WPCS 1.1.7
Engaged and inclusive meetings

How to make virtual meetings more inclusive?

How to make virtual meetings more inclusive?

MEETINGS ARE A GREAT PLACE TO START WITH INCLUSION

Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, evolves and lives.

In the last year, meetings have evolved to fully virtual gatherings. As we have all been forced to work from home and move our communication fully online we also saw major events and conferences (like World Economic Forum Davos) had to be held online… In all this madness, and despite the fact that we really long for face to face connections, one thing is clear: collaborating, knowledge sharing & connecting across time zones has never been so easy! 

We spend a lot of time in meetings. Microsoft study shows that through the pandemic we saw a 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week. (Source: Microsoft, Work Productivity Trends Report, 2020). Can you relate to these results?

In the recent mini poll we did on LinkedIn, 41% of the respondents said they attend 3 to 4 meetings a day on average!

How to make virtual meetings more inclusive?

That’s up to 4 hours that give us the opportunity to drive engagement and inclusion within your organization. But do we really think of it when we enter those meetings?

With this article, I would like to share some of my ideas and experiences of running engaging and inclusive meetings. A topic that we at WeWent and Shake Up the Workplace! have been engaging a lot with our clients and community.

First, let’s look at some more insights about meetings. Renee Cullinan, shared in the HBR article that in response to a question: “When you have a contribution to make in a meeting, how often are you able to do so?” only 35% felt able to make a contribution all the time.

Leigh Thomson shared in his Fortune article the fact that “in a typical eight-person team meeting, on average only three people do 70% of the talking. …and the dominant people do not realize this.”

I have a question for you: which one are you? The quiet one? Or the dominant one? For either, when reading this article, reflect how you could turn that around in the future meetings?

I have decided to divide this article in two parts. The first part will be a space for reflection on unconscious biases playing out in meetings. I will share examples and ask you to reflect on your own unconscious biases.

The second part is focused on thinking about inclusion in meetings through a lens of a simple model: See Hear Speak and how it could support you in creating more inclusive and engaging meetings.

 

WHO MIGHT YOU UNCONSCIOUSLY BE EXCLUDING IN MEETINGS?

Ok, so while talking about inclusion in meetings an interesting way to go about is to reverse the question and ask: Who might you unconsciously be excluding in meetings? I invite you to reflect on this for a sec. 

There are actually 3 groups in the workforce who are regularly and unconsciously left out in meetings according to Renee Cullinan: introverts, women and remote employees. The last one being an interesting group to reflect on given that we are all currently working remotely.

So what might be causing this behaviour? – Well, these are the biases that may play out for us in meetings.

  • “The smartest – the quickest to speak up”. If your unconscious bias tells you that the smartest people always have something to say, and can react quickly, it may affect introverts in your meetings. Never assume the best ideas come out as first or quickest. Also watch out for assumptions that silence from a colleague is a sign of their ignorance or disagreement. Give a chance to those who like to reflect before they share. If you are looking for many ideas, you may even ask everyone to take time to reflect and capture all their ideas on paper. You can then facilitate your group, call out on people and make sure everyone gets time to speak.
  • “Out of sight, out of mind.” In the current virtual scenario, this could be people with cameras switched off where the majority of people are on video or someone dialling in via phone. It’s just so much easier to notice and engage with people you see. But make sure you do not run into that trap and also engage the colleagues you are not seeing. Simply checking in on them or asking direct questions for their ideas and opinion could work. I will share a few more tips on engaging people off-camera when I share the see – hear – speak model.
  • “Men have more to contribute.” As many as 7 studies have been listed indicating that men interrupt women more often than they interrupt men. If you are one of those men, next time you come to a meeting, be intentional about not interrupting. And if you are a woman who noticed the interruption, call it out.

The first step to fighting biases is being aware of them.

So, think for yourself, who might you be unintentionally excluding in your own meetings?
What unconscious bias might be playing out for you.
How might you engage and include a new voice in your meeting next time?

My personal reflection here goes to my first years at work, being the youngest and the most junior person in the room. I lacked the confidence to speak up or even bring an opposing opinion. I was holding myself back and never felt quite ready to share. It was thanks to colleagues who encouraged me to speak up, who asked me directly, that I gained my own confidence. I will always remember that feeling and therefore make sure to hear from the ones who may not speak up or dominate.

 

HOW TO BE MORE MR. POTATO HEAD IN MEETINGS & SEE, HEAR, SPEAK.

You might be wondering why am I talking about Mr. Potato Head here. Well, just look at him – big eyes, big ears, big mouth. Keep that picture in mind. I will be coming back to it.

Mr. Potato example

Back in my corporate life, I had a chance to learn about a simple yet powerful model called See Hear Speak. A model for engaging in powerful conversations. When thinking about meetings I couldn’t help but remember that model. It got me reflecting on how See Hear Speak can be translated into meetings.

Why See Hear Speak in the first place? Well, we, humans, all have a heart-felt need: to be seen, to be heard to be spoken to and/or to speak up. We all want to feel valued, important and that we matter at various times.

Let’s break it down. We start with seeing.

Seeing is not only the act of using our eyes, but also being aware, noticing.
So how in a meeting could you notice everyone? It’s simple, you will make everyone feel seen by giving them enough information before the meeting: a purpose, agenda, pre-work. During the meeting itself, welcome people by name as they join. Call out people that may not naturally be willing to speak up. Notice them and show you also value their opinion.

