People Manager
April 29, 2021

How to Run More Human (and Inclusive) Virtual Meetings in 2021: Tips & Tricks for Better Results

For the past year or so, we’ve  spent the majority of our work days at home.  In fact, employees have spent more than 5.5 billion minutes attending virtual meetings! On the surface, virtual meetings may seem more human. Whether it’s a team standup or a late night sales call, you now have the pleasure of seeing everyone’s home office desk with the occasional baby (or pet) in the background.

However, what’s sorely missing from virtual meetings is the absence of human interaction with the people you do business with. As a leader, it was extremely insightful to see body language in meetings. Understanding the emotions of the people you work with is an underrated skill that is now much harder due to the virtual setting we are in. This gets especially hard in the case of meeting new hires virtually. [Related article: 3 Remote Onboarding Tips for a Better Employee Onboarding Experience] And even harder when you’re trying to find someone who is an expert in a particular area without ever knowing them previously. 

[Related article: Connection: What We All Need at Work]

In an effort to make meetings flow better, here are a few ways to better humanize the virtual experience when using collaboration tools like Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom.  We’ll cover the following: 

  • The unique challenges (and opportunities) that come with virtual meetings
  • How to humanize virtual meetings for greater engagement
  • Inclusive practices to get the most out of your virtual hangouts
  • And how to prepare for a successful virtual meeting even before the call happens

The top 3 challenges (and opportunities) of virtual communication

Three challenges with virtual meetings: less engagement, video call fatigue, and communication gaps

Challenge #1 – Video call fatigue

Zoom fatigue has become an integral part of our work lingo this year, and it’s a significant challenge to the productivity of virtual meetings. Especially when teams were first starting to work remotely, organizations may have become “meeting-happy” in an effort to stay connected. This, however, only exacerbated employee burnout and research from Stanford indicates that more video calls cause more stress.  

Although virtual meetings come with a certain threshold before they become counter-productive, this incentivizes teams to emphasize quality over quantity. There’s an opportunity here to get the most out of less meetings and to engage on a higher level during those times when a call is necessary.

Challenge #2 – Less engagement

Video calls are understandably less engaging than in-person meetings. Without nonverbal cues, the ability to move around, and the ability to brainstorm on whiteboards or physical mediums, it’s difficult to stay engaged when you’re stuck behind a screen. 

This is an opportunity to brainstorm some out-of-the-box ways to engage your teams. Whether it’s utilizing collaborative platforms like FigJam to encourage active participation, implementing polls on Google Hangouts, taking stretch breaks, or implementing some of the below tactics we’ll be recommending, change it up so that employees stay engaged.

Increase virtual meeting engagement on FigJam

Challenge #3 – Potential communication gaps

Since virtual meetings are limited to audio and video only (and sometimes just audio) it’s difficult to gauge people’s body language, tone of voice, and gestures that often indicate their emotional and mental state. These cues are essential to helping you run a meeting smoothly and to make sure all members are feeling positive and engaged. 

This is an opportunity to evaluate some of your recurring meeting practices to make sure that information isn’t lost in the exchange. Check out some of the below suggestions for how to do that. 

Take back what we lost from using collaboration tools

Remote and hybrid teams are here to stay for many companies and we need to embrace it by getting teams the right tools and training to provide humanized interactions – digitally.

These are a few things that often get lost in virtual meetings that you can focus on to humanize your connection. They include: 

  1. Casual, unstructured conversation
  2. Eye contact
  3. Natural flow of conversation
  4. The ability to interject politely 

1. Casual, unstructured conversation

Although it might be tempting to jump right into a meeting agenda, take some time at the beginning of calls to create space for unstructured conversation. For some, it is common business etiquette to start off a meeting with a hearty “How’s everyone doing?”, in an effort to get the ball moving. This is usually followed by the expected monotone “Good” to fill in a gap of the silence. I find that in the remote setting, this question becomes the natural go-to due to the lack of quickly finding a common connection in the virtual experience. A better way to make a common connection during your virtual meeting is to ask specific questions about team member interests or use that information to run icebreakers that build rapport

2. Eye contact

It can be easy to become distracted without some sort of eye contact in a meeting. A simple action like moving the video chat browser underneath the camera to simulate eye contact can go a long way to humanize the remote experience.

