At her core, Susan Sims is a relationship builder. In her work as a senior program manager on the Portfolio Integration team, she has prioritized running inclusive and effective meetings. This is made much more challenging because of how COVID-19 has turned every interaction, from check-ins to large presentations and events, into a meeting.
“We rely on meetings to build and maintain relationships, but we’ve had to adapt our workflows to support remote work and back-to-back meetings,” Sims says. “I want to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard.”
As Microsoft transitions to a hybrid work model where employees can choose to return to campus or work from home, Sara Bush, a senior program manager on the Seamless Teamwork team in Microsoft Digital, saw an opportunity to create research-driven guidance for running inclusive meetings.
“In a research interview, one employee who frequently joined meetings remotely said that they were the person who sees the back of the chair, and they couldn’t get a sense of people’s body language,” Bush says. “We wanted to make sure that every employee feels like their contributions are valued.”
In an inclusive and effective meeting, I can participate fully because I have access to all the relevant documents, content, and people before, during, and after. This allows me to engage and contribute from anywhere.
– Sara Bush, senior program manager on the Seamless Teamwork team in Microsoft Digital
But what makes a meeting inclusive and effective?
Bush landed on this definition after identifying key findings from industry research and the Microsoft Research team.
“Inclusion is defined by the ability to feel comfortable contributing their ideas and perspectives,” Bush says. “In an inclusive and effective meeting, I can participate fully because I have access to all the relevant documents, content, and people before, during, and after. This allows me to engage and contribute from anywhere.”
Sarah Lundy, a content publisher in Microsoft Digital who worked with Bush to compile a research-based guide to running inclusive and effective meetings, saw a lot of value in putting these best practices in one place. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel on guidance for running effective meetings,” Lundy says. “We want people to go back to the basics. We created a living, breathing resource that we’ll update as features or guidance changes.”
Plus, research suggests that inclusive meetings are twice as effective, and meetings where everyone feels comfortable participating are three times more likely to be effective.
“As a content creator and writer, we can use these best practices to create content that is aligned to research,” Lundy says. “The response from employees has been great. When we share recommendations from our guide on Yammer, we’ve seen employees share their own tips for creating agendas, for example, or inviting others to participate.”
Sims has used the meeting guide of best practices to level-set on what makes a meeting inclusive and effective, and she incorporates its best practices into her meetings so her co-workers feel like they have space to share their ideas.
“The meeting guide helped me get the basics right and take small steps to ensure that meetings are inclusive for everyone,” Sims says. “For example, one of the suggestions is to start meetings five minutes past the hour to reduce meeting fatigue and give people a break from back-to-back meetings. And if you’re in a meeting with someone who needs guidance, you can invite people to check out the meeting guide and incorporate some of the tips.”
One small change that Sims is making?
She’s been scheduling virtual coffee chats with new employees on her team, which Microsoft Teams has been a core part of.
“I recognize how challenging it is to build an inclusive team when we can’t sit down and meet face to face to build trust,” Sims says. “That’s why we’ve been using Microsoft Teams as a tool to connect regularly.”
Microsoft Teams features support inclusive meetings
It’s easy to think of a meeting as just the time of the call itself. In reality, meetings aren’t just a point in time—there’s a before, during, and after, and Sims makes an effort to set expectations of each call, manage roles and access, and follow up with decisions and outcomes.
“If I own the agenda for a meeting, I always try to clarify the purpose of the call,” Sims says. “The reality is that we’re in so many back-to-back meetings, so we need to remind people at the beginning of the goal and intent of the meeting.”
Bush says that there are crucial steps everyone can take to make meetings more inclusive. For example, it’s important to drop an agenda into every meeting invite.
“Using an agenda can help attendees identify if they need to attend or join asynchronously by watching the recording or reviewing outcomes later, freeing them up from back-to-back meetings so they can focus on the highest impact work,” Bush says.
[Teams] features like hand-raising or reactions with emojis ensure that employees can communicate their ideas and emotions with others.
– Sarah Lundy, content publisher in Microsoft Digital
Bush defined six meeting categories, or archetypes, that are common at Microsoft: status, strategic, tactical, informative, ideation, and social. For each meeting type, the meeting guide outlines a recommended duration, attendee number, and guidance on how to keep attendees engaged using interactive features in Teams.
Bush says that the team landed on these archetypes based on industry research and data on meetings at Microsoft, and new Teams features that can help make the meeting experience more engaging. For example, the addition of the raise your hand feature enables any attendee to signal that they have a thought or question.
“Features like hand-raising or reactions with emojis ensure that employees can communicate their ideas and emotions with others,” Lundy says. “We also encourage meeting organizers to establish norms at the beginning for how to engage in the meeting, and even assign a moderator to watch for raised hands and chat messages and invite people to chime in.”
Meeting fatigue has come with all the extra and longer meetings, so Bush invites people to show grace for those who don’t want to turn their camera on.
“It also helps to pick whichever meeting view keeps you focused, whether it’s together mode, large gallery, or side-by-side view of a presentation and the presenter,” Bush says. “You can also turn on live transcriptions and record the meeting for people who can’t attend or want to review the content later.”
Meetings don’t have to look alike. Pick the meeting type and approach that feels authentic to your leadership style, while working these best practices in.
– Susan Sims, senior program manager on the Portfolio Integration team
Transitioning to hybrid work
As employees start to transition to hybrid work, Bush wants to ensure that everyone can join meetings and participate whether they’re back at their work office, on the road, or in their home office.
“Meeting organizers can make small changes to ensure that employees who are located in or out of a meeting room will feel included,” Bush says. “The most important best practice for hybrid meetings is to join the Teams meeting, whether you’re attending in person or not. That way, everyone can participate in the chat, raise their hand, or use reactions. You can also encourage attendees to turn their video on if they feel comfortable.”
As hybrid work becomes a more common reality, Bush and Lundy are excited to keep iterating on the guidance and ultimately sharing it with other companies and organizations by the end of 2021.
“I’m excited to do this work every day to ensure that everyone feels included, and it’s especially vital with Microsoft shifting to a model of hybrid work,” Bush says. “We’ve been able to draw on research to see what people need to feel included in meetings.”
And if you’re setting up meetings for your team, Sims encourages you to adapt the approach to your team’s preferred collaboration style.
“Meetings don’t have to look alike,” Sims says. “Pick the meeting type and approach that feels authentic to your leadership style, while working these best practices in.”