Virtual meetings are here to stay, even with the development of a COVID vaccine. Many companies have announced work-from-home policies that extend through 2021 or indefinitely. And yet, when we’re not face to face, it’s easier for people to feel disconnected. Isolation can lead to disengagement, low productivity, and burnout. So how can we continue to build inclusive work cultures in this ongoing virtual environment?
Virtual meetings--perhaps the most common forum for employee interaction--present a tremendous opportunity to foster a sense of belonging that improves employee experience and performance. Here are 10 actions you can take to create more belonging today.
1. Share the meeting purpose and agenda in advance
Meetings tend to have one of three purposes: 1) to deepen understanding about a topic, 2) to narrow or refine choices, or 3) to make a decision. Enable team members to show up ready to contribute by giving advance notice about why you are meeting (purpose) and how you’ll spend your time (agenda). In the case of recurring meetings, highlight timely topics you’d like to cover. You might find you’re able to run your meeting more efficiently and with greater alignment now that everyone is literally on the same page.
2. Add your pronouns to your Zoom profile
Have you seen “they/them” or “she/her” or other pronouns appended to someone’s email signature or Zoom name? Explicitly sharing your pronouns helps build belonging for trans, gender nonconforming, and gender non-binary people. Our pronouns relate to our gender identities. For example, I identify as a man and use “he/him.” My gender identity matches the sex assigned to me at birth. As such, I have cisgender privilege. Sharing my pronouns helps normalize this practice for others. Rather than assume someone’s gender identity based on clothing, hairstyle, or other outwardly facing characteristics, you can build belonging by providing opportunities for people to share their pronouns regardless of their gender expression. Customizing your Zoom profile is quick and easy--add your pronouns to the end of your profile’s last name so they appear in Zoom meetings by default.
3. Play music as people join the meeting room
Did you know the beginning and end of a meeting are often the most memorable parts? You can make those moments count by playing an upbeat song as people log in or out. Use Zoom’s advanced screen share features to share computer sound only so you can still see people’s faces in gallery view. Pro tip: cut the volume to 50% on your app (e.g., within Spotify, iTunes) so you can still chit chat as everyone arrives. Solicit favorite tunes from your team and then share the playlist with everyone. Build even more belonging by identifying who picked the song and inviting them to tell a story associated with the track.
4. Start with check-ins
Check-ins go a long way towards building rapport and psychological safety. Fight the urge to deprioritize this exercise with excuses such as “we need to get straight to business” or “it’s too touchy feely.” Facilitate a round so each person has a turn. You can set a timebox (e.g., 2 minutes each) if helpful. Allow teammates to voice what they need to be fully present during the meeting. If someone indicates they are unable to be present, gently give them permission to excuse themselves. As a team leader, you set the tone.
5. Acknowledge tragedy
Acknowledge public tragedy as well as private loss. We might be used to saying something when a colleague’s loved one dies. It’s also important to say something after a school shooting, or when a Black person is murdered by police, or when a synagogue or mosque is attacked by white nationalists. Not acknowledging public tragedies colludes with a dominant (i.e., white) culture of "nice" that tends to sweep tensions under the rug rather than face them head on. Not acknowledging public tragedies ignores and excludes teammates who are most impacted by those events. Check in with these colleagues one-on-one, as well. With their permission, give them an opportunity to be heard and seen by the rest of the team. Doing this skillfully will foster connection and belonging for the rest of the group as well as the individual.
6. Ground with a moment of silence
Employees at EILEEN FISHER start their meetings with a moment of silence. I was introduced to this practice as a graduate intern on EF’s organization development team and I loved it. After rushing from one conference room to the next, I found myself able to sink into the current moment, allowing the craze of my last meeting to wash off before starting a new one. A moment of silence is a mindfulness practice that enables team members to show up more present and engaged. Use your phone to set a timer for 1 minute (or longer). Sometimes setting an intention can enhance this meditation. For example, if you’re heading into a planning session, before starting the timer you can suggest people put their attention towards creative possibilities. If you already start your meetings with music and/or check-ins, you can use this moment of silence before diving into the meat of your agenda.
7. Solicit input from every team member
Have you ever found yourself competing with colleagues for airtime to share your point of view? Chances are you were more focused on finding a place to speak up than listening closely to what others were saying. Your colleagues likely weren’t listening closely to you, either. A skillful leader can avoid this common occurrence by facilitating a round, inviting each person to speak in turn. A round alleviates anxieties connected to a basic human need to be heard. Start with more junior team members. Lack of tenure is often used as an excuse not to listen to newer or younger people. We can contradict this bias by creating space for their voices to be heard. Make it clear that you can come back to folks who would like more time to think and that it’s okay to pass altogether. After a round of input from everyone, you can decide if it makes sense to open up the discussion so anyone who’s motivated to speak can do so.
8. Rotate note-taking responsibilities
Recording meeting minutes can be an effective way to ensure team alignment on key decisions and next steps. The responsibility of notetaking, however, is often delegated as an afterthought--a ripe situation for unconscious bias. Women are more often asked to take meeting notes than men. Consider rotating the note-taking responsibility and asking male team members to step up first. Clarify how detailed the notes need to be, as the act of notetaking often takes the scribe out of the conversation. To build alignment, allow space for the notetaker to repeat back the decision or action item before moving on.
9. End with appreciations
To see and be seen are basic human needs. Appreciations, when done well, fill these needs and create belonging. Don’t wait until the end of a project to appreciate the contributions of your team members. Create opportunities to share gratitude throughout the engagement, especially after major or minor milestones. Try ending your next sprint retrospective with a ten-minute round of appreciations--each person shares one thing they appreciate about a teammate, ensuring everyone both gives and receives the love. Encourage team members to note specific behavior: “I appreciate the strategic thinking you bring to our team, like the time you helped me hone our agenda to align more closely with our objectives.” It’s amazing what a seemingly small activity like this can do for individual and team morale.
10. Keep documentation in one, easy-to-find place
What good are meeting notes and team documents if they’re hard to find? Knowledge is power; enable fair access to it. Cloud storage makes this easy. Align on a single place and file-naming convention to organize your team’s information. Leverage hyperlinks when referencing documents to ensure files can be found even if moved. It might also be worth taking time to align your team on how to communicate and document additional decisions or ideas that arise in sidebar conversations (akin to watercooler talk in our virtual environment).
There is no silver bullet for creating belonging. Inclusion is a journey, not a destination. It’s about the climate and culture you want to create, not about any one particular lever you can pull.
Special thanks to Talia Cooper for helping me refine the main points of this article.
For more on designing strategic conversations based on one of these three meeting purposes, see Ertel and Solomon’s Moments of Impact.