How to be inclusive in a virtual meeting

Virtual meetings have become a familiar part of working life for many of us. They can present new inclusion challenges, which must be considered and overcome. Sharon Cooper, Senior Inclusion and Diversity consultant, outlines the challenges virtual meetings present and shares expert advice on how to make sure they inclusive.

Read on to find out.

Over the last few years, more and more of us are being invited to or are organising virtual meetings with colleagues, clients and customers and this trend shows no sign of slowing down as more organisations embrace hybrid working. 

In a busy world, it is easy to become complacent and forget to consider if we are being inclusive in our approach or if we are inadvertently excluding?

What is a virtual meeting?

A virtual meeting is simply a meeting that happens online rather than physically.  A virtual meeting allows people, no matter what their location across the globe, to connect using video, audio and text. 

The most common platforms for these remote meetings are Zoom, MS Teams and Skype but there are many others available.

Why do virtual meetings need to be inclusive?

As with all workplace interactions we need to be mindful and considerate of each other’s needs and communication styles.

Inclusive meetings are ones where there is a clear purpose, everyone has a voice, is encouraged to participate and feels valued. This is no different in a virtual meeting, though they do present new and different considerations. 

The challenges of remote meetings

At times during remote meetings, it can feel like there is a lack of personal interaction and much lower chances for those one-on-one chats which would often occur in a physical meeting. 

Distractions

They can feel a bit daunting. Depending on the number of attendees there can be a lot of faces on a screen and that’s a lot of visual stimulation. You also spend a lot of time looking at yourself on the camera, which in itself is a new experience for many and can be a distraction. 

Whilst we are thinking about what we see on the screen virtual meetings present a unique opportunity for unconscious biases to creep in.  We have an insight into colleagues’ homes and personal lives in a way we never had before. 

Do we find ourselves checking out our colleagues’ homes in the background and making assumptions about what we see? We need to be mindful of our own biases and check ourselves if we find we are making these judgements.

The absence of personal connection

Effective communication in virtual meetings is key. It is easier to “zoom” in and out of virtual meetings and not see the emotional after-effects of any conversation and you tend to only see people’s faces (or not even that if they have their camera switched off), which means it can be harder to pick up on physical body language cues if something hasn’t landed well.

We also miss the check out after a meeting; in a physical environment where colleagues are all in the same room, you will often walk out of the room together and see each other after the meeting, which creates an opportunity for a conversation if needed. This opportunity is missing in a virtual environment.

If you are in virtual meetings, especially if they are scheduled back-to-back ones, it is easy to lose concentration, be distracted or multi-task while attending a meeting, maybe responding to your e-mails at the same time. It can also be easy to disengage and not take an active role in the meeting and harder for colleagues to notice when this is happening.

Technical problems

Of course, a challenge in itself can be the technology! It can be easy to assume that everyone attending is comfortable and confident with the tech, if they are not this in itself can be a barrier to inclusion.   

It’s always good practice to check in with attendees, especially if it is the first time you have connected virtually with a colleague. 

Providing organisational guidance around using the technology is highly beneficial. Be mindful and understand that there is always the chance that tech issues can occur with an individual’s wifi, laptop or the platform itself – which if people are unfamiliar with it can be very stressful to deal with, and has the opportunity to increase someone’s feeling of exclusion.

Are there any benefits to virtual meetings?

Often colleagues will be attending from their home or their preferred working environment, which can mean they are able to make the work environment right for them. 

It removes the need to travel to and from meetings and the possible worry around workplaces being accessible. The virtual working environment has also resulted in a more relaxed approach to work attire, with many of us dressing more casually, even if only from the waist down! 

All this means colleagues have more opportunities to be comfortable and themselves during virtual meetings and ultimately more effective.

How to have inclusive virtual meetings

The key to running inclusive virtual meetings is to have clear and agreed on virtual meeting etiquette. Here is some Inclusive Employer’s best practice to consider:

  • Highlight the accessibility tools on the platform – many have captions and live transcription options. Video meeting tips are always appreciated and sometimes people may be too anxious to ask.
  • Take the time to introduce everyone, remember lack of personal interaction is a challenge of virtual meetings so be mindful of anything you can do to address this.
  • Ask colleagues to be present and put devices on silent to reduce the opportunity for distraction.
  • Be clear if the meeting is going to be recorded and if it is what will happen to the recording.
  • Is the expectation to have video cameras on or off? Without doubt having cameras on is more engaging and allows everyone to participate in a more natural way. However, we also need to be mindful of where colleagues are connecting from and if they want to share that environment with everyone on the call, or that there might be too much visual stimulation. On calls with many people attending, having cameras on can affect the connection, though there is another question about the effectiveness of the call when the numbers of attendees become too large.
  • Make sure everyone is aware of the virtual meeting etiquette, dependent on each individual meeting.
  • Be clear how people can contribute to the conversation:
    • Use the “hands up” reaction to highlight you want to contribute
    • Encourage the use of the group chat function
    • Use breakout rooms to break off into smaller group discussions
  • Have a clear agenda which is shared before the meeting.
  • Be clear about the roles within the meeting.  Agree the chair and note taker (if required) before the meeting so no assumptions are made and attendees are not put on the spot during the meeting and made to feel uncomfortable.
  • Think about the timing of the meeting, virtual meetings are more intense and focused – consider 30/45-minute meetings rather than the standard 60 minutes.  Think very carefully if the meeting is going to be over 90 minutes, and if it is going to include comfort breaks.
  • Colleagues still have other personal commitments, such as caring responsibilities, so just because it is a virtual meeting it doesn’t mean they are available at any time of the day.  Be mindful of when you are scheduling meetings and avoid key times such as school drop off and lunch time.
  • Who really needs to attend? Take the time to consider who are the right people to be there and contribute to the discussion.
  • Be considerate and don’t schedule back-to-back meetings, give people space to have a comfort break and prepare for the next meeting.
  • If a meeting is sensitive or there have been some emotive discussions take the time to check in with colleagues one to one after the meeting.

Ice breakers for virtual meetings

Here are some quick ice breakers for virtual meetings to help everyone relax and get the conversation going.

Ask about moods

Ask people how they’re doing. Try to make this a bit more interesting and get more responses without making it personal. For example, try a rating system.

  • “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you today?”
  • “On a scale of 1-10, what’s your energy level?”

You can even use systems that actually add a poll for this, which means people are engaged but don’t have to speak if they don’t want to.

Speak about plans

Whether it’s upcoming work plans, weekend plans or what has happened in the past week, it’s a great idea to ask people this.

Speaking about plans can soften an intro into a virtual meeting and allows people to get to know each other a little better.

Talk about pets

Most pet lovers are always eager to talk about their pets! It could be something as simple as “How is your pet doing?” that can kick-start a conversation with everyone discussing their furry friends.

Don’t overdo ice breakers

Ice breakers can be good fun, but make sure to pay attention to the attendee’s reactions. Sometimes ice breakers are people’s worst nightmare, and it may stop them from engaging.

Know when you should end ice breakers and whether you should even use them in your meeting at all.

How Inclusive Employers can help with inclusive virtual meetings

It is always useful to take the time and reflect on our interactions with our colleagues to consider if we are being as inclusive as possible. 

If you are a member, take a look at our inclusive meetings resource and speak to your account manager for virtual meeting ideas and more. If you’re not yet a member, get in touch today to see how we can help with virtual meeting training.