In some ways, video meetings are a lot like in-person meetings. You get together, say hello, and get down to business. Unfortunately, that also means that the same biases that exist in physical offices can carry over into video meetings. During in-person meetings, women and people of color are more likely to be interrupted, for example, and being on video doesn’t stop that.
Video meetings can also exacerbate the inequalities that exist in physical workplaces and even introduce new challenges. For example, you can’t read body language or facial expressions as easily, so it’s more difficult to tell if someone is uncomfortable or disagrees with you. In large video meetings, it can be extra hard to signal that you have something to say without interrupting someone, which could make it harder for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, or introverts to be heard. During the pandemic, people are at home with their children and other family members, which can lead to other distractions or barriers to participating. And on top of all that, being on video calls is also more physically draining, which can make it even harder to feel like you have a chance to contribute.
The good news is that you can do something about these problems, whether you’re a meeting organizer or a participant. Here, experts share simple tips you can use to make your video meetings more inclusive and welcoming for all.
1. Send Out a Meeting Agenda Ahead of Time
If you’re organizing the meeting, send an email with an agenda as early as you can, says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies, a book about creating more inclusive, engaging workplaces. Include what’s going to be covered and what’s required in terms of prep. This information will help introverts and others who might need time to prepare if they’re going to answer questions, contribute ideas, or present to colleagues.
2. Keep Everyone’s Situations in Mind When Scheduling Meetings
Many parents are trying to keep their kids on track with virtual learning while they work from home. Others might care for older or sick family members. That means they might have limited windows during the day when they can be available for meetings. If you’re a meeting organizer, you should try to account for these various situations when choosing a meeting time. Check in with your colleagues about the best blocks for meetings and avoid times when parents on your team might need to be more hands-on with kids, for example.
Staying flexible on the time may allow you to accommodate everybody, “as opposed to some people being left out because of other responsibilities they now have to take on given COVID-19,” says Beth Chandler, president and CEO of YW Boston, a nonprofit working with organizations to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote justice.
3. Normalize Distractions With Patience and Compassion
You can create a welcoming environment for people who are taking care of family at home, Chandler says. Often, people feel the need to apologize when a child, animal, or parent interrupts, she says. In that situation, any meeting participant can respond with, No need to apologize. X takes precedence. Another possible response is, I love having the opportunity to see X, Chandler says. If the situation seems pressing, she recommends saying, I see that X needs your attention. I’m happy to wait or we can reschedule for a time that’s more convenient.
4. Make It Optional for People to Turn Their Cameras On
Include a note in the calendar invite for meetings that says turning your camera on is optional, Catlin suggests. “By forcing people to turn on their camera, you get a peek into their personal life that they might not be willing to share,” she says. Some people might live in a more crowded household, or they might’ve had a hectic morning and didn’t have time to get ready in the way they’d like. A new parent might need to nurse their baby during the call, while parents of older children may need to attend to sudden interruptions. Being able to turn their camera off allows all of these people to join without feeling self-conscious about their home lives or anxious that they’ll be penalized for having to multitask.
Even if you’re not responsible for organizing a meeting, you can play a role in normalizing the choice to join with audio only. At the very least, make sure you don’t call anyone out for keeping their camera off!
5. Share Your Pronouns on the Screen
Many video meeting platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, and Microsoft Teams allow users to change their display names. Chandler recommends that people add their personal pronouns; her Zoom display name, for example, is “Beth Chandler, she/her.”
YW Boston doesn’t require people to add their pronouns to their display name or email signature, but they encourage it to cultivate a culture that acknowledges that you can’t assume someone’s gender or pronouns by looking at them. “Often, when people see others doing it, they get more comfortable in doing it themselves,” she says. You can also introduce yourself with your pronouns when new staff members join or anytime you’re going around the “room” to do intros.
Catlin notes that some companies use an internal software for video meetings that displays whatever name HR has on file for the employee. You may not be able to change this as an individual employee, but it’s worth checking in with HR and IT (or whoever oversees the tech) to see if it’s possible to allow employees to choose their display names in case they’d prefer to go by a nickname or they’ve changed their name (for instance, if they’re in the process of transitioning).
6. Make Sure Your Video Program Has Accessibility Features
Look for video technologies that can help everyone participate in meetings in a meaningful way.
Some video conferencing platforms offer automatic, live closed captions, which appear as someone is speaking, for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. Chandler also recommends using software that is accessible for people who are blind or have low vision and use screen readers that turn text, images, and other elements into audio or braille. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and BlueJeans all offer live closed captions that are created by artificial intelligence (so they can be imperfect depending on audio quality). Zoom only offers live closed captioning if you type them in yourself or use a third-party service. All of these programs are also screen reader accessible.
If your company doesn’t use software that offers these features, you can advocate to make the switch by asking your manager about it during a one-on-one call or bringing it up to HR or leadership. You can also suggest testing out a free platform for a specific meeting to demonstrate the impact of better accessibility.
