By Fee Plumley
Best practice tips on how to have inclusive online meetings from Fee Plumley, a freelancer with many years of experience with online meetings.
In light of the large numbers of sensible people who have made the personal decision to self-isolate (regardless of our ‘fearless leaders’ official non-directives), I’ve been digging out old notes on meaningful digital culture practices. This one is on holding inclusive online meetings, where some people are in the room together and some are plugging in remotely. With lockdown you are more likely to all be plugging in remotely, but the same rules apply. It’s four years old so I’ve updated it a little – hit me up if you have questions or suggestions🙂
#nerdnote: I’m not going to get into platforms here because this is about culture (and there are many places that will teach you the ins/outs of any one technical solution, not least the developer’s website). For these purposes, i’ll assume that everyone’s using Zoom since it’s currently much more stable and scaleable than Skype. One thing i will advise, though, is that these tools can be expensive if you want/need the extras. Rather than everyone buying their own premium account, consider clubbing together to pay for one premium license and then negotiate a schedule where you each get to use it for your own specific cluster(s) of work.
It’s worth establishing some ‘chair’ (also called ‘host’, or ‘moderator’) guidelines for hosting physical/online (or everyone-online) meetings. Some of your group will be pretty geek-savvy, while for others this might be equivalent to their first step on the digital moon. We’re all going to need a bit of patience and compassion while we learn how to be on the same page (um, screen) together.
If you’re on the more geek-savvy side this will probably read like I’m teaching grandma to suck eggs, and you might be frustrated by others taking a little longer to catch on. But, trust me: a savvy chair/host/mod makes for a much richer ‘not in the room but still included’ experience (which is what you want, right?)
Get these behaviours down as basic etiquette to start with, then evaluate it with the group as you gain more confidence together. Or you can dive right in and co-create your etiquette as a group, tho that does take extra time. Whichever way you start, your group/community will thrive faster and longer if everyone feels a genuine sense of ownership. And mastering the basics of ensuring everyone feels heard/seen is the very least you can do, innit?
When there is a physical room of people on one end of the internet and a bunch of remote individuals connecting from the other, there’s an imbalance. If you’ve ever joined a video conference before, you’ll know that feeling all too well. It’s the digital version of holding up your hand in class and never being picked. Kinda sucky.
In physical meetings it’s common for the loudest voice to overpower everyone else’s. It’s common for us to whisper to the person next to us at the table, or talk as a collective with no one wanting to take a breath in case they lose their moment. And it’s ridiculously common for speakers (even at conferences) to have zero awareness of how to hold the microphone in front of their actual mouths when they speak.
When everyone’s joining in from their respective homes there’s less of an imbalance… because everyone is equally at the same disadvantage. We need to mindfully take efforts to reduce these barriers and include everyone.
Internet connection dropout and bad audio quality are the two biggest tech barriers, but tech is almost the least important part of this. What’s missing in online meetings is human connection… so we need to find ways to bring that connection back.
A good chair can turn chaos into flow, disconnection into fusion. Our society has conditioned us into complying with hierarchical models, where one person is the boss and everyone else has to stfu and listen. As someone working in the creative or social justice sectors you’re likely to be more progressive and want to share the load, and the love, more equally. You might want to not have a chair at all, but you do need some kind of structure, in the same way that a well designed agenda can make or break a meeting. My suggestion to get going is to rotate the chair, so a different person hosts the meeting each time.
In a hybrid meeting (some physically in the room/some online) your chair should have a decent sized screen in front of them that is just for them (not the main viewing screen for the others in the room – if you can get a projector for that one, that’s ideal). The chair needs a dedicated screen so they can see who’s on Zoom, keep track of any questions which come in via chat (what we used to call the ‘backchannel’) and make sure that those online are observed for those indicators that tell you they have something to contribute.
When everyone is face to face in a room, our subliminal reading of body language tends to guide the flow of who speaks when. When some (or all) of your group are online you need an observant caretaker to assert that space on their behalf.
We now have a plethora of tools and platforms that can be used collaboratively – think Google docs (or ideally a less evil version. But hey, needs must). This means that everyone can edit those documents at the same time, rather than ending up with twenty different versions of the same thing. For those who aren’t used to online collaboration tools this can be a steep learning curve, and we need to take care in finding a balance.
My view is that since those online have to make compromises by not being in the room (often feeling like their voice isn’t heard), the onus should be on those who are in the room to adapt to using tools which actively invite remote input. If minutes or drafts of documents are being written as a group, use the shared document so that those not in the room can view/add/edit or even just comment.
#nerdnote: if you’re editing a Google doc and you delete text that links to a comment, you are deleting the comment. Be aware that some of the people online may only feel ‘in the room’ through adding comments (especially where audio is bad, or they’re really uncomfortable being on video). If those – their only contributions – then just get deleted without reasonable discussion or consideration, you are reinforcing that isolation by wiping them out of the loop. It’s basically kinda rude.
- Agree your agenda in advance via email, and make sure everyone has had the chance to feed in to it before you share the final version. Use this to make sure everyone knows why the meeting is happening, what you all need to get out of it, and to prepare any research or notes you might need to have to hand.Open the Zoom ‘room’ before the meeting is scheduled to start so those online don’t arrive to find a ‘locked door’ (aka “computer says no”: again, rude!). If this is the first time you’re doing this ask everyone to arrive a little early if possible (it’ll give you more time to do a quick ‘tech support’, see #3 below). Shit happens, so if you know the meeting is going to be starting late, send a message to everyone to let them know (you never know what their background environment is – an extra ten minutes to settle an anxious child can be gold dust, and is so much more respectful than leaving them on hold, repeatedly refreshing a blank screen, while their child cries in the background).
