How to host inclusive Zoom meetings

Chairing successful meetings on a video platform is a critical skill for current and aspiring leaders, as these types of meetings are now the new norm and will continue to be even post pandemic, says Patricia Seabright

Meetings are the crucible of the knowledge work economy. They are where the problems are discussed, the solutions explored, the opportunities identified. A trait of successful leaders is the ability to get the most from their teams, so the ability to host highly productive meetings has always been an essential skill. The pandemic induced switch to video platforms, as the location for virtually all meetings has created the need for some additional skills.

While super-efficient from a time and travel perspective, there are also a number of issues with online meetings.

It’s much easier for the quiet, shy or retiring participants to say little. Women, who can often prefer not to stick their head above the parapet and speak up in boisterous meetings, are particularly adept at fading away into the comfortable background on a zoom call.

Perhaps they keep their lighting dim or turn their camera off completely. During In person meetings a chair can look around the room read the body language they can see who is disengaged or simply shy and seek to bring them into the conversation. It is much harder to spot this online when all you can see is a head shot.

The digital technology is such that you really can’t hear a thing if more than one person is talking, so it is hard to interject and one person (often a man) can more easily ‘hog the floor’ It can be hard to attract attention, in a large meeting the chair can find it hard to notice someone in their little box with a real or digital hand up, waiting to contribute.

All these things add up to make it hard for quieter participants to be heard in the video platform world we are now in.

So as the chair what should you do to make sure your meetings are inclusive and all voices get heard all ideas and solutions shared, so that you are more likely to have a successful outcome to your meeting?

Here are five tips

1Proactively ask people to speak
Don’t throw out questions and leave it to the more confident, extroverted (often white, ‘alpha male’) participants to answer. Actively go around the group and ask everyone for feedback. There has been research with doctors doing rounds with student medics and professors in MBA classes that has shown you dramatically increase female participation by doing this. Not only that, by widening participation you get a broader discussion that is helpful for all. 

2Set a clear time structure
Make it clear that you will give everyone (or at least every group) a chance to speak, calculate and stick to timings to give everyone equal ‘airspace.’ If needed, employ the guillotine process where you all agree the process whereby you have to stop dead, mid-sentence, when the buzzer goes off!

3Set a clear framework for how to contribute
Let people know how you will manage the discussion.  How will you invite people to speak? via the digital raised hands for example. Set it out early, stick to it. You must then not allow people to just shout out and speak without being invited to. Establishing the process upfront enables you get participants buy in and doesn’t just leave it to an unclear or random process that only the very confident will navigate. If you use this process, maybe ask someone to help you identify raised hands as it can be tough to see everyone especially in big meetings.

4Encourage cameras on
Women have found the zoom environment, where you are constantly looking at yourself as well as other participants, very hard. One survey suggested that many lock down zoom meetings start late after women have felt the need to apologize that they haven’t had time to do their hair/ make-up etc to the usual standards. Women are judged much more than men on appearance so this concern is very legitimate and can cause women to not want to turn their cameras on. However, unless there is a bandwidth issue, cameras should be on. Humans get something from looking at each other (connection/ trust/ rapport) and having some people not visible does not foster engagement and inclusivity. Chairs can help by making opening comments that reflect the challenging circumstance of the pandemic and welcome all camera’s on regardless of formal attire or grooming.

5Zero tolerance for interruptions
In Lean IN Sheryl Sandberg talks about Ken Chenault a CEO of American Express who acknowledges that men and women are more likely to interrupt women. She says that to combat this, as a leader, Cheault takes responsibility to call this out wherever he sees this happen and will stop a meeting to point it out and allow the interrupted woman to finish her point. If you’re running a meeting or chairing a digital meeting you should be alert to noticing this and be prepared to challenge it.

Chairing successful meetings on a video platform is a critical skill for current and aspiring leaders. This is especially true as these types of meetings are now the new norm and will undoubtedly continue to be the lion’s share of meeting formats even post pandemic.

Patricia Seabright is a speaking coach and the author of She Said! A guide for millennial women to speaking and being heard.

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