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How You Can Ensure No One Feels Left Out in Virtual Meetings

Much of the way we work has changed over the past year.

As more of us now begin to gradually return to the office, at least for a few days a week, some of our old ways of working are beginning to return.

But it seems clear that the virtual meetings that have played such a crucial role in keeping us all connected during the pandemic are here to stay.

So, isn’t it time we ensured managers and meeting hosts include everyone in these meetings? And we don’t mean inviting the whole company to their meetings – we are talking about being inclusive during meetings.

While the remote working culture, introduced almost overnight, has brought many benefits, it is increasingly clear it has also created plenty of challenges. For example, research has shown that 45 per cent of women feel it is difficult for them to “speak up” during virtual meetings, and one in five felt “ignored and overlooked” by colleagues.

Anecdotally, we have heard instances where people felt they haven’t had equal opportunity to share their opinions and thoughts in these meetings because of their gender or race. We’ve also heard examples where people felt the meeting facilitator always came to them last and that, consequently, they felt their thoughts and views were not given equal value.

With this in mind, how can managers ensure all voices are heard during virtual meetings and that everyone feels they can contribute equally?

Tienie Loubser, who develops and leads our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills training, says the answer lies with being aware of our unconscious bias.

“We all like to think we are open-minded,” he said, “but having bias is part of what makes us human.

“And that can affect how we interact with others in the virtual world.”

Before we go further, let’s ensure we are clear on what unconscious bias is.

It is defined as: a prejudice or unsupported judgments in favour of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. In contrast, deliberate prejudices are defined as conscious bias (or explicit bias).

Outside that formal definition, this means the way managers facilitate a meeting can potentially be impacted by any biases they may have on things like age, sex, disability, race, sexuality, maternity and religion.

But it is not confined to these traditional biases. Zoom meetings have given us all an insight into the homes of our colleagues. A manager who sees a team member working amid a messy, cluttered background could subconsciously decide they are not in the best environment to make a meaningful contribution to the meeting.

Similarly, you could subconsciously decide that because someone’s young child has just interrupted them, it is better to get the views of those taking part who don’t have children at home.

As Tienie has said, there are things that lead us all to make instinctive judgements about people.

The challenge for managers is being aware of these biases and finding ways to overcome them.

“As facilitators of virtual meetings, we definitely need to check our unconscious biases,” says Tienie.

“They become a real problem when people view them as explicit biases.

“So, before we go into a Zoom meeting, we need to accept that we all have unconscious and subconscious biases and find ways to manage them.

“If managers still get it wrong in a meeting, they should quickly apologise. Longer-term, part of the solution involves managers widening their social circles and listening to different views and perspectives.”

How else can managers ensure their virtual meetings feel inclusive?


System

When you facilitate a virtual meeting, the way the participants log in will determine how they display on your screen.

This means you need to have a delegate list to hand, away from your screen, where you can create a rota of how and when you come to people to get their thoughts.

You can then create a system. So, for example, the first time you want to get the views of the participants, you could go in alphabetical order. And then the next time you could reverse that order.

Or, you could go to women first and then put the next question to the male delegates first.

You could also try going clockwise and then anti-clockwise through the delegates as they appear on your screen, but as this display regularly changes as people join or leave the meeting, there is more room for error.


Plan

As with so much of good communication, planning and preparation are crucial.

Think in advance about which delegates you feel can expand on particular topics and provide valuable insight.

You can take this further and email an agenda ahead of time, where you can make it clear who you are looking to add their expertise to specific topics.

This will give the participants time to prepare their remarks and ensure everyone feels included before the meeting has begun.


Quiet

Just because some of your meeting delegates are more naturally quiet, doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want to contribute to the meeting.

They may lack the confidence to interrupt the conversation or speak until they are specifically asked to give their thoughts.

Having an agenda can again help here. Letting people know in advance that you plan to come to them at a specific point gives them time to prepare what they will say. And that can feel more comfortable than being put on the spot.

Another option is to use the chat function to pose some questions. Some people may feel more confident giving their thoughts this way rather than verbally. Polls also provide the more reticent people with the opportunity to contribute to the conversation.


Inclusive language and pronouns

Another crucial factor in ensuring everyone feels comfortable and confident in a virtual meeting is for managers to be mindful of the language they use.

While beginning with ‘hi guys’ may sound like a warm, friendly and innocuous greeting, it could feel uncomfortable for gender diverse participants. Words like ‘you’ and ‘everyone’, on the other hand, are more inclusive.

Managers should also recognise that increasing numbers of people use different pronouns - a recent study showed that 56 per cent of Gen Z (typically viewed as those born between 1997 and 2015) know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.

A good approach for showing support to gender diverse individuals is for managers to encourage all their meeting participants to display their preferred pronouns on their screen names.

But the crucial step here is for managers to avoid coming to a gender diverse participant because they are worried about making a mistake. That approach will only add to feelings of isolation and exclusion. As Tienie said earlier in the blog, if you do make a mistake, quickly apologise.


Whether virtual meetings will remain integral to your business or something you begin to use less frequently as some face-to-face meetings return, everyone should feel equally valued and able to contribute.




The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.



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