Let’s be honest—meetings have never been the panacea for encouraging problem-solving, collaboration, and camaraderie they were intended to be. But now that some of us are back in the office and others are still at home, frankly, they’re even worse.
We all know hybrid work is probably here to stay. And while it may not always be easy, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we work, especially when it comes to meetings.
In my work with companies big and small, the most common pain point I see associated with hybrid meetings is inclusivity. Even in the same room, introverts are silenced by their extroverted colleagues, while women often deal with a disproportionate amount of interruptions and the co-opting of their ideas. Now, with hybrid meetings becoming more mainstream, another group joins this embattled crew—remote workers trying to meaningfully engage while in-room side conversations, insufficient technology, and poor planning by meeting leaders actively work against them.
If you care about cognitive diversity and inclusion—which you definitely should—I recommend these shifts to make meetings better for everyone.
IF YOU’RE THE MEETING HOST:
• Shift your mindset. Your responsibility as a meeting leader doesn’t end with putting time on the calendar and kicking off the conversation. You’re accountable for using attendees’ time effectively, whether they are in-room or remote. Keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times to ensure the meeting stays on course.
• Define the purpose. Your meeting should have the purpose stated in the invitation. When drafting a purpose statement, think through the central meeting objective, and use verbs in your statement that make this outcome clear. “Generate options for,” “integrate feedback on,” and “finalize the decision about” make it clear how the time will be spent. “Connect on” or “discuss” simply don’t.
• Bring the right people to the (virtual) table. Now that you have a clear purpose, identify and invite the people necessary to accomplish that purpose—and no one else. Having too many people—or the wrong people—prevents high-quality dialogue from happening. One easy check is to divide the total meeting time by the number of attendees. In a 30-minute meeting with 10 attendees, for example, each person starts out with only about three minutes of available airtime—rarely enough to make a meaningful contribution.
• Make sure everyone can participate. Meetings are truly inclusive when those attending are able to contribute their full value, and meetings are effective when everyone’s time is well-used. Before the meeting, send a clear, purpose-based agenda, along with any relevant materials, and be clear on what kinds of feedback you’re looking to hear. This way, everyone knows why they’re in the room, and they can prepare in advance. During the meeting, actively draw out quieter participants, invite diverse points of view, and monitor the airtime of the most dominant voices, curbing them if needed.
IF YOU’RE A MEETING PARTICIPANT:
• Take an active role. Assuming your meeting leader has done their job, you’ve been asked to join the meeting because you have an important perspective to bring, whether it’s as a decision-maker, a subject matter expert, or someone who’s known for bringing fresh ideas to the table. If you’re not clear on what your role is, ask.
• Arrive prepared and be present. When you accept a meeting invitation, you signal to the meeting host and other participants that you will arrive prepared to contribute. Block off time on your calendar to review any reading materials and organize your thoughts. Once you’re there, signal your engagement: If you’re virtual, keep your camera on. If you’re in the room, refrain from side conversations. And either way, don’t multitask.
• Be a meeting hero. Teamwork from attendees goes a long way in making sure meetings are productive and inclusive. Point out connections between ideas when you hear them, ask for clarity when the group is looking confused, and suggest taking a discussion offline if the conversation gets derailed. The ROI of a meeting is everyone’s responsibility.
So much of the focus around diversity, equity, and inclusion is on policy and representation. While these are foundational, it’s the day-to-day work practices that can create or inhibit real inclusion. Given the percentage of our work lives spent in meetings, they are a great place to focus to ensure everyone’s voice is valued.