How to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging, Effective, and Inclusive

Just before all the restaurants were closed due to Coronavirus, I was meeting with my colleague, Kim, over lunch. We started talking about how much more we had been using videoconferencing for our meetings. I mentioned that in addition to all the in-person trainings I do, I have used videoconferencing for my meetings and trainings for years, and how much more inclusive, less biased, and more innovative they can be than even in-person meetings, if facilitated well.

As Kim began to ask me to explain why and how, she said, “This is information people need to know, especially right now!” And so here we are!

And let me first say that I am not referring to webinars where there is often a head on a screen talking at you for an hour. I am speaking about an engaging, interactive workshop, training, or meeting where people feel like they have been seen and heard and included in ways it is difficult to do in-person.

Interestingly, my reasons for using videoconferencing for meetings and trainings in the past has been to conserve resources for my clients – both time and money because of the elimination of travel for me and for organization members around the globe who want to participate. Now, during this time of forced isolation, it is becoming the standard business practice. 

Here are a few ways videoconferencing lowers bias, and how to make the experience more inclusive, engaging and effective for all participants.

Virtual meetings decrease bias

In my 20 years of conducting implicit/unconscious bias training, I always explain the disastrous effects that bias can cause. Bias is insidious in that it makes it more likely that some voices will be heard and others silenced. This can cause disenfranchisement, leads to worse decisions that ultimately will effect your organization’s bottom line, lowers morale, fosters exclusion, and lowers organizational loyalty. Many biases can be virtually eliminated (pun intended) with videoconferencing.

For example, proximity bias – research shows that we tend to favor people who are nearer to us than those who are farther away, which can create an in-group/out-group situation. Proximity bias is mitigated in videoconferences because all faces on the screen are roughly the same distance from you.

Second is confirmation bias – we tend to make decisions based on what we already know or believe to be true without considering counter or additional information. Videoconferencing offers unique, convenient opportunities to challenge confirmation bias. We can pause meetings and break up into private chat rooms at the touch of a button. Smaller chat rooms can provide spaces to develop alternative ideas, counter information, or evidence to consider. We don’t often take the time to do this during in-person meetings.

Alternatively, facilitators can invite participants to type suggestions or objections in the Chat feature during the meeting. These messages can be sent only to the facilitator, rather than to the whole group. The facilitator can then voice those important ideas anonymously, so the participant can release anxiety about interrupting a meeting or voicing a “risky” idea. These “risky” ideas may be innovative solutions that so often go unheard. 

Virtual meetings/trainings increase diversity, inclusion, and accessibility

As long as you have access to a screen and the Internet, you can participate in a virtual meeting. For people with disabilities (both temporary and lifelong) and for people with financial challenges that make transportation challenging, videoconferencing allows all people to be present in the room. Opening meetings to all people adds expertise, different viewpoints, and a multitude of lived experiences. Videoconferencing from home also allows access to meetings for employees who have family care responsibilities.

Virtual meetings/trainings take some forethought to be effective

Here are some suggestions to make your videoconferencing experience more successful. 

1. Do your homework: Get very acquainted with the videoconferencing technology before the meeting, especially the additional features offered on most platforms (chat boxes, breakout rooms, white board, screen sharing, among others). There are many video tutorials that will help you, and most platforms have technical support, even for “free” subscribers. Be sure to know the limits of the “free” plans – like time constraints or maximum number of attendees, and upgrade if necessary.

2. Include clear instructions for participants to enter the meeting. It is likely that more and more people who have never used this technology before will be using it at this time.

3. Schedule time at the beginning of the meeting for social interaction. Research shows that people can feel isolated in virtual meetings because the agenda is prioritized over social connection. Trust-building through an invitation for each person to share either one-by-one or simultaneously through the chat feature, on the other hand, can make attendees feel included and connected. Trust makes people feel more engaged and makes it more likely your meeting will be more successful and fun!

4. Pause as often as possible to ask if people have questions – they can ask orally or in the chat box. It is great to have someone other than the facilitator monitoring the chat box in case there are any technological issues that arise with participants or timely critical questions.

Some of these suggestions were corroborated in a recent Forbes article from the NeuroLeadership Institute, which adds the importance of having a clear connection both in terms of audio and video for an effective videoconferencing session.

How to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging, Effective, and InclusiveHow to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging, Effective, and InclusiveFor more ideas, or to offer your staff a training about how to create a more engaging, inclusive virtual meeting experience, please feel free to reach out to me at www.denasamuels.com or by email at: info@denasamuels.com.

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