The hybrid work model has become part of our post-pandemic “new normal,” and evidence is mounting that it will become an even bigger part of our future. A recent survey of senior executives shows that 81 percent “believe that hybrid work will be the foremost working model by 2024.”
What does this mean for companies who are striving to create more diversity, equity and inclusion in their organization? The answers are mixed, but there’s one thing we know for sure. Even simple activities, like holding a meeting, just got a lot more complicated. To set the context for how to make meetings more inclusive in the hybrid work environment, let’s first take a step back to look at the advantages and disadvantages for DEI in the hybrid workplace.
Advantages for DEI and the hybrid workplace
On the diversity aspect of DEI, research indicates 91 percent of senior executives believe a hybrid work model will improve workforce diversity. And it’s easy to understand why. Opening the workplace to remote employees has broadened hiring opportunities for companies, enabling talent management and HR professionals to choose from a more diverse pool of candidates.
And in practice, remote/hybrid work has some definite advantages for DEI. For instance, it has eased the difficulties that come with an arduous commute. And while this benefits everyone, it’s especially helpful to people with disabilities and caregivers (often women) who need flexibility for child or eldercare. It’s also helpful to economically disadvantaged people who may have to travel farther to live affordably — spending time and money to reach a work location in an affluent area.
Disadvantages for DEI in the hybrid workplace
However, while the remote/hybrid world has opened new possibilities for people who might otherwise be shut out of the workforce, remote/hybrid employees can sometimes feel overlooked or forgotten. A recent SHRM article on proximity bias references a survey of 10,000 white-collar workers conducted by Future Forum, a research consortium created by Slack. The findings indicate more than four of 10 executives ranked the potential inequities between remote and in-office employees as their No. 1 concern. Even so, the survey found bosses are twice as likely to prefer working in the office at least three days a week—and want their employees to be there, too. One way to combat proximity bias and foster a culture of inclusivity? Put the focus on making meetings as inclusive as possible.
Making meetings more inclusive
First, let’s consider an obvious but sometimes overlooked question. Do you need a meeting or is there another solution that would work better? Would the meeting work better if it was “remote” for everyone (i.e., even if they are in the office, they participate like a remote employee.) It’s worth asking yourself what you want to accomplish and if this is the best setting in which to do it. With these questions answered, some of what follows can apply to any meeting, but it is particularly relevant in addressing the complexities of a hybrid meeting.
- It’s important to prioritize DEI—The concept of inclusivity embraces the idea of a human-centric organization that cares about everyone (no exclusions). For more inclusive meetings, all the same DEI principles apply. To build a platform where everyone has a shared understanding of what it means to have a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, ensure employees and managers get the education and training they need to support each other both in and out of meetings.
- Meetings need to be designed with everyone in mind—What makes hybrid meetings especially challenging is that remote and in-person participants will have a different experience. That’s added to the fact that people are different and may experience the same situation differently. It’s helpful to understand your meeting participants. Take stock of who will be in the meeting and whether they will be remote or in-person. Find out about their likes/dislikes regarding meetings, preferred meeting times and any personal or cultural differences that may affect how you structure and run the meeting (an informal chat or simple survey can help you accomplish this).
- Remote/hybrid meetings amplify existing problems—According to experts at Gartner, “A good rule of thumb is that if the in-person meeting is terrible, the remote version of the same will be exponentially more so. This means that, in a remote working environment, the way you run meetings becomes crucial to the productivity and cohesion of the team.” So, there’s a good chance whatever problems you experienced before the pandemic are going to follow you. That could mean there’s a systemic issue to be addressed that goes beyond the format of your meeting.
- Meeting facilitation is more challenging in a hybrid meeting—Not only does the facilitator need to understand the participants’ personal and cultural preferences and perspectives, they also need to manage and react to situations both inside the room and in the virtual space. For building inclusivity, this means having the education and training needed to understand behavioral cues and potential pitfalls. Ensure your DEI education and training address these situations.
- It helps when everyone participates in the remote/hybrid model—It may not be a practical requirement, but it’s helpful if everyone, at some level, participates in meetings remotely sometimes. It levels the playing field. If people have the experience of being a remote participant in a meeting, they are more likely to be understanding about things like the inevitable technical glitches, or how remote participants can sometimes feel excluded by their in-person peers.
