University Of New South Wales: Harnessing the power of diversity in practice through online meetings

With the rise in working from home, organisations and their employees should follow new etiquette in online meetings to encourage an equal share of voice among participants and harness the power of diversity in practice, says UNSW Business School’s Juliet Bourke.

Following this etiquette can lead to all meeting participants providing more feedback and generating more ideas while minimising the downsides arising from a loss of face-to-face contact and the ability to read subtle cues like the intake of breath to signal that someone wants to speak, said Juliet Bourke, a Professor of Practice in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School.

“It is important to leverage this opportunity and make sure there is an equal share of voice, rather than leaving it to chance,” said Prof. Bourke.

“We’ve all experienced times in online meetings where we might speak over someone or there’s a time lag and other people get cut off unintentionally, so we need to be more disciplined, and use new strategies, to make sure that everyone gets an equal share of voice in a virtual environment.”

In such situations, Prof. Bourke said using gestures and other non-verbal cues, such as nodding and smiling, can assist in signalling agreement and other thoughts.

Online meeting programs also have live reaction and chat features built into them, which allow participants to interact with each other rather than speaking over others, she added.

“What this means is that those who are introverted, for example, have a greater opportunity to speak up, either verbally or through the Chat, and those who would dominate the conversation in a live setting get their wings clipped a little,” said Prof. Bourke.

“And this democratisation of contribution to a meeting is really beneficial in terms of facilitates diversity of thinking because it enables more voices to be heard.”

Pleasingly, she said it seems that those who are returning to the hybrid office are taking forward some of these new positive behaviours.

“This week a CEO told me that he is running office-based meetings with a lot more discipline having learned from his virtual experience because he wants to hear all voices more clearly,” said Prof. Bourke.

The right background
Prof. Bourke has undertaken research as part of her PhD on interpersonal inclusion in teams and explained why it was important for participants to optimise their visual presence in online meetings.

Ideally, participants should have their microphones and cameras with backgrounds visible, and Prof. Bourke said this is the optimal visual presence for online meetings.

“It creates a sense of connectivity and a sense of openness – it gives awareness of one’s bodily context,” she said.

“One of the people in my study said, ‘it gives you surround sound’ in that you can see the person and you’ve got a whole lot of visual cues around them; so you can take conversations in a different direction and really get a clearer sense of who each other is as a whole person.”

The least desirable option for meeting participants is to switch their camera off (while others have theirs on) and not offer an explanation about why that choice has been made.

“This is where you have just a black screen in front of you, and the worst version of that is where you just see a telephone number on the screen and you don’t even know who that other person is,” said Prof. Bourke.

“This leads to a situation where one person who’s being very open, and the other who reveals a telephone number and this creates a disparity in the sense of connectedness between people.

“In such circumstances, there would need to be a conversation about that,” said Prof. Bourke.

It is not that one is right or wrong, but she said the participant with the camera off might want to give an explanation such as their camera is not working or their internet bandwidth is low, for example.

“Otherwise, there’s the assumption that ‘I’m not being very open with you. You can be open with me, but I’m not going to be open with you’,” she said.

“So virtual meetings have the ability to deepen connectivity between people in some ways.”

Psychological safety and speaking up

Prof. Bourke recently authored a new book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? 2nd Edition: The extraordinary power of diversity of thinking and inclusive leadership (published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors).

In the book, she explained one of the important considerations for leaders looking to harness the power of diversity is providing an environment in which individuals feel psychologically safe.

In voicing different ideas and opinions – whether it be in the online or real-world – individuals need psychological safety to feel it is okay to speak up and be heard, particularly if they feel they are a minority within the group for whatever reason.

Prof. Bourke gave the example of a project she worked on with a client based in Asia, in which innovation was particularly important in bringing new products to market in a competitive timeframe.

“A lot of the work that we were doing there was about enhancing the ability to speak up. Psychological safety is not one of the things Asian cultures are known for,” she said.

“These are very hierarchical cultures so empowering people with a voice that is contextually appropriate and enabling people to have a view that would be listened to by leaders and other people in the hierarchy meant that new ideas were able to come to the fore and the organisation was able to leverage them.”

As a result, the company was able to develop an innovative solution that was first to market, and challenges that would otherwise take a year to resolve took just weeks or months.

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