Mastering inclusive meetings is no easy feat. While HR leaders and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) specialists have long worked to counter damaging power dynamics in the workplace, hybrid and remote work environments further complicate the already sizable effort. Today, HR teams are responsible for modifying inclusion strategies and adjusting meeting norms to eliminate biases whether individuals are working in person or remotely — a challenging task, but an important one that can have a tremendously positive impact. Building more inclusive meetings can help increase psychological safety, the number one identifiable factor of high-performing teams, according to research by Google. But above all, creating spaces where all employees feel comfortable being, participating, and contributing at work is simply the decent thing to do.
Want to implement these strategies and improve the employee experience at your organization? Here’s how to create more inclusive meetings at your company.
1. Practice micro-inclusions.
If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable speaking up in a meeting, you’re not alone. “Meetings are the place where we feel our differences, we feel or don’t feel our belonging, and the place where a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion dynamics play out,” explained Lauren Aguilar, PhD, founder and CEO at illucelo, a Bay Area-based diversity, equity, and inclusion firm.
Since meetings are a common place for DEI dynamics to play out, changing meeting norms can have a big impact. One way to do this is to intentionally practice “micro-inclusions,” the subtle ways we signal that others are respected, valued colleagues and work partners. Aguilar said two easy micro-inclusions to begin with and build into your meeting norms are marking interruptions and attributing ideas where they are due.
- Mark interruptions. When you mark an interruption, you simply make note of it to the group. In doing so, you acknowledge the action for both the interrupter and the colleague who has been interrupted. This reinforces the inappropriateness of the action and helps the person who’s been interrupted feel seen. Aguilar offered this example: If one team member gets excited about another’s perspective and jumps in, the leader or meeting facilitator could say, “Thanks for your enthusiasm, X, but I’d like to loop back to hear what Y had to say about their idea.”
- Attribute ideas where they’re due. In Aguilar’s example above, she’s both marked the interruption and identified Y’s idea as Y’s. This bolsters Y’s sense of belonging and helps them to feel more comfortable sharing in the future, and ensures that the group has the opportunity to hear ideas from everyone — including those who don’t always have the chance to contribute.
Go a step further by sharing the micro-inclusions initiative for meetings in a company-wide communication that comes from upper management. Aguilar noted that often these communications come from HR leaders as they are the ones executing the work, but senior leadership should be authoring these messages. “Unfortunately when it comes solely from HR, an unintended effect is that it’s seen as a regulatory function,” she said.
2. Use facilitators.
Facilitators set ground rules, keep meetings on track, transcribe notes into action items, and are responsible for making sure agenda items are met. But in the context of ensuring meetings are inclusive, their role is facilitating a space where each team member has the opportunity to speak and feels comfortable sharing their opinions.
A good general guideline to follow is the commonly cited advice, “No one should speak twice until everyone has spoken once,” suggested Eva Jo Meyers, Bay Area-based facilitator and author of Raise the Room: A Practical Guide to Participant-Centered Facilitation. But there are ways to be more proactive than solely relying on this rule, she added.
“You can also be very intentional about inviting people to speak to make sure the same people aren’t always volunteering to go first,” said Meyers. She uses a Google Sheet with each meeting attendee's name on it and appoints a colleague to notate every time an individual speaks or interrupts someone based on a color-coding system. Then, throughout the meeting, Meyers has the colleague feed her names of those who haven’t participated as much or at all. “That way I can invite those who haven’t yet spoken to speak and share ideas,” she said.
Facilitators are also responsible for reinforcing the ground rules, micro-inclusions, and meeting norms, like marking interruptions as they happen or attributing ideas where they are due. A good way to do this is by sharing the rules and norms briefly at the start of the meeting, and additionally holding individuals accountable if there’s an overstep.
“[Facilitators] must be willing to build an environment where participants are aware of these types of imbalances and know it’s okay to name what’s happening while it’s happening,” said Meyers. She noted that in addition to the facilitator reinforcing company-wide meeting norms, organizations should be providing training on how to interrupt microaggressions and handle other ways power dynamics play out negatively.
