3 keys to equitable and inclusive hybrid meetings

Josh Storie

Written by

Josh Storie

Recently, I met a friend for coffee and upon arrival noticed he was rocking an Airpod, but only in his left ear. He greeted me and we began our conversation. Yet, I found it odd considering he’s not usually a solo-Airpod-in-public guy. So, I asked him about it.

“Oh, I’m in a meeting,” he informed me. When I asked if he needed to pay attention, he just laughed and said, “No, I’m pretty sure they’ve forgotten I’m even on the call.”

When it comes to hybrid meetings, this has become common for many who are dialing in virtually. Now that we are in hybrid work environments, it’s more important than ever for leaders and meeting facilitators to consider all their participants—or we run the risk of leaving virtual participants feeling completely ignored, like my friend.

Given our experience working with clients across the country, we know this isn’t always easy. The challenge before us is to provide each person with an equal seat at the table, especially because hybrid meetings aren’t going anywhere. In fact, 74% of U.S. companies are using or plan to implement permanent hybrid work models. This means we must evolve how we approach hybrid meetings if we want to be competitive, be productive, and reach our goals.

Recently, we hosted a two-part webinar series to explore these very issues. First, how do we ensure everyone is invited to the proverbial table in hybrid environments? And then, once there, how can we create rich experiences where everyone—in-person and virtual attendees alike—feels seen, heard, and engaged?

Key #1: Develop Your Hybrid Strategy

Creating equitable and inclusive meetings starts with a clear, and very intentional, strategy. Our advice here is two-fold: Be intentional (as both a leader and a participant) and be flexible.

Be Intentional as a Leader

As a leader, intentionality starts with developing a clear point of view about how you will handle hybrid meetings in your organization. What will you do—or not do—as common practices? For example, our team has decided that if one person is virtual, we’re all virtual. That means even if people are in a room together, they’ll be logged into their own laptop.

We decided this because we’re finding that everyone feels more connected when the playing field is level. We’re just more productive when we can see everyone’s face and hear everyone’s voice with clarity. That’s the POV we’ve adopted, but every culture is different. You must decide what’s right for you based on your organizational culture.

While we are beginning to frame some best practices around hybrid, we’re still making up the rules as we go. So, there’s freedom to experiment and iterate. It may take some trial and error to figure out what’s right for your team.

Be Intentional as a Participant

Just as leaders need to be intentional in how they approach hybrid meetings, we believe participants also need to be intentional in how they contribute.

Most of us don’t think about how we’re going to show up to a meeting. We just…show up. But as participants, it’s also our responsibility to be intentional to avoid becoming overly dominant or merely passive participants. While it’s up to the facilitator to invite everyone to the table, you also have a responsibility to claim your seat, whether literally in the room or virtually from home. So, make a plan to speak up and really “be in the room,” whether you’re physically there or not.

Be Flexible

In the hybrid workforce, scheduling a meeting with multiple time zones can be challenging. But the key to inclusion and equity is the willingness to be flexible when it comes to the timing of meetings.

For instance, if you have employees that live in all 4 U.S. time zones, you could set a practice that you only have meetings between 11-4 Central Standard Time. That gives your organization a 5-hour window for meetings each day, which we would argue is more than enough time. If you have a globally distributed team, it may also mean taking turns on whose working hours you cater to.

Key #2: Use Technology to Level the Playing Field

When it comes to hybrid meetings, technology should be utilized to enhance the experience, not hinder it. More specifically, technology should create opportunities for every participant to engage in richer, more dynamic ways. But first, you must attend to the two basics: can everyone see and hear what’s going on?

Ensure Quality Sound

We’ve all sat in meetings where it sounds like one person is next door, one is a hundred feet away, and another person sounds like they’re under water.

Make sure the right people are set up with microphones, so everyone can hear with clarity. Ideally, that means establishing one dedicated microphone in the room so there’s no cross-chatter and kickback. If you cannot establish a single dedicated mic, then make sure everyone who needs a mic has one.

It’s equally important to set expectations about when you don’t want to hear people. With more formal meetings where there’s a lot to get through, feel free to set stricter boundaries. Instruct the virtual participants when to remain muted and clearly invite them at the times when they’re encouraged to contribute. If the participants in the room are engaging with virtual participants through their individual laptops, make sure they use the dedicated mic in the room and keep their laptop mics on mute.

