How to have more inclusive meetings

December 27, 2018 · 8 min read

Illustration by Icon8
Illustration by Icon8

Like most people, I have a complex relationship with meetings. At my agency job, the vast differences in time zones between the team made meetings impossible. At The Wall Street Journal, I spent at least 80% of my day in meetings. I’ve facilitated my share of week-long workshops and 5-minute standups.

While lots of aspects of meetings can’t be controlled — outcomes depend on participants — it is possible to control how inclusive a meeting is. Inclusive meetings aren’t guaranteed to be more productive, but they’ll create an environment where everyone can contribute in a safe way.

I’ve seen inclusive meetings have a positive impact on company culture in ever team I’ve been on. I’d like to share a few ways you can make your meetings more inclusive, too.

For facilitators and organizers

Share a time-boxed agenda

I have 6 non-scrum (ie, not standup, planning, grooming, and retro) meetings this week. One of them has a standing agenda, and the other five lack an agenda altogether. This makes me very itchy.

An agenda helps participants prepare for your meeting. While some people feel comfortable with spontaneity, others (like me!) struggle with not knowing whether we’ll be an active participant or just an observer. Even with an agenda, meetings can be a source of anxiety.

Time-boxing your agenda — that is, listing out how much time each item should take — also helps you prepare as the facilitator. With an un-timed agenda, it’s easy to think that each item should take roughly the same amount of time, but this is almost never the case. Write out the timing for your agenda, and you’ll be much better prepared to lead the group and get everything accomplished

Check in and check out

I’ve mentioned check-in and check-out rounds in previous posts, so I won’t belabor the point. If you’d like to read more about check-in and check-out rounds, here are a few great posts:

Check-in rounds - How the start of a meeting can be the beginning of so much more

Check-in Rounds: A Cultural Ritual at Medium

Use technology to include

I’m in very few meetings that don’t need a Google Hangout, Zoom, or equivalent. While screens can be a drag on meetings (more on that later), we can also use them to our advantage.

Google Slides + Automatic Captions

This is one of the biggest game-changers for presentations. Google Slides now has an ‘Captions’ option that will automatically transcribe your voice into on-screen captions. It’s amazingly accurate, and pretty seamless; if anything, it encourages you to slow down a little bit.

Google Slides’ new Captions feature automatically transcribes the speaker’s voice.
Google Slides’ new Captions feature automatically transcribes the speaker’s voice.

Realtime Board

A collaborative multi-player canvas can do wonders to capture complex interactions in a meeting. I’ve used Realtime Board and similar tools to do dot voting, sticky notes, group theming, and design reviews.

Cameras on

Sometimes, in meetings with remote participants, participants will turn their cameras off or just dial in via phone. This makes it very hard to know when someone’s trying to speak, necessitating strong facilitation, or constant interruptions. When the meeting starts, ask everyone to turn their cameras on — seeing faces has a positive effect on the empathy felt for the speaker.

Make sure there are notes

Notes are a record of your meeting. They help everyone remember what was discussed, and how it was discussed. I personally have a Swiss cheese memory, and struggle to remember what I ate for lunch most days; notes help me immensely.

However, taking notes can exclude the note taker. It can be difficult to take useful notes and contribute to a conversation.

That’s why I see notes as a facilitator’s responsibility. If you’re organizing or facilitating a meeting, it’s up to you to make sure that notes are taken and shared with the group afterwards. Appoint a note-taker ahead of time, and follow up after the meeting to make sure the notes are useful to the group.

Be very mindful of how you appoint a note taker. Ask for volunteers from the group before reaching out directly. Keep a mental note of who has taken notes at previous meetings, and distribute the role as much as possible. Don’t let note-taking become one person’s job.

A bonus effect is that appointing a note taker allows the rest of the participants to focus on being present and contributing, rather than idly recording the meeting itself.

Ask for feedback

One of the biggest inequalities in meetings — between the organizer and the participants — is the hardest to bridge. I’ve found a lot of benefit in asking meeting participants to provide structured feedback for me to improve my facilitation.

Of course, use a feedback channel appropriate to the meeting. Daily 5-minute standups don’t need a detailed survey. An experiment I’ve been wanting to try is to use the little devices you see at airports — the red and green frowny and smiley faces — to get gut-check feedback at the end of a quick meeting.

On the other end of the scale, I recently facilitated an intense, day-long meeting for a group. Afterwards, I had a colleague on the People team send out an anonymous survey to collect 2½ points of structured feedback:

  1. Did you like the format of today’s meeting?
    • Why or why not?
  2. Do you feel like your voice was heard?

At the end of the survey, there was a space for open-ended thoughts on how we can improve meetings in the future.

Asking for feedback not only helps you improve your own meetings, but encourages all the participants to reflect on how to hold more inclusive meetings as well.

Illustration by Icon8
Illustration by Icon8

For participants

Buy a good webcam

A good webcam goes a long way to improving your ability to participate in remote meetings. My favorite is the Logitech C920 — it has a wider angle, higher dynamic range, and a better microphone than most built-in webcams, meaning your colleagues will see and hear you much more clearly.

Volunteer to take notes for the group

Even if your facilitator hasn’t appointed a note-taker, a great way to enhance your meetings is to volunteer to take notes. As I mentioned above, it’ll help your colleagues focus more on the meeting at hand. It’ll also help you be more mindful of the meeting’s process; you can use what you observe and learn to improve your own facilitation. If you find your self the de facto note taker at all meetings, ask a colleague to step in for a turn.

Ask questions

Questions can help you split the difference between being an over-active participant and a passive observer. Good, directed questions will encourage participation in the group, and can make space for quieter voices. If I notice that Taylor hasn’t been talking much, it’s very easy to ask “Taylor, what do you think?” Even if Taylor agrees with the group and has nothing else to add, it’s important to include their voice (literally and figuratively).

Give feedback

Most people who run bad meetings don’t know they’re running bad meetings. Unfortunatlely, those who run bad meetings are also probably not going to ask for feedback. Therefore, if you want to provide suggestions for improvement, you’re in a bit of a bind.

If you’d like to encourage a colleague to make their meetings more inclusive, ask them if they have 5 minutes to talk. Then:

  1. Give concrete examples of moments where you felt excluded, or noticed other participants being excluded.
  2. Tell them how being excluded felt. Offer suggestions of how to be more inclusive in the future.
  3. Turn the conversation over to them. Ask them if they have any ideas for more inclusive meetings.

For everyone

Meetings are the common denominator at every company I’ve ever worked at or with. Everyone — from the tenured CEO to the newest hire — has meetings. Building a practice of inclusive meetings in your organization has a powerful, lasting, and positive impact on the health of your culture.