3. Keep virtual accessibility in mind.
The pandemic highlighted the need for broadened digital accessibility for remote employees. As COVID forced large-scale remote work for entire workforces, HR leaders and DEI professionals had to make sure employees of varying abilities were able to be full, contributing workers — virtually. This galvanized a movement to adopt digital accessibility best practices for all teams, not just those with self-identifying individuals with a disability.
For leaders and meeting facilitators accustomed to the accommodations common to physical spaces, like ramps or in-person interpreters, creating an accessible and inclusive virtual environment requires a different set of best practices.
Leaders can start by ensuring they’re using an accessible video conferencing platform. Many have accessibility features, but Microsoft Teams and Zoom are generally considered the best. The American Bar Association published this helpful resource that compares the two platforms, among others, and offers suggestions for what features to look for when selecting one — like ensuring the platform supports interpreters and screen readers.
Secondly, leaders should use the comments section of the meeting invitation to ask about and offer accessibility accommodations, advised Janelle Scales, a Los Angeles-based anti-bias consultant and facilitator. Leaders can share a simple note that says something like, “If any participant has accommodation or accessibility needs, we’re here to help! Please respond by [deadline for request] with your name, email address, phone number, and details of the request. Thank you!”
Lastly, brush up on general best practices for accessible virtual meetings. You’ll find helpful information online from Disability:IN, Digital Accessibility Services at Harvard University, and The American Bar Association. For example, you may not know that Zoom’s chat function can complicate the meeting experience for individuals using screen readers. That’s because the screen reader reads aloud the chat box, which can distract from what the presenter is saying. If you have meeting participants using screen readers, ask employees to limit use of the chat during the meeting or designate someone to receive messages privately, who can then read aloud the questions or comments at an appropriate time.
4. Collect data.
Leaders are responsible for ensuring inclusive meetings where everyone feels comfortable participating and all voices have a chance to be heard. But unfortunately, relying on your gut feeling to gauge how the meeting went after the fact isn’t enough. Instead, leaders need data — both qualitative and quantitative — in order to develop inclusion strategies, and then determine the efficacy of their approach.
Meyers said that there’s always an imbalance in the group when it comes to who is contributing and for how long. “It’s the facilitator’s job to even this out, but until you collect data on who speaks first, for how long people are speaking, and who talks over people, it can be difficult to develop strategies to regulate it,” she said.
Management and leadership consultant and speaker Jessica Ellis-Wilson recommended recording meetings to get a clear snapshot of the dynamics in action. “Play them back and determine if there are certain [individuals] dominating the talking time, or if everyone has the chance to contribute reasonably equitably,” she said. “If you have video recordings, watch body language around the room depending on who is speaking; I can guarantee you’ll find it eye-opening.”
In addition to making their own observations, leaders should use surveys to check in with employees to better understand how they feel as participants. Meyers recommended asking participants to complete post-meeting satisfaction surveys that include a space to list their social identity information. “That way you can cross-reference that information with responses to questions like ‘I felt that my ideas were validated in the meeting,’ ‘I felt at ease in this meeting,’ and ‘I felt like the meeting was a productive use of my time,’” she said — and note and correct any imbalances.
5. Make meeting agendas diverse.
The more diverse the actual structure and agenda of the meeting are, the more opportunities you give individuals to share in various ways. A traditional boardroom-type meeting is not an environment that puts all participants at ease. Introverts, team members from historically marginalized groups, or neurodiverse individuals, for example, may struggle to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas and instead remain quiet.
On the other hand, if you design a meeting with intentionally inclusive and diverse methods of facilitation, you increase the odds that all team members will feel safe contributing. “These [methods of facilitation] may include small group or breakout room activities; a shared whiteboard or platform like Miro, Mural, or Google Slides, where everyone can contribute information; or activities that involve nonverbal participation, like reactions, polling, or chat,” said Meyers. While planning for more diverse methods of facilitation requires extra time up front, doing so helps leaders foster psychological safety — the top factor in creating high-performance teams.
Inclusivity is not a one-and-done proposition. Business leaders have to work together continually to build out strategies, measure their effectiveness, and course correct as needed. When it comes to meetings, the hybrid workplace means we must think of inclusivity from a new perspective, so we can ensure those near and far have their voices heard and also feel comfortable sharing them. Yes, more diverse and inclusive workplaces produce better results — but they’re also kinder, more welcoming environments to work in, for everyone.