- When the meeting time comes, make sure you greet everyone as they ‘enter’, whether that’s online or in person. Ask those in the physical room to keep the noise down while you do a quick tech support sequence (this can seem like a faff, but it’ll become habit soon enough). For every person joining remotely: check you can both hear each other; check you can both see each other’s video feeds (if you/they have agreed to be on video – bear in mind some might be using mobile data or have otherwise rubbish/expensive internet connections); check that you can both see each other in the Zoom chat; and check that you both have editing permissions with whatever shared documents you’re using. When you’ve gone through everyone online, do a quick check in the physical room to make sure everyone can hear the video feed and see the Zoom chat and shared document. Then thank everyone for their patience – we all appreciate a bit of respect, especially when traversing new terrains together. Remember that for many people this might be the first time they have seen themselves on a video screen – it can be really embarrassing and uncomfortable, so play with being silly to release that tension… and then focus when the time comes.
- You are now ready to start the meeting! To kick off, the chair should respectfully ask everyone to turn their phones onto silent mode, and confirm that everyone can allocate the time agreed. Sometimes people have to leave early (or may have kids or other distractions in the background), so you might need to move agenda items relating to them higher up the schedule. Be flexible and aim for everyone being focused together for as much time as possible. Go through the agenda (which ideally is on a screen that everyone can see) and give people an extra chance to add items. Be open to negotiating priority – you might decide to defer some agenda items to the next meeting if there’s too much to reasonably get through in your allotted time. This should be a functional experience, not an unpleasant and stressful one.
- Next, run a brief check-in to bring everyone into the same shared space. If you don’t all know each other very well you’ll need the basic introduction, something like ‘name, role, reason for being in the room’. In our communities we like to add a personal touch too: ‘how are you feeling today?’ This helps us get to know the human behind the job description, and is a very quick but remarkably powerful way to gain community cohesion. Make sure everyone has the chance to do this, whether in the room or online.
- You’re then into running the meeting according to the agenda – start with each action from the last meeting so everyone has an update on progress (or what’s preventing progress). As the meeting goes on the chair must keep an eye on the Zoom chat – when those online can’t hear or be heard, that’s where they’ll be trying to let you know about it (they may also use other forms of contact if you’re not paying attention to the Zoom chat – keep your phone on silent but in front of you).
- When everyone talks at the same time in the physical room, it creates a wall of incoherent noise for those online. A big part of the chair’s role is to make sure that people speak one at a time (you can adopt a ‘talking stick’ approach if they repeatedly break this etiquette). If you feel (or are told through chat) that someone is speaking too quietly, encourage them to speak up. If you have a mic, you can gently push it closer to them so those online don’t have to keep interrupting your concentration or the flow in the room to ask what was just said.
- There will inevitably be tech problems and internet dropouts. When you see people online drop out and come back, try to type a brief summary of what they might have missed to catch them back up. If they drop out repeatedly, or their audio quality is persistently bad, ask them to turn off their video output as it’ll vastly improve the audio quality. With Zoom you can share your screen, which means you can essentially run through a live a presentation with slides, or talk through web pages or documents while they’re visible to everyone (although be prepared if you’re planning on doing this… no errant nsfw browser tabs or dubious desktop wallpapers, please!)
- If new people enter the room or join the meeting online, find an appropriate moment to both announce them and provide a quick summary of who is connecting remotely.
- Basically… be mindful that not being in the room can make people feel incredibly isolated. These are stressful times for us all and we have to make some quite significant adaptations to our norms. Keep reminding yourself that even though some or all of your group are physically far away that shouldn’t mean you treat them any differently than if they were right in front of you. Bring your Zoom back in the room!
After the meeting
Well done! You made it! …almost. There’s a few extra things can really help after a meeting has ended.
If your Zoom (or alternative) account allows, you might have the option to save a recording of the video, and export a text file from the chat. Depending on the privacy needs of the work you do these can be shared privately (again through a shared folder, or group email, or slack etc) or can be published online for anyone to see. If anyone shared slides or other resources during the meeting then you can share those source files too. These might be enough in terms of minutes, or you might have been cocreating minutes during the meeting; either way you’ll need some kind of summary of what was discussed and who agreed to complete what actions.
You’ll also need some way to hold yourself and each other accountable for those actions, and maintain connection between meetings. For extroverts self isolation is a whole new world, especially if they live alone; they may need a little more loving kindness than you’re used to providing. Using something like slack can help the work continue but also be an ongoing humanitarian check-in space too. And if a few of you want to hang out in the Zoom call after the meeting is over, then go for it (tho it’s worth noting that you might then be sharing those ‘private moments’ with anyone watching the archived recording!).
You might also want to have a dedicated agenda item (or even a dedicated meeting) for reflecting on and evaluating how well or badly these tools are working for everyone. Keep trying out new things until everyone is as comfortable and feels as included as possible. Make it a safe space to feedback both the positives and the negatives. Stay open and honest and your group will thrive.
Over to you
These are a few things I’ve picked up from doing this kinda stuff for over two decades. There are a multitude of tools and practices – one size does not, and should not, fit all. What works for you might be awful for others, and vice versa. Play with it. Learn together. You may never go back to sitting around a desk together ever again!