Are Your Online Meetings Inclusive?

As virtual meetings become the norm, it is cardinal that we not only develop best practices for our teams but, better yet, codevelop them with our teams.

Video conference of remote workers from home, online team call
Alisa Zahoruiko/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Equality, openness, and belonging are core indicators of the inclusion matrix. Companies face numerous challenges in creating work environments that are diverse, open, and free from bias. As workplaces have become increasingly remote after the COVID-19 pandemic, this challenge has only aggravated. Inclusion matters, as it not only helps in viewing business problems from unique perspectives but also provides a platform to the voices that otherwise may go unheard. The case for inclusion is also supported by compelling research that reveals inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time and drive decision making two times faster with half the meetings.

Remote work, or at the least, hybrid work, is here to stay. And with that are online meetings. Over the last year, there are many things we have learned about working remotely, but the most underrated is being able to host inclusive virtual meetings. Remote work and digital connections come with their own set of barriers, making it difficult for people to stay engaged and focused, with possible reasons for detachment.

Here are some of the barriers:

  • Monological conversations
  • Technical glitches
  • Time zone differences
  • Distracting environments

As virtual meetings become the norm, it is cardinal that we not only develop best practices for our teams but, better yet, codevelop them with our teams. At first glance, conducting online meetings may not require any special skills, but in reality, it takes thoughtfulness and lots of trial and error to hold meetings that are inclusive for all attendees.

Have you ever been a part of an online meeting that you felt was not inclusive? What did you think was wrong? And how can you set the right example for your team to ensure that they engage inclusively in meetings, whether they are the host or the participant?

In the following sections, we aim to share some practical steps that can help you make your online meetings engaging, productive, and inclusive.

The “When”

Use these guiding principles to help you schedule your meetings at times that are accommodative of different personal needs, time zones, and working styles.

Schedule meetings not too early, but not too late either. One of the effects of expedience bias (the belief that if it feels right to me, it must be true) in the virtual world is the unconscious decision to begin scheduling meetings right when we start our workday.

If you prefer to meet first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, consider the impact on parents on your team who have to manage pick-up, drop-off, or childcare during those times. Discuss with your team what is their preferred time to start the workday and take that into consideration when scheduling team meetings.

Be mindful of multiple time zones. If you work with an office halfway across the globe, you must likely do meetings that are good for one location but always at an inconvenient time for another, for example, between the US and China. Show consideration by mixing up the schedule, so half the meetings are in your mornings and the other half in your evenings.

Pay attention to personal preferences. Some people may prefer to start their workday before 6 am, wrapping the day early. Some others may not be able to start work until late in the morning and stop at 4 pm but come online again later in the night. Many people have also moved during the pandemic and may not be located in the same city as yours. An 8 am call for you may very well be a 5 am call for someone on your team. Meet with your team to decide on core working hours when everyone can be available and schedule your meetings during those times. Periodically check-in to ensure that the window is still appropriate for everyone.

Avoid back-to-back meetings. People's personal needs may differ from when they were working from the office to when they are working remotely. Avoid back-to-back meetings to give people some flexibility in their schedule. Alternatively, consider scheduling 45-minute meetings instead of the full hour to give people a break between one meeting and the next.

The “Who”

The physical construction of our workspaces often facilitates accidental interactions, for example, at the water cooler or on the way back from lunch. But in the virtual world, distance bias may kick in as it becomes so much easier to exclude people unintentionally. Without physical cues, we must be deliberate in whom to include in our online meetings.

Mental roll call. Have you ever sent out a meeting invite to a large group and mentally gone around the office to count heads so that you don't forget anyone? With online meetings, the chances of leaving someone out increases immensely, especially as new team members are onboarded entirely remotely.

Maintaining an Excel list of all team members or checking Microsoft Teams' participants before sending out the meeting invite can be an excellent way to do the mental role call. If you regularly send out meetings to a large group, consider setting up a Team in outlook and keeping it up-to-date as the team members change.

Calendar reminders. To avoid falling prey to similarity bias (people who are like me are better than others), set calendar reminders to speak with people you don't engage with on a day-to-day basis. It helps to maintain your relationship and serves as a reminder to actively include them in your meetings when required.

The “How”

After you have scheduled meetings that ensure all necessary individuals are included, these tips will help you make the meeting time more inclusive:

Share agenda before the meeting. Sharing the agenda and supplemental material is always a good practice for any meeting. It becomes even more important to ensure your meetings are inclusive to people who may not be native speakers. Therefore, consider sending supplemental material at least a day before the meeting so it can help you drive participation and engagement.

"Human" check-in. Before you start the meeting, do a quick round of human check ins. Simply asking, "How is everyone feeling today?", "Is there anything someone wants to share with the group?" and sharing an example from your personal life can help establish a trusted space for people to be more open and welcoming to the meeting. Also, encourage everyone to share their video (if they want to) as it helps bring back the 60% communication that is done solely through body language.

Prompt and pause. Be mindful of bias that can manifest in you thinking that people are not being serious just because they are not responding to your question in time and interacting in the same way they might have done in a physical conference room. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt; perhaps they are having technical issues, they aren't entirely familiar with the technology you are using, or perhaps they need more time to think through and type before responding.

Ask questions along the way, prompt to validate understanding, and provide ample pauses for people to respond and participate.

Mind microaggressions. Microaggressions can show up in virtual meetings as much or more than they show up in physical meetings. Recognize when microaggressions happen and address them to ensure inclusivity is maintained. An example of that would be to give credit for an idea to the person who first mentioned it, even if it was given over chat and then repeated by another colleague on video. Another example would be to prevent forming opinions about an individual's work ethics based on the limited peek you get at their home work environment.

Maintaining inclusivity in online meetings takes thoughtfulness and lots of practice. It starts by embracing an inclusive mindset and trying different techniques that work best for you and your team. Be open to feedback, adjust your behavior, and share best practices with others so you can do your part in creating modern inclusive workplaces.