- Not all meetings are the same—If we’re talking about an informal meeting with a few participants, planning and technology needs are much simpler than a company-wide meeting. Think of the latter more like an event than a meeting and apply the talent, expertise and time needed to pull off something that complex.
7 tips for creating more inclusive meetings
After reviewing the latest thinking and research on hybrid meetings and consulting with our own thought leaders on diversity, equity and inclusion, here are seven tips that will help you create more inclusive meetings.
- Start and end the meeting at the agreed-upon time—Maybe this is obvious, but it’s one of those problems that can become systemic. There will always be exceptions, but a clear way to be respectful to people is to meet their expectations about the time they have committed to meeting with the group. Starting or ending a meeting late should be the exception, not the norm.
- Choose and use technology that prioritizes human interactions—Not all companies are able to invest in the latest advances in hybrid meeting technology (i.e., expensive cameras and video equipment). But everyone can prioritize their technology needs and test them in advance. Audio is often a critical aspect of most meetings. Nothing makes a meeting break down more than a constant “I can’t hear you.” If screen-sharing or video streaming capabilities are important, then make sure everyone is equipped and comfortable with that technology. And while video of meeting participants helps to humanize the experience, it’s also important to be understanding for those moments when people don’t feel “camera ready.”
- Make sure there’s one meeting, not two—There’s no denying hybrid meetings have a built-in disadvantage in that two groups have distinctly different experiences. To avoid this, agree on some ground rules. For instance, the team may agree to avoid in-person side-bar conversations that can’t be heard by remote participants. It may also help to take turns speaking, “raise hands” (virtually or in-person) to ensure everyone is heard. And don’t forget to decide how you plan to use the chat function to support the meeting. For instance, will it be useful for engaging remote employees? Will in-person participants be able to see the chat? Or do you want to collect chat points/questions and address them all at once?
- At the start of the meeting take time to check in with the participants—Again, the facilitator needs to have a good read on the virtual and in-person room. Take the time to check in on people and review the agenda. “Here’s what we’re planning to talk about and accomplish.” Does everyone feel good about this approach? Remind participants the team should be hard on problems, not on each other. And don’t forget to interject some fun in your meetings. That doesn’t have to be in the form of “forced” fun. It’s more about creating an atmosphere where people are comfortable. Laughter can be a great way to connect.
- Ensure all voices are heard—Quiet people can be difficult to read and if they are remote with fewer physical cues, it’s even harder. Be sure to engage everyone in the group, asking for their perspective and insights. Sometimes people need to feel they have permission to interject their thoughts, while others may dominate the conversation. In a hybrid setting, the facilitator’s role in bringing all voices forward in a balanced way is crucial.
- Reiterate what the group is saying and ask for clarifications—Don’t assume everyone heard the same thing and understands it in the same way. Pause periodically to reiterate what the group has said and has agreed to. Create an atmosphere where people have permission to ask questions, or to question the decision itself. Ask a team member to provide their reasoning if they disagree and give them ample space to be heard.
- Outline outcomes and ensure there is shared understanding on where the discussion landed—Conclude the meeting with an overview of what was decided and the who, what, when on follow-through. Be sincere in thanking everyone for their time and attention. If the discussion was heated, this is a good opportunity to remind everyone about how important they are as individuals and how much value they contribute toward accomplishing goals and advancing the organization’s shared purpose.
- Follow-up with individuals and the whole group on outcomes and seek feedback—Despite your best efforts, there may be times when people feel too guarded to speak up, or they need more time to process what they heard. Or perhaps there was an opposite situation where someone dominated the conversation. Or maybe people felt confused about the outcome but uncomfortable about saying so. In all such cases, follow-up can help. Post-meeting follow-ups may happen during regular check-ins or sooner if needed. The goal of these interactions is to help everyone be heard and to get their support on cultivating inclusivity.
Like any meeting, hybrid meetings can foster greater collaboration, understanding and cohesion—and serve as a key tool for supporting an inclusive environment. Yes, they are tricky, and they will require much more attention and care than traditional, or even fully remote meetings. Often the most helpful advice you’ll get will be from the participants themselves. They will know best how meetings can support their ability to contribute to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.