As meetings go virtual, how can we ensure they are inclusive?
By Jo Faragher on 27 October 2020
Students were left feeling threatened and unsafe this month when a Zoom meeting for Durham University’s LGBT association was hijacked by a group shouting homophobic slurs. The anonymous attackers had been able to ‘hack’ the meeting when a link to it was shared as part of a welcoming event.
This is a very isolated and extreme example of exclusionary behaviour, but there’s no ignoring that our new world of virtual meetings and seeing each other as a grid of squares risks leaving some people struggling to feel included and heard – even if unintentional. “There is definitely a higher risk of overlooking certain employees or groups of employees when meetings take place virtually rather than in-person. Because of remote work, employees are less visible in a physical sense right now so leaders need to be especially conscious of including people and making sure everyone has an opportunity to speak up and be heard,” says Nikolaos Lygkonis, founder and CEO of HR tech company PeopleGoal. “The more junior and/or more introverted the employee, the higher the risk of them being overlooked.”
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that strategies that employees have for dealing with feelings of exclusion in a face-to-face setting may not be applicable when discussions are moved online. “[Face to face] there are often barriers for your audience to overcome in terms of asking questions that they might feel are stupid, or getting past a fear of raising one’s hand, and even bypassing group opinion biases,” explains Johnny Warström, CEO and co-founder of interactive meeting platform Mentimeter. “So when you move the same meeting to a virtual environment, the challenges multiply. Groups that are introverted, less informed, less comfortable with technology or have physical impediments (such as reduced hearing) will be particularly vulnerable and even more likely to be excluded from the digital meeting.”
For those with disabilities, while moving meetings to a virtual setting can in many ways be a leveller, it can still present problems. If a disability is invisible and has not been disclosed, for example, it is difficult for the person running the meeting to know what to accommodate. The key is to be proactive rather than placing the onus on employees to share, says Atif Choudhury, co-founder and CEO of Diversity & Ability. “We have to anticipate that people won’t necessarily feel comfortable to share, so are there ways that the meeting can be more accessible without them having to disclose?” Platforms such as Google Meet have built-in live captioning, for example, but others require a third-party program.
Planning is a priority
Meghan Reed, training and innovations lead at D&A, says it’s essential to build a plan before the meeting of what people might need. “You could come up with a plan that incorporates people’s requirements and that could be agreed as a charter,” she advises. “For example ‘we will send out materials beforehand’, ‘we will make sure there’s an agenda’, ‘here are the ground rules’.” During the meeting, ensuring there is someone who can respond to questions or requests throughout is crucial. Thinking about whether someone might need a British Sign Language interpreter or whether everyone can see and interpret slides is another consideration. As functionality in platforms such as Zoom and Teams has increased, such as break-out rooms and ways participants can network, it’s important to ensure accessibility is still assured if these extra functions are being used.
Planning can also help to ensure that all voices are heard during a meeting, rather than inadvertently favouring those who are either confident or who feel most comfortable with the technology. “Leaders can design meetings for more inclusive conversations through an interactive agenda that ensures full team participation,” suggests Karina Jensen, Professor of Global Innovation and Leadership at NEOMA Business School. “It should start with an introduction where you can offer a social check-in or ice breaker for team members to share a thought, idea, or reflection. The key agenda topics should include designated team members who can provide project updates or success stories. The conclusion provides a final opportunity to summarise and invite questions or feedback for actions and next steps.” Warström adds: “Following up on a meeting can be as important as preparing for it. By viewing meetings as a circular process rather than a linear one, and by asking participants for feedback around how the meeting can be improved, you’ll enable your audience to move from passive to active actors.”
Building an inclusive culture
With almost two-thirds of executives predicting that hybrid home and office working will become a long-term trend, according to the British Council for Offices, getting into more inclusive meeting habits can only be a positive development. “It’s critical to creating an inclusive culture because unless we create an open working environment where people feel comfortable to speak up, we will always run the risk of overlooking certain people or groups – and by extension, negatively impact the accuracy and relevance of business decision-making,” says Lygkonis. Jensen agrees: “If meetings are designed as opportunities for team interactions, they can serve as core drivers of an inclusive culture,” she concludes. “In developing an open and engaging meeting space where members feel safe and welcome to share ideas and information, organisations will reflect a culture that embraces inclusion through empathy and transparency.”
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.