How does this play out for your participants? That’s what they may think/feel/say:

  • “I’m invited to contribute and understand my role in the meeting”
  • “I know the agenda and anything else required of me”
  • “I feel welcomed and valued as a contributing member”

The act of seeing or noticing, experienced more broadly means you will also check-in on colleagues off camera. Ask directly, for their ideas and contributions, are they able to follow?
At the end of the meeting, a signal that shows you have seen your participants is to thank everyone for their participation and contribution.

And what about the people who couldn’t join your meeting? Do you “see” and are inclusive of them? An easy way to do it is to share outputs of your meetings: recording, meeting minutes. And to create a real inclusion you can invite everyone to continue collaborating online. My next article will be about how we can use technology to create engaging and inclusive meetings.

Ok, our Mr. Potato Head now has two big eyes to notice and be aware of everyone in the meeting.

Next, we mount his ears to “hear”.
Think of hearing as a way to tune in and listen intentionally. A great way to start and let everyone feel heard is a check-in. Here is a simple check-in and -out guide you can download.

And how do you make sure everyone is heard? Use the “round robin” method where each participant is given an opportunity to speak once before anyone may speak a second time, commonly by calling on the members around the table in turn.

In larger meetings, create customs and rules where people can feel heard. Can they speak openly? Should they use chat to contribute? Should they wait for Q&A at the end of the meeting? If you are seriously committed to inclusion, the moderation and facilitation of the meeting is key. Be proactive about bringing all voices to the conversation, hold everyone accountable to the rules set. When strong personalities overpower the meeting, make sure you call it out and create safe space for others to speak up.

One thing that really stuck out to me in the See Hear Speak model was the intention of listening.

Do you listen to respond? Are you focused on forming an answer in your head instead of truly listening? Do you listen to understand? It takes effort to quiet our thoughts and really hear what another person is saying. But that silence makes people feel respected and appreciated.

So next time you are in a meeting, try out to tune in and listen to understand.

How to make virtual meetings more inclusive?

The last thought on hearing is…. Don’t mute all. Unless you really have a huge audience and the intention is just to hear from a handful of people in a meeting.
Muting all immediately sends a signal… and can form a feeling of exclusion. Instead have clear rules and etiquette for attendees to understand when they can speak, get off mute themselves up or type in chat. 

Last comes the speaking.
We all want to be spoken to and have a chance to speak up. Speaking in the context of inclusion in meetings is about activation. How can you activate people in the meetings?

Before you start the meeting make sure people invited to your meeting represent diverse views, perspectives and ideas. Are they all able to contribute? Is there anyone missing? Don’t be afraid to invite people with opposing views and perspectives. Remember the unconscious biases? Be intentional about empowering everyone to speak up – i.e younger/less experienced colleagues, introverts, women … There are also fun tricks that help you activate people to share and speak up – a talking stick that you pass on (you can act it out in a virtual meeting) or ask the person who speaks to nominate who speaks after them.

In large meetings create breakout rooms for people to be able to exchange with one another and speak up. While in breakouts, ask them to capture their ideas and questions in shared documents or white boards (more on tools in the next article). And do not forget to ask people to share what their insights are out of the breakouts. 

As a meeting lead you can lower your power too, do not dominate the conversation, but rather give credit for contributions, and create a safe space. Speaking about safe space, psychological safety is a key term here defined by Amy Edmondson, Professor at Harvard Business School.   Psychological safety relates to a person’s perspective on how threatening or rewarding it is to take interpersonal risks at work. For example, will new ideas be welcome and built on? Or ridiculed? Will I be punished for offering a different perspective? Or admitting I don’t know or do not understand something? 

So how can you as a leader of a meeting role model and reward behaviours that build psychological safety? 

Back to Mr. Potato Head – big eyes, big ears and smaller mouth is the mental picture I hold for myself. Pay attention and notice everyone, tune in to hear all voices, and use your mouth to encourage others to speak up, share openly, even the difficult and challenging truths.

I hope that some of the ideas shared helped you reflect on your organization’s team culture and most importantly your own role in creating a meeting culture where diverse contributors have equal impact.

By focusing on your own unconscious bias, and seeing, hearing and speaking to the other person you create a more inclusive environment. And remember, meetings are the prime opportunity to build and nurture an inclusive culture that engages and equips people to be and do their very best. 

How to make virtual meetings more inclusive?
Big thank you to all that took the time to comment and share their own perspectives regarding the topic via LinkedIn. If you missed my post, check it out here link

Conclusion

An inclusive workplace isn’t created solely by your HR or C-suite. Each one of us can play a vital role in co-creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, valued, and belonging. And meetings are a great place to start.

Here are 5 tips on how you can contribute to creating more inclusive meetings:

  1. Be more aware of your own unconscious bias, how it shows up and how it can unintentionally lead to others not feeling included or valued in your meetings.
  2. Get the basics right: be clear on the purpose of the meeting, who has to participate in it, and what is the agenda.
  3. See and hear your attendees. Be intentional about inclusion – use techniques to engage everyone and give them space and time to contribute.
  4. Use check-ins as a powerful way to help people arrive at the meeting and feel heard and seen.
  5. Create a safe space in your meetings. Are new ideas welcome and build on? Or ridiculed? What happens when someone offers a different perspective? Or admit they don’t know or understand something?

There is a lot more to inclusion in meetings and I know only scratched the surface here. I would love to hear from you:

What is your one commitment to creating more inclusive and engaging meetings?

We are currently working with some of our clients through WeWent.com and Shake Up The Workplace to deliver sessions on Engaging and Inclusive meetings. We not only learn about some of the insights and models but also exchange stories and share internal best practices. See our workshop listing here.
Please do reach out if you would like to discuss how to do that within your own organization or team at [email protected] or at my profile here.