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How to Run Inclusive Online Meetings with Your Remote Team

This year has seen an enormous shift towards remote work as everyone tries to maintain safe social distancing practices in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As a long-term distributed company and advocate of remote work, the shift is undoubtedly exciting. However, the nature of the change meant that many companies fell into this new work style without much planning. 

And while remote work has many many benefits, these don’t mitigate its challenges. 

To understand how our online spaces differ from physical spaces, I spoke with Amira Dhalla, Associate Director at Consumer Reports, who has worked extensively in digital privacy and security as well as the intersection of technology and equity, inclusion and human rights. She shared some pathways to more inclusive practices as well as some examples of how acknowledging our privilege and sharing our resources can lead to more positive, inclusive spaces for all. 

Amira’s written about this topic herself as well. She shares some practical tips that are a good accompaniment to this article, so make sure you take a look. 

We can’t expect what worked in-person to translate completely into online spaces

To create healthy, functioning and inclusive online workspaces, we first have to understand that it’s unlikely to just happen on its own. We can’t just assume that this will work itself out. Instead, we need to be intentional around developing practices, policy and above all, dialogue around what an inclusive space might look like, and how we can all contribute to the kind of space we want to see. 

“I don’t think it’s as easy as just saying, ‘Ok, we’re all online now,’ and that’s it,” Amira says.  

“It needs to be more of a conversation. 

Organizations spend hours deciding how to optimize their physical spaces for connection and collaboration, but very few have spent the same amount of energy on how that transfers online with employees engaging entirely digitally.”

“There’s so many more aspects to having conversations online that you really have to multi-task at a higher level,” Amira says. 

The fundamentals of how meetings run online are different. Understanding these differences can allow us to adjust processes or develop a new policy to meet the differing needs that these spaces require. 

“When I meet you in person, there’s a very physical element. Whereas, when I’m online there’s a distance,” Amira says. “As much as I can see you I’m still finding it harder to pick up on cues, I’m finding it harder to navigate conversations, to make sure I’m not getting distracted, to do all these things that I wouldn’t normally have to do.”

When you transition to new spaces, you have to learn the new language or at least learn the new set of social and cultural norms. Transitioning from in-person meetings to online meetings is no different. 

These sets of social and technological norms affect how conversations play out, who holds power in these settings, and who feels excluded. 

“On a video call you can only have one person talking at a time,” Amira says. “That limits the amount of space that other people can take up. So, if you have one person talking, they take up the entire space.” 

This means, even if your online meeting goes for the same amount of time as your offline meeting, it’s more difficult for everyone to feel like they have a voice and that they have equal space to share and be heard. 

In other words, what we would typically do to ensure inclusivity in an office setting to hear many voices, or have multiple conversations isn’t necessarily going to work in an online space. 

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The work of inclusion happens before the online meeting starts

To have truly inclusive meetings, you first have to have an inclusive company culture. Teams need to feel safe to share and be vulnerable as well as empowered to raise concerns or issues they may have. Otherwise, you’ll merely be implementing tips and tricks you’ve read about rather than catering to the genuine needs of your own team. 

Culture is developed over time and is often tied to the inherent values of the company’s individuals. If equity and inclusion are values you want to develop and grow within your team, you’ll need to showcase this in a variety of spaces — not just in meetings. 

An easy way to develop more inclusive practices is simply to include people in decision making. If your company has gone fully remote this year, did you ask your team how they would like to communicate? Have you allowed space for feedback on the way you’re running video meetings as a team? Have you encouraged input on how you can all maintain a sense of connection while only online?

“Lots of organizations that I know never had those discussions with their employees or communities to say, ‘Ok we’re changing because we’re in a world that’s requiring us to change — What does that mean and how do you want to do it?’” Amira says. 

When everyone’s involved in the creation of new policy from the ideas stage, they’ll likely be more invested in the implementation stage too. 

Acknowledge your privilege and utilize it to support others

Part of developing open and equitable environments will invariably be reflecting on the ways in which our experiences differ. What are things naturally more accessible to some groups versus harder for others? What biases are some colleagues fighting to overcome, while others don’t even have to think about? Or even, what power dynamics are at play and what are the effects of these. 

“There is a large conversation right now on, what does it mean to acknowledge your privilege, what does it mean to see it, and what happens when you realize you have it?” Amira says. 

“I think this is a part of how we adjust our own settings, how we become better as individuals and how we understand what equity could actually look like and then support our colleagues to achieve it no matter where they are.”

Of course, much of this work will be on an individual level. It’s something we all need to do the work on ourselves. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored in the workplace. 

Practically, this could simply look like acknowledging or calling out scenarios where this is or could be happening. 

“People’s home lives are really different. If I have children running around in the background [of a Zoom call], will that make me look less professional if I’m a woman? Even though on paper it shouldn’t matter if I’m a working mother, I’m still balancing what are unconscious biases in the workplace if this sort of situation arises,” Amira says. 

“Sharing with your team that these are plausible scenarios that your coworkers or others might be going through builds empathy and understanding, so people know where to check their privilege.”

Acknowledging privilege can also be useful in terms of distributing resources. Amira shared a great example of this playing out on a recent call she had with Girl Scouts New York. 

“One of the facilitators asked someone to share her screen to show something, and she was like, ‘You know what, my internet is not as fast, but I’ve already shared it with this one person who’s going to share instead’,” she says. 

This really simple exchange brings to light how our internet speeds can be vastly different for various different reasons. Those who have slower connections might come into meetings not knowing how they’ll be able to contribute, have anxiety around how they’ll come across to their colleagues and even uncertainty around whether they’ll be able to complete tasks like sharing screens or running through presentations. 

By identifying privilege and sharing the resources — this entire scenario is mitigated. 

“If my privilege is that I have good internet speed that’s working, how can I share that? Maybe it’s simply saying, ‘if anyone needs me to do anything in a meeting I’m happy to do it for you,” Amira says. 

“Equity means that some people are going to have to let and give. That might mean that you may have to do some things that you might not love as much (you might also give up some things you don’t love as much), but as a result, someone might get something more out of it, and so it is a compromise game,” Amira says.

Cater to your team’s needs through various conversation channels

“Not everyone’s going to want to talk, but that doesn’t mean not everyone has a great idea,” Amira says. “So what are other spaces you can create [to capture this]? Whether that’s in the Zoom chat or on something like Slack or others where people can share and add points to the conversation in ways that are comfortable to them.” 

Once you’ve opened up the conversation around what an inclusive space looks like, you should have a fair idea of the ways in which your team members prefer to communicate. With this knowledge, you can create various intersecting channels that give space and access to your team whether they enjoy talking, typing or speaking entirely through gifs and emojis! 

In some cases, people may not know their preferred method yet or thought they liked communicating in one way but later changed their mind or found it wasn’t working as well as they hoped. For this reason, it’s great to experiment with different ideas, methods and tools and constantly be re-evaluating what’s working and what’s not. 

“I run many workshops and webinars at Consumer Reports, and we leverage some of Zoom’s tools like questions or upvoting the Q and A’s, or polls,” Amira says. 

“I think there’s lots of tools out there to use that might be more comfortable for others and open up the conversation so that many people can participate.”

By opening up the logistics of a meeting to be more than just a Zoom call, you’re able to overcome some of the limitations too. 

“If you had one question and there were six people present, what would it look like for all six of us to answer but still feel like we all got equal opportunity?” Amira asks. 

“It could be a thing that we sometimes call ‘silent note-taking’ — which is where you have the questions in a Google doc, everyone spends 15 minutes answering as many as they want or can and after we have a discussion about the findings that came up.”

By merging these two methods, everyone has the opportunity to respond to the questions in their own time, without the constraints of waiting their turn to speak or the meeting moving on too quickly. 

“But you’re still giving people the opportunity (if it’s in a Google doc) to comment on each other’s responses, to +1 if you agree to do all these other things, that can make it a more inclusive practice,” Amira says. 

“It requires more thoughtfulness and planning but allows that space to be created as opposed to just relying on the default, which is just one person speaking at a time.” 

Think about ways to support each other online 

“There’s nothing more intimidating than having ten people on mute while you’re talking and just being like, ‘Did that land with them? I have no idea. Did I say something wrong? Did they like that?’” Amira says. 

“There’re so many times when I don’t know how things went in a meeting until well after the fact, when I message and ask, ‘Was that ok?’”

This scenario would rarely happen in a physical meeting because you can easily pick up on non-verbal cues like smiles or the quiet hums of acknowledgement. 

We still need that encouragement online too. 

“Some of the physical practices that people have taken online are nodding during the call. So if you’re agreeing with something physically, nod. There’s others like miming applause and jazz hands is like ‘I agree,’” Amira says. 

At Shield, our Client Services Director, Brenda, is extremely good at this practice. Whenever we’re in a meeting, I want her little square visible because she’s an incredibly reassuring presence in how she very physically smiles, nods, claps and cheers for whoever is speaking.

Use feedback to make change towards inclusive practices

“Norms are never going to be the exact same for a long period of time,” Amira says. 

What worked at the beginning of the year may feel clunky and repetitive now. The tools you used a few months ago might not be the ones you instinctively gravitate to now. 

Implementing check-ins or feedback sessions are an essential part of this whole process. 

“That has worked really well for me in the past,” Amira says. 

“If you aren’t able to do it as a full group, I talk to one or two people or so, and I’m just saying, ‘hey is this a system that is working? Would you recommend anything else?’ Just having quick feedback loops along the way. Because that really gives you the information you need to change things.”

By bringing feedback into the natural life cycle of these kinds of processes, you prioritize growth and change towards better, more inclusive practices. 

“There is no perfect solution in this situation; there’s just a collection of collaborative norms that can be decided on, and continuously updated, as a group,” Amira says. 

“But I think what’s important is being open and transparent to the fact we’re all just trying to figure this out and then making sure people feel comfortable enough that they can take whatever approach is working for them.”

— Bree Caggiati

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