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Virtual Meetings: Fight Loneliness, Foster Belonging, Cultivate Inclusion

Virtual Meetings: Fight Loneliness, Foster Belonging, Cultivate Inclusion

If you’re reading this from your laptop on your dining room table, the living room couch, or in bed, you’re likely one of the thousands now working from home amid the spread of COVID-19. Notwithstanding the many challenges of suddenly having to work amidst the chaos of domestic life with pets, children, and the refrigerator all calling for your attention, for many, the jolt of suddenly working in isolation is the one that’s most jarring.

Enter, the virtual meeting. Whether it’s on Zoom, GoToMeeting, or Webex, chances are you’re now familiar with the technology. In week one of isolation, I got on online for my first virtual gathering. There was wine involved. Also tears, profanity and laughter. No, my first Zoom chat wasn’t with our team or clients, but with three dear friends for a virtual glass of wine.

After the madness of the week that had passed, it was a relief to see their beautiful faces. I almost wept with joy.

[Related: Open Letter On Feeling Disconnected In A Connected World]

In these few long weeks, as all aspects of our lives have been upended, the sudden and stark limits placed on our social interactions have perhaps been the most disorienting. As social creatures, we crave community, connection and a sense of belonging. So, for those among us who are accustomed to spending our workday among other humans, the shock is profound.

While the idea of working at home in pajamas may once have held a certain allure, you may now be surprised to find yourself missing Patricia from two desks over who always talks too loudly on the phone about her personal life, or feel nostalgic for last month’s meeting where Antony from marketing constantly interrupted you.

When it comes to the workplace, a sense of belonging is fundamental to building not only an inclusive culture, but a sense of well-being. Research suggests that for many people, the greatest sense of belonging comes from colleagues checking in with each other about how they’re doing, “both personally and professionally.” Under a state of imposed isolation, this has never been more important.

[Related: Making the Most Out of Remote Work: An Ellevate AMA]

Maintaining feelings of belonging to something larger – while working in isolation - is challenging, but vital. Media richness theory states that face-to-face interactions are the “richest” form of communication, as they allow us to make meaning through body language and voice. In-person communication works best, but a phone call is better than an email, and a video chat is better still.

In other words, your video meeting offers an opportunity for vital human connection, belonging and inclusion. Don’t squander it. Some suggestions:

1. Use video

Video forges connection. (It also creates accountability and discourages multitasking). It’s the richest form of communication available to us now. It’s powerful to see the faces of co-workers, and to be reminded that everyone is still out there. Waiting it out. Just like you.

2. Open early

Allow meeting access meeting 15 minutes early, to replicate face-to-face pre-meeting chat. Build in the social interaction that everyone needs.

3. Be intentional and inclusive

Welcome everyone as they join. Take a moment to check in with each person.

4. See each other

Make sure that faces are visible. The medium will be richer if people can read facial expressions and body language. Invite people to cozy up to their webcam to create the intimacy of an in-person meeting.

5. Wear pants

(Enough said. Who knows, you may have to stand up.)

6. Meeting basics

Send out materials in advance, documents, PowerPoint, etc. Make sure that people have the material they need to engage in discussion, rather than treating this time as a one-way presentation. Set an agenda, have clear objectives and remind everyone of these as the call begins.

7. Be present

Focus on others. Really listen to what is being said – not to prepare your response, but to understand the meaning of what’s being said. Notice body language and tone of voice.

8. Be patient

Technology doesn’t always work as expected and there’s often a learning curve. Kids or pets might intrude. It’s ok. Everyone’s juggling.

9. Use people’s names

We each respond immediately and unconsciously to the sound of our own name. It’s the quickest way to engage people and it generates feelings of belonging.

10. Practice Inclusive communication

Allow opportunities for everyone to speak. The practice of virtