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7 Ways to Host More Inclusive Meetings in a Virtual World

October 29, 2020 Jeff Duffield

At Linkage, we just released our latest white paper on the most impactful initiatives organizations can take to improve inclusion. The research found that the #1 driver for improving inclusion at organizations is practicing inclusive meetings. While I was a bit surprised at first by this revelation, as I thought more deeply, it made complete sense. Workers spend a lot of time in meetings—one-on-ones, team meetings, quarterly business reviews, etc. This is the primary way employees interact with one another and experience the organizational culture. If the meeting culture is inclusive, then the overall organizational culture will be inclusive, too.

Take a moment to reflect on your own experience in meetings. If you are like me, you have experienced meetings you enjoyed and looked forward to—meetings where you felt you added value, learned something new and advanced toward a shared objective.

You have probably also experienced your fair share of bad meetings—ones where you felt ignored, where only a handful of people participated, or that were a waste of time and nothing was accomplished.

Thinking back on my career, a few examples of those bad meetings come to mind:

  • Large meeting for one: At one company, we had quarterly business reviews with the COO. These meetings were large, with 20–30 directors, GMs and VPs, but everything was presented solely for the COO. Those who dared to speak up to ask a question or share an idea were frequently brushed off by the COO with a sigh, a rolling of the eyes or by simply ignoring the question.
  • Remote office wallflower: At a different company, I learned through experience how employees at remote offices were often left out. After working for years at the corporate headquarters, I relocated to a smaller office in Barcelona. In Barcelona, I became one of those who videoconferenced into a meeting being held in a conference room at headquarters. I now experienced something other employees had been experiencing for ages—feeling left out of side discussions happening in the main room, not being able to hear certain people talking, or having a hard time being noticed or heard while trying to make a comment.
  • Dominating Dan: I recall one small brainstorming meeting I participated in where a participant, we’ll call him “Dan,” took over and dominated the discussion—advocating for his own ideas very forcibly, over-talking others, and when not speaking, clearly thinking about what he was going to say next versus listening to others.
  • One-on-None: Early in my career, I experienced a manager who treated our weekly one-on-ones as a way to tell me everything I needed to do for the week. While having clear expectations was great, there was no room for a back-and-forth discussion where I could raise issues or ask for help in certain areas.

You may have experienced similar meetings or your own variety of meetings where you have felt excluded. Unfortunately, feeling excluded from a meeting is an all-too-common experience.

Now, you cannot control how other people lead meetings, but you can adopt some new practices of how you lead your meetings—setting a good example for the rest of the organization.

Here are 7 tips for how to do that:

  1. Set expectations: For any meeting you run, it is important to set expectations in advance. This starts with having a clear agenda, so attendees can decide if it is relevant to them and if they need to be there. If you want people to play a certain role (observer, note taker, supporter, devil’s advocate, facilitator, etc.), let them know about those expectations in advance. For any reoccurring meetings, establish norms on behaviors and participation expectations. Allow participants to suggest their own ideas and norms for the meeting. If there are many people who will play no role, consider limiting the number of attendees.
  2. Ask for everyone’s thoughts: Take a moment to ask quieter people for their thoughts or, if you don’t want to single people out, go around the room and give everyone a chance to share any thoughts, questions or concerns that they have. I am a member of my town’s youth soccer board and during critical topics, our board’s president always makes sure to ask each and every member for their thoughts. It can take a bit of time, but I know it helps everyone feel valued and that their voices are heard.
  3. Make everyone remote: At one company, I led a large team, literally spread across the globe on all but two continents. While based in the corporate office, I noticed some of my team members at their desks, headphones on, talking to each other on a conference call while literally standing five feet away from each other. When I asked why they didn’t just meet in a conference room, they said that a few of the members were calling in from other offices and they wanted to put everyone on an equal playing field. Genius!
  4. Engage the masses: While having everyone contribute to large meetings can be difficult, there are ways of engaging many participants at once. Use poll questions (virtually or by a quick show of hands), invite participants to send thoughts over email if they did not get a chance to contribute, and in virtual meetings be sure to encourage participants to post thoughts in the chat feature.
  5. Put your direct reports first: If you have direct reports and conduct one-on-one meetings, have them talk first. Instead of positioning the meeting as what they can do for you, flip it, and first ask how you can help them. This will make your team feel well supported and safe to raise roadblocks or any issues they are running into. Once you have addressed their items, you can switch to any remaining items that you want to cover.
  6. Invest in getting to know one another: When meeting participants get to know one another and appreciate commonalities and differences, it allows everyone to bring their authentic self to each meeting and feel more included. One way I have done this over the years is to run an “About Me” exercise where each member of a working team rotates in sharing a single slide with pictures and speaking for five minutes about who they are (where they grew up, what their interests are, etc.). It is fun, interesting and well worth the short amount of time invested.
  7. Switch it up: A final tactic that can help meetings be more inclusive is to constantly switch things up. Start with rotating tasks and roles (facilitation, note taking, etc.) within the meeting. This will help participants play different roles and not feel like they are pigeonholed or underutilized. It can also be effective to try different methods of running a meeting. Icebreakers, brainstorms, Open Space meetings, and a variety of other techniques can be employed to spice things up from time to time and allow participants to step out of normal routines to interact in different ways.

Employing these tactics will not only help everyone feel more included, but as our research has shown, inclusive meetings will also result in better business outcomes with better decisions being made faster!

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