Inclusive and productive meetings

A silhouette of a person with a brain visible in their head looks at objects including a laptop, glasses, calculator, cell phone, tablet, and ruler. The image is a green monochrome drawing.
February 26, 2021
Julian Dockhorn and Sonia Zamborsky

If you’re reading this piece, then you probably agree that being more inclusive is the right thing to do, and that inclusive teams and workplaces are also more productive. Psychological safety, where team members feel accepted and respected, are able to contribute, and even challenge the status quo, is a critical component of inclusive environments. The psychological safety that comes from an individual’s sense of belonging promotes trust within the team, which also fosters innovation. But how do you translate this concept into your everyday work life? A good starting point is where most of us spend “too much” time: MEETINGS! We’d like to offer a few simple options to help ramp up the inclusion and productivity of meetings you run.

Turn cameras off when not needed

Make it normal and acceptable to pause/disable your camera, especially if you’re not speaking. Stress can tax performance for everyone, and knowing that you’re being watched is a source of stress, so a cameras-off standard can help reduce stress and improve overall performance for the organization. Above and beyond that, people in marginalized groups can experience more intense stress from being watched, so you’re helping level the playing field by reducing this kind of stress overall. Protip: When group leaders say people can pause/disable their cameras, it’s most effective to demonstrate that it’s acceptable by doing it themselves.

Take breaks

Maximize focus and productivity by taking breaks. This makes us more energized and attentive. Great options include 15 minute breaks after 45 minutes of focus, or 30 minute breaks after 90 minutes. That may seem like a lot of time to spend on breaks, but you will actually get more done in meetings (and throughout your day!) if you take breaks. Encourage people to hydrate, move around or go outside if that’s an option, and shift their attention to something else during the break.

Send the agenda ahead of time

People with shared expectations can get through their work together faster and more effectively. List the topics and attendees you expect, say who/what is required vs optional, and an estimate of duration for each part of the meeting. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting timing as you go, but do let people know when you expect to spend just a few minutes on topic A and the bulk of your time on topic B. Items that can be dropped/postponed should be at the end of the meeting or can go into the parking lot for another conversation. Even if the agenda isn’t perfect, it’s better to send a draft than nothing at all.

Design each meeting for how you’d like it to go

Put the most pressing and complicated issues very close to the beginning, when everyone’s focus is freshest and strongest.

Measure inclusion

You can track inclusion metrics as a meeting participant as well as meeting leader: note how many times each person gets a turn speaking. Start each meeting with a quick list of names of who is there, and each time a person gets the floor, mark a tally by their name. (“Gets the floor” means, they are talking when nobody else is talking at the same time) After the meeting, look at the info you’ve gathered. The most productive work teams are those where people get about equal turns speaking. You may also notice patterns needing some intervention: if people in marginalized groups (e.g. people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, youngest/oldest employees, disabled people) get significantly fewer turns speaking, that’s not the fault of the people who get fewer turns speaking. It is data pointing to ways the leaders of the organization (or of the meeting) need to improve inclusion. How to use the data… that’s a topic for another article.

Level up explicitly inclusive practices

Each workplace may be ready for some changes, and have work to do before going further with others. Depending on where you and your team are, consider if some of these examples might be a good next step.

Use a tool that helps you, whether it’s Versatackle or not

The tools we use can make it easier to be more inclusive. We’ve got a vested interest in Versatackle, but features on other platforms can also be used to make meetings more inclusive and productive. It’s more important to us to help make the world more inclusive, than that you use our product.

Recognize what’s going well

There’s a lot of work to do to make the world into the inclusive place it should be. You’ve read an article about it, and if you can make things a little better this week, great. Keep it up! Give yourself a high-five. (…but don’t ask the marginalized people in the group for one. That’s not their job.) Making small changes that stick is the best route to sustainable progress.

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