Use Clear Visuals

Facial expressions tell us a lot. In fact, 60% of communication is nonverbal. When you’re meeting in person, you can discern shifts in posture or facial expressions much easier. But in a hybrid setting, picking up on those visual cues can be more challenging. If participants are too far away from the camera or have their screens turned off, participants might miss key information from those non-verbals.

I used to joke with a former colleague that she was slow to speak in meetings, but her face wasn’t. Her facial expressions would indicate what she was thinking and feeling long before she could articulate it verbally. Our team’s ability to see her face and respond to her expressions helped us tremendously. If meeting facilitators cannot see the facial expressions of their participants, they are missing out on valuable information.

Seeing also includes the on-screen or in-room visuals. Remote participants don’t always have the luxury of seeing that giant conference room screen or whiteboard. Thus, you need to think through how you will handle that, as a standing practice. To ensure your visuals are accessible and inclusive for all, consider using a virtual whiteboard like Miro. Or if you’re using slides, send your slides ahead of time so remote participants can have access to the same visuals the in-person folks do.

One of the best ways to ensure people can hear and see is to invest in technology built specifically for hybrid meetings. In fact, 72% of companies plan to invest more in tools for virtual collaboration in the future. And 57% aim to spend money on conference rooms with enhanced virtual connectivity.

Technology is certainly the bridge to ensure hybrid participants can seamlessly access your meeting in terms of sound and visuals. But all technology in the world cannot substitute for one of the most important elements: great content.

Key #3: Create Inclusive Content

Once you’ve established an inclusive tech setup for all, it’s time to consider your meeting content. Part of ensuring equity and engagement in a hybrid environment is knowing what to say to foster inclusivity among all participants.

Follow The Golden Rule

When it comes to content, Duarte has long followed its own Golden Rule: Never deliver a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.

The same holds true for hybrid meetings. You want to make sure your content includes moments of levity, moments for engagement, moments for chit-chat and catching up, and moments where you get down to business. Variety is key to keep the interest of all audience members.

Use Inclusive Greetings

We know it can feel both weird and exciting to gather around a conference room table again, and it’s tempting to add a chorus of, “it’s so great to be back in person!” But that completely ignores your virtual participants. This is where we can take cues from hybrid-before-hybrid-was-cool pros like Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show.

If you watch the opening monologue of either you find that the host makes the at-home viewers feel just as welcome as the in-studio audience by intentionally greeting both audiences and splitting eye contact between the two. This approach works for hybrid meetings as well. So, make sure your meeting openings (and closings) also acknowledge your participants equally.

Implement Visual Hierarchy

A key component of developing clear, compelling content is how you visually architect that content in your presentation. In other words, when it comes to visually displaying your content in a meeting, it’s essential to keep in mind your on-slide design—from headlines and key points to graphics and images.

To ensure equity for your visual content, make sure your on-screen content mirrors what you’re telling your audience. This helps virtual audiences know where you are during the presentation—and helps focus their attention. For example, make your slide headlines the conclusion of your slide’s content, so your audience quickly gathers the big takeaway. You can also use animation to draw everyone’s eye to one place on the screen when you want to call out a certain data point.

Curb Your Content

We know it’s tempting to go back to 60-minute meetings. After all, that was the pre-Covid norm. But while folks in-person might have an easier time maintaining attention for longer periods, your virtual participants are probably still struggling. Remember, Zoom fatigue is real. So, keep your content short to maintain audience attention for all.

Navigating Forward, Together

While our all-virtual world of Covid—and now hybrid world—has brought us all a great deal of flexibility, this new way of working has also forced us to be far more intentional. At the end of the day, creating equitable and inclusive meetings means thinking through and planning ahead, so that all participants have a seat at the table.

Since meeting my friend that day, I’ve thought a lot about how many people feel like he did: as though it didn’t matter if he was in the meeting or not. While it may feel laughable here or there, over time this sense of out-of-sight, out-of-mind can erode your culture and productivity.

It’s why we continue to have conversations among our teams, and our clients, to ensure we are being mindful, intentional, and clear in our practices. So that together we can create ways of communicating—and meeting—that truly work for everyone.

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Illustrated by Alexis Macias