7. Make Space for Everyone to Speak
If there are some quiet people in your meeting, or people who’ve just had trouble getting a word in edgewise, Catlin suggests saying something like, Okay, we’re going to take a pause here, and I’d like to invite anyone who hasn’t had a chance to speak yet to come off of mute and share their thoughts.
“And that is very specific in terms of the language I used,” Catlin says. “‘If anyone would like to share their thoughts,’ as opposed to maybe calling on one person in particular who might not be prepared, who might have a young child who just distracted them in the background.”
You can also use breakout groups so that people who have trouble speaking in larger forums can have a chance to contribute ideas with just a few colleagues. For instance, if you’re having folks brainstorm for an upcoming project, you could split them up into smaller groups for 10 minutes, and then have a representative from each group report back to everyone with their best ideas.
Chandler also recommends encouraging people to use a shared “whiteboard,” such as Padlet, that allows them to give feedback or make comments anonymously. “Ideally, organizations are creating environments where people feel that they can speak up freely without fear of negative consequences, but such environments take time and hard work to create and nurture,” Chandler says. If meeting participants fear that they could be punished for sharing their thoughts or criticisms honestly, “anonymity provides a safe way to provide feedback and input.”
8. Look Out for Interruptions
Pay attention to who is speaking the most—and who keeps getting interrupted. A few different studies have found that women are interrupted more frequently than men, and that men specifically interrupt women more than they do other men. Other studies have shown how men dominate meetings, calls, and other contexts. A July 2020 survey by the nonprofit Catalyst with Edelman Intelligence found that 45% of female leaders (and 42% of male leaders) agreed that “it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings.” Additionally, the survey found that one in five women reports feeling “ignored and overlooked by coworkers during video calls.”
Any meeting participant can intervene when they notice interruptions by saying something like, Hey, I’d like to hear [the employee who was interrupted] finish their thought, Catlin says.
If a man is often interrupting people, Catlin says other men can use their power and privilege to support their other colleagues by sending a private message to the interruptor saying: “We’re both talking a lot, maybe we should both listen more.”
9. Practice Amplification
President Obama’s female aides used and popularized a tactic called amplification to ensure they were heard more in male-dominated meetings. When a woman said something important, another woman would repeat her and make it clear whose idea it was so that a man couldn’t claim it as his own later.
This technique works outside the West Wing and in virtual meetings, too. Both meeting organizers and participants can use amplification in video meetings to recognize the contributions of employees from marginalized communities, Chandler says. “It’s particularly important for people who may feel there’s a power dynamic and/or don’t often speak up…to get that confirmation that somebody heard that.”
You can say, This is what I think I heard you say, and that’s a great idea. Or, I love Juanita’s idea to incorporate user testimonials as part of the new campaign. I think it would be really effective with our audience.
10. Use Messaging and Hand Raise Features
Leverage all of the different features your video program has to make it easier for everyone to contribute. Just make sure that everyone knows how to use them. Chandler says a “hand raise” feature, for example, can allow someone to signal when they have something to say, which can be useful for people who don’t like to interject.
The chat function is also helpful for managers to help people who have trouble thinking on the spot, like introverts. Rather than calling on someone without warning, Catlin recommends messaging them something like, Hey, in a couple of minutes, I’d love for you to share the results of your research. This will help them better prepare, and they can also alert you if they need a little more time.
If you know that a colleague has an important suggestion or idea, but they seem hesitant to speak up, you could also use the chat function to encourage them to share it.
11. Record the Meeting, But Have Someone Take Notes Too
Inevitably, some people might join meetings late or miss them due to interruptions or other responsibilities. In those situations, you can record meetings through a platform like Skype or Zoom, and then email the recording to anyone who couldn’t attend.
As a participant, you can also offer to take notes, which can help people who might have to step away for a few minutes during the meeting or those who have to join a few minutes late and want to be caught up, Catlin says. Post publicly in the chat to tell your coworkers that you’re taking notes so they know they can message you for those notes if they need to.
If you’re running the meeting and want to have someone take notes, be thoughtful about who you ask to do it and be wary of asking for volunteers. Women and employees of color report that they more often end up doing “office housework” instead of being given more meaningful projects that would help them advance within the company.
12. Ask for Feedback—and Give It
You can take a number of steps to make your meetings more inclusive, but don’t forget that one of the best ways to improve everyone’s experiences is to get their feedback about what’s working and what’s lacking. If you’re a manager, start a conversation with your team about how they’re doing and what they think could improve how video meetings are run. Any employee can also advocate for more inclusive video meetings, even if you haven’t been prompted by your boss. Write out a few simple suggestions for your manager or submit feedback anonymously if possible.
If you have the power and support of an entire HR department, you could deploy an official survey that covers video meeting inclusivity among other timely topics. Afterward, “disaggregate that data, looking at race and gender and maybe other identities,” Chandler says. People might be feeling great overall, but when you dig a little deeper, you might notice, for example, that people who identify as LGBTQ or women of color have more feedback than white, straight, cisgender employees. “Looking at the intersections of that data can help you identify if there may be pockets of people who are not feeling included in how you’re doing meetings and they may have some suggestions that are helpful.”