By Laura Butler
The future of work is here. And it arrived almost overnight. Whether we like it or not, we’re in the midst of a giant global experiment that’s challenging business leaders everywhere to keep their teams connected – while also keeping them far apart.
In living memory, we’ve never been this physically isolated. And we’ve never been in greater need of a true sense of community and belonging at work. Many companies are bridging the gap with internal webinars, drop-in Zoom meetings, and Slack channels organized around employees’ common interests.
For some leaders, especially those who are already on a digital transformation trajectory, this is business as usual – but on speed. For others, it’s a whole new world of work, with unforeseen challenges and pitfalls to navigate. Count me in the former camp. I work for a global company that specializes in connecting remote teams, so Zoom meetings and cloud-based work management best practices have figured into my daily schedule for years.
But having 8 hours of Zoom meetings a day, 5 days a week, with teammates simultaneously leading conversations and juggling things like potty training, checking homework, and letting the dog out? That’s definitely new.
6 tips toward an inclusive approach in virtual meetings.
Calling on past experience and newly discovered insights, I’ve pulled together six tips that will help leaders take a more inclusive approach to virtual meetings and video conference calls, reduce unconscious bias, and ensure every voice has an equal chance to be heard.
1. Lead with empathy.
“Now is a time for leaders to think about what type of leader they need to be for all of their workers, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized,” said workplace culture and human capital strategist, Daisy Auger-Dominguez inHarvard Business Review.
There are practical matters to consider, like getting the right digital infrastructure in place and ensuring every employee has equal access to technology and tools – from devices and software licenses to wireless bandwidth. But it’s equally important to consider the human impact of this crisis.
Some team members are balancing the care of young children with their work responsibilities, while others are caring for elderly or immunocompromised family members. Some will see a worsening of their physical and/or mental health, while others suffer from financial setbacks due to a partner’s loss of income. Some are experiencing all of the above, all at once.
“Remember, not everyone has the set-up to be equally productive,” suggests the writer of the HBR article, Ruchika Tulshyan. “Common barriers right now include inadequate access to technology, private space, or even the basics such as food or healthcare.”
Yes, this crisis is happening to all of us. But some will be hit much harder than others. This offers leaders an opportunity to practice genuine empathy and make sure every individual team member feels included and supported, despite their individual challenges and circumstances.
2. Set the stage at the start.
I often start virtual meetings by asking everyone to give me one word that describes how they’re feeling right now. I like this ice breaker because it’s quick and effective. It offers everyone the chance to speak up, right at the beginning of the meeting, putting each participant on an exactly equal footing. (Introverts are encouraged to find their voices early on, while extroverts are challenged to limit themselves to a single word.)
I’ve also found that being invited to say something right away makes it more likely that each person will speak up later. Most importantly, this exercise gives me valuable clues into everyone’s current status. A person who’d normally be reluctant to volunteer that they’re struggling might be willing to say a simple “overwhelmed” or “tired,” which signals me to follow up with them individually.
However you go about it, make a point to acknowledge the challenges of the moment before diving into the meeting agenda. “Leaders can set the tone by sharing their own challenges or vulnerabilities,” Tulshyan says. “Your team will appreciate it if you say, ‘This is hard.’ In smaller meetings, check-in individually with each person on how they’re doing.”
These may sound like simple suggestions, but they offer an empathetic and inclusive way to build both connection and trust.
3. Mind your backgrounds.
When a team gathers together in a conference room, we come as individuals, bringing only our carefully curated professional personas. But when we turn on that Zoom camera, we open a tiny window into our private lives, with whatever children, pets, and piles of clutter may be occupying the background. It’s inevitable that our unconscious biases will kick in: “Oh, I didn’t expect this person to have a messy kitchen/to live such an opulent house/to have weird taste in decor/to be holed up in the basement.”
Remember that everything we can see of another’s life, and everything they can see of ours, communicates something. And a team video call shouldn’t be used as an excuse to compare and contrast socioeconomic status or home hygiene. That’s why I always enable the digital background when I’m on a Zoom call, which hopefully invites others to do the same. I consciously choose backgrounds that match the mood I want to convey, such as openness, serenity, or even humor.
In these unusual circumstances, both sides of this coin are important. When we’re offered a peek into someone’s home situation, we need to give each other extra grace and do our best to check our biases. And it also doesn’t hurt to be aware of what our own backgrounds are projecting to our co-workers.
4. Look who’s talking.
If you record your conversations and team meetings, circle back occasionally, and review who did most of the talking. I did that recently with a global call, and I saw that I spent a lot more time talking than I realized. (Leaders do love the sound of their own voices, after all.)
With the benefit of hindsight, and without the pressure to participate actively in the conversation, it’s much easier to spot patterns – such as if the conversation is dominated by those in leadership positions, or by extroverts, or by the men, or by the women. Do what you can to shift those dynamics in the next call, so that your most overlooked voices have the chance to be heard.
5. Pay attention to body language.
While a video call is in session, pay attention to other participants’ body language. In a recent meeting, I noticed a quieter, more introspective gentleman who kept leaning forward, looking like he had thoughts to offer. But it was clear he was hesitant to talk over people.
Those with introverted communication styles can be reluctant to interrupt, while more extroverted types will interrupt with abandon (because they themselves don’t mind being interrupted). If you notice someone struggling to get a word in edgewise, do them a favor. Break-in on their behalf, and invite them to speak: “You know, I think Jim might have something to add here.”
6. Make time to play.
Your professional Zoom license doesn’t have to be used exclusively for discussing key strategic initiatives and executing against team objectives. Playing and recreating together is also an important way to build connection and belonging. In these trying times, your team might appreciate the chance to escape into a hilarious group game of Quiplash or Fibbage onJackbox. Smaller groups can connect over online Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, or multiplayer gaming. Even something simple like having team members wear their favorite hat or team jersey to a call helps foster a fun environment of belonging.
Encouraging these kinds of connections will help build team creativity, establish common ground, and strengthen team cohesiveness, which will contribute to team productivity as well as individual well-being.
I firmly believe in the importance of building a strong diversity and inclusion framework in every organization, and I model my approach largely on the four pillars outlined by diversity best practices: career, culture, community, and customers. Having such a framework in place before a crisis hits ensures that you’ll respond with greater sensitivity and equity to everyone involved in and served by your organization.
But even if you haven’t yet established a strong diversity and inclusion framework, these six ideas are simple and accessible enough that any organization can use them to start building greater empathy, equality, and belonging – which will bring your team closer together even though we’re physically far apart.