3. Natural flow of conversation

I have always found it reassuring to hear a verbal form of agreement from your colleagues. A simple “yeah I agree” while elaborating on an issue is helpful for communication flow or even to prevent someone from rambling too long. We have lost this subtle form of agreement when everyone in the meeting is on mute and all you're left with is the sound of your own voice (and perhaps your echo from that one person who doesn’t mute themself... ). I try to make sure that my environment isn’t noisy and encourage others to do the same so we can unmute ourselves in an effort to have a natural conversation flow.

4. The ability to interject politely

And lastly a virtualized setting can make it challenging for some to ask questions or interject in a meeting. Many times have I heard the “oh sorry, what were you saying” and it kills the pace of the conversation. With the combination of eye contact and unmuting yourself, it allows you to speak up more easily. 

Be intentional about inclusive practices

Part of making virtual meetings more human is to run more inclusive meetings. A few tips include:

  1. Inviting people into group interaction
  2. Monitoring meeting turn taking
  3. And asking for feedback post-meeting

Open up group interaction

There’s often an awkward moment when you join a virtual meeting a little late or when others are in the midst of a conversation that makes it tricky to jump in. If the discussion has already started, it can be difficult to catch up, especially if no one summarizes the conversation for you. When a team member joins late or has missed a part of the meeting, be sure to greet them, open up the conversation, and summarize any points if needed. This could look like the following:

Hi, {{team member name}} thanks for joining us. We were just talking about {{topic}} and we’re just about to discuss {{topic}}. What are some of your thoughts on it?

This simple statement opens up the discussion, takes the burden off of the person to jump in, and enables participation from all members of the meeting.

Coworker joining a remote meeting and joining an inclusive discussion

Be cognizant of meeting dynamics

Take into account different processing and contribution styles when structuring virtual meetings. For example, not all team members process externally and they may need more time to process internally before contributing to the discussion. A helpful practice would be to incorporate some thinking time after a question. So instead of jumping straight into discussion, allow team members to reflect for a few minutes and come back with their thoughts. You can expect more thought-out contributions and overall a more fruitful discussion.

Another thing to evaluate is participation and whose voice you’re hearing the most. If you’re finding certain team members are dominating a call, a great practice to implement is timed round robins. Give each team member a chance to speak for a certain amount of time and then have them pass the baton to someone else. You’ll get the chance to hear from those you might not often hear from, and perhaps curb a particularly chatty employee.

Solicit feedback on a consistent basis

Keep evolving your virtual meetings! Particularly if you’re leading a meeting, ask coworkers who were involved in the call for feedback post-call. Get their thoughts on not only if the meeting was effective and productive, but also their thoughts on how inclusive it was. Consider incorporating certain reflection questions at the end of recurring meetings. For example, at Sift, we ask at the end of our weekly all-team meetings for all team members to rate the meeting on a scale of 1-10. Anyone who rates below an 8, has the opportunity to give their reasoning and suggestions for how to improve. This keeps us constantly thinking about how to improve these meetings. Figure out what’s important for you to know to improve your meetings and make sure to gather consistent feedback.

Setting virtual meetings up for success 

Ensuring that a virtual meeting is a success starts way before the call even happens. It starts with the moment you decide connection is needed and you start to search for the necessary players to interface with. Have you ever gone back and forth via email to schedule a meeting, only to find when jumping on the call, that the person you really needed to talk to was someone else? That’s a lot of time and energy wasted and probably another meeting that needs to be scheduled. 

Leverage technology to ensure that your people have the information they need in order to connect. With software like Sift, searchable employee profiles paired with a comprehensive org chart allow you to find people based on skills, interests, experience, and more. This eliminates unnecessary intro emails and phone calls and allows you to find the exact person you need to connect with to solve your problem.

Take the lead. Set the pace.

Let’s not let technology limit our ability to be human. Instead let’s make an effort to bring back what we used to have before having to use these collaboration tools. And Sift can help provide the information team members need to connect as humans while working virtually. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay for many companies and we need to embrace it by getting teams the right tools and training to provide humanized interactions—digitally.

Watch the video below to learn about how one COO leverages Sift to understand who does what at his organization, and ultimately how it helps him connect with his virtual teams.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2020, and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in April 2021.

[ON DEMAND WEBINAR] How Sift and Microsoft Teams Enable More Connected Meetings

While virtual meetings can be a suitable alternative to meeting in person, they can sometimes feel impersonal and unproductive. Learn how to make your virtual meetings more collaborative, engaging, and impactful in this webinar from Sift and Microsoft.