that you're working on at the moment? That sounds interesting," and find out so much.

The social aspects of it is more what I worry about, that we will be left out, that there are things that will happen. And there was a conversation recently about away days in one of the teams and somebody suggested, "Well, those that could go out, they could go to the pub and the others could, I don't know, do something." And it was stopped there by the director who said, "No, we're not having this two tier, we're going to just have it that it's on Zoom, everything's on there and you'll have to be creative about the fun activities that you do actually."

SIMON -I mean, that's a kind of a lovely thing to hear. There's also that thing we sometimes get as a disabled person, where you don't want to be the one who stops everybody else doing something. It's a really difficult one. We know employers everywhere are going to be working out how to get back to whatever the normality is, but what do you think they need to consider to ensure that disabled people aren't forgotten in those plans?

NANA -I think employers just need to listen. They just need to just listen. Not talk about any HR policy or anything like that, just listen to that individual and cater to their needs. Because without the employee there is no business. Without a business there is no economy. So it all links up.

SIMON -And in your case if they nail it and they get it right for you, Nana, that's going to be right for everybody. COVID safe for you is COVID safe for everyone.

NANA -For everyone, yeah.

SIMON -There's a brilliant business psychologist, John Amaechi , who says, "Hopefully now we've got rid of presenteeism." So the idea you've just got to sit and be seen is the only way your career will progress. But we don't want to be forgotten, we want to be involved in that informal stuff, the watercooler bit that both of you mentioned. Do you have ideas or tips to make sure you're still in that loop?

LILU - Yeah, so somebody said to me, "In order to have these informal conversations you need to formalise them." So now walking out of your meeting you're not going to bump into somebody, that's not going to happen. We all have meetings with an agenda and we go through that and there's none of that chitchat, there's no time for sort of just talking about your day. And maybe you put that in, so where you have a meeting with yourself you also have meetings with people every now and again. Maybe every two weeks somebody that you sort of popped in and just… you didn't necessarily work with but you just said hello to or walked down to the shops with, and booking in time with them. And maybe things like quiz evenings and rather than waiting for somebody else to put that together, that we initiate that.

SIMON - You've identified a new phenomenon. It's like fear of missing out, but about work. I mean, it used to be about social things and holidays. I have a colleague, we used to meet for lunch and then we would do some work in the afternoon. Since COVID we don't meet for lunch, we would just meet and go straight into work and we started arguing all the time. So now we put half an hour in beforehand to do the social, so we're warmed up, and then when we go to work it's okay. Has the fact that all your colleagues have had to adapt to a new way of working been a little bit of a leveller? Do you think they sort of understand adjustments and disability a bit more now?

NANA - I think now your everyday person kind of understands what a disabled person goes through in terms of adjustments. You know, it's not a simple process and it's not a thing where we all want to be in this process, but due to a health world pandemic you just have to live your life and make yourself safe. The same applies to a person with a disability, we want to do the same work as an able bodied person, we need that adjustment. Example, myself, I'm slightly visually impaired. For me to be able to do the same work as someone in the workplace I need ZoomText. ZoomText allows me to work on the same level as a person who doesn't need ZoomText, but I get on with it and it makes me included.

LILU - Yeah, I do think that people do have a better understanding or are a bit more sympathetic to it. I think things like where people with disabilities might have plans cancelled at the last minute I think there's going to be a sort of empathy there with lockdown that people have had to make cancellations or because they're unwell. And also things like long COVID.

SIMON -UNISON has called for disabled people to be given the right to work from home after the COVID-19 crisis, with penalties for employers who refuse. What do you think about that, Lilu?

LILU - I mean, it's great, but it depends on the role that people are doing. For me it's about can you do your role at home? You know, where possible I think that should be an option.

SIMON - Yeah, and we've always had the right to ask but not perhaps the right to do. I mean, Nana, where are you on this?

NANA -I think it depends on what role you do. If it's a role that they can't accommodate your needs then the employer should look to redeploy you to a role that can accommodate working from home. I feel yes, there are some employers out there that yes, if they don't adhere to it then yes, they should be penalised for it, because you're trying to make your company as inclusive as possible. Personally it works for me, but also I think they should consider bringing us into work as well and look at ways to balance it out.

SIMON -You've pre-empted my next question. If we flip this over is there a risk that some employers now might be less willing to accommodate disabled people coming in to the office? Well, you know, they're sold on the merits of us working from home, it's, in inverted commas, 'less hassle'.

NANA -I think from a company's point of view, business insurance, covering their staff, yes they may look at it as a risk. So they may be very firm to people with disability without giving them a choice or including them in the process of whether they should come back or not. And I feel that will decrease the amount of people that stay in employment. So yes, it will be a risk.

SIMON -Lilu, what do you think?

LILU -I think it's quite interesting that for many years some employers have said, "No we can't do X, Y and Z at home, it's just not going to work," and then all of a sudden, you know, we can work at home. So maybe a bit more of a level playing field there. Employers, when they advertise for jobs, rather than sort of plus car allowance it's be opportunity to work from home, as a benefit actually. So I think it's going to be the other way round.

SIMON -You've alluded to… the Department of Work and Pensions, they fund the Access to Work scheme. Now that's the funding that if you're an employee with a disability you can get a contribution or full payment for adjustments. Do either of you use this? Did you know this now covers working from home?

NANA - Yes. I came into contact with Access to Work by chance, because I used to work for a corporate organisation in the past and I was being penalised for not doing certain things when I needed adjustments. So I think Access to Work is a great tool. It helped me a lot and that's how I've managed to get most of my software and enlarged screen for most of my work that I do at home. I'm glad that they've managed to slightly change policy in terms of making it be a thing where you can gain Access to Work and work from home, because that wasn't the case before, it was purely for the workplace. I'm glad that they've raised it to £60,000. It has to be put out there for employers to know that it's something to support the individual and it can assist that individual to be a brilliant employee.

LILU -It's surprising how many people don't know about it. I don't think it's well publicised and maybe some of the smaller organisations don't necessarily know. I think it's one of the better schemes. You look at a lot of bureaucracy and government form filling, whether it's housing or benefits or PIP or whatever, and actually the Access to Work is one of the easier ones. I say that, [laughs] it can still take a bit of a process.

SIMON -Now, we've been in this strange time for, I don't know, several months. In that time, Lilu, have you managed to actually see any of your colleagues? Have you been to any social events or hung out in the park with them?

LILU - I live in an area where there's quite a few colleagues dotted around, so one of them I did go for a social distanced walk with. I didn't get to hug them and, you know, it did make me want to go back to the office and see people, but I keep thinking that the office isn't as I imagined it. I picture myself going in and all the same people seated in the same seats, but I know that they're not and people have told me that it's pretty much dead in there, it's like a ghost town.

SIMON -It's like the films isn't it? The films you used to watch and go, oh this is ridiculous, and here we are. Nana, have you managed to hang out with any colleagues and see them actually, you know, in the flesh?

NANA -Unfortunately not. And it's so sad. I'm having to do video calls because most of my colleagues live further afield. So yeah, I'm longing to see my colleagues, I can't wait for the day when they say, "Come back to work." But I know I'm not going to be able to sit next to my colleagues, there's going to be a lot of reconstruction in terms of desk policy and even I'm going to be told, "What are you doing here?" You know, I have that fear someone's going to look at me, because you can blatantly see my tracheostomy and they'll be like, "Oh, you know, you shouldn't be here." Yeah, sad times.

SIMON - Nana, do you know, like I've got a mobility scooter and you can buy these big plastic shields and they go all the way over you. Now, [laughs] I've never used one, but I'm just wondering, you're going to get a big plastic thing. Could you wear a big plastic thing?

NANA -It's funny you talk about a shield. I've got one, I've tried it, I look like a surgeon about to go and do some surgery. And I think yeah, it is ideal, I will wear it, but I just feel like I'm a surgeon when I put it on. [laughs]

SIMON -Now, they say finish on a high, but this is quite a serious question. Are you realising this is it? Are you planning to say goodbye to the old ways of working together? Lilu?

LILU - Yeah. I know that my work shoes are underneath the desk and probably someone's complaining about that, and there's bits and bobs of mine, coats and scarves that are still there. I want to go back and I want to pick those things up, but I also want to kind of say goodbye as well, because I don't know what's coming, I don't know if things will be the same again. That's what I'm sort of building up to, to go in to say goodbye and I've kind of accepted that it's not going to be the same for a very long time, if ever. I mean, even if we find a vaccine, by then we'll have invested time, money, blood sweat and tears, into everything that works for working at home that it just wouldn't make any sense to go back.

SIMON -Yeah, the argument's changed hasn't it? Nana?

NANA -I know we're not going to go back to how it was. I've basically made peace with myself. I have to go into the building and make peace there. I'm not going to be in the building as I used to be. More importantly, because of the role I do, I support other disabled people, I'm having to come to terms with not being able to sit with my fellow residents to give them that moral support, and I'm just going to have to accept that everything's going to be through a computer screen.

SIMON -Goodness me. I did think, Nana, you could put your shield on and go into hospital from now on and double up. You could find another vocation.

NANA -Hmm, that's true. [laughs]

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SIMON -It remains to be seen what the world of work will look like in the future and how it might evolve, but it's good to keep talking about it and to make sure disabled workers aren't left out of the conversation. You can email us. It's We're on Twitter, @bbcouch, or search for us on Facebook with BBC Ouch. And you can subscribe on BBC Sounds. That's it for this show, thank you so much for listening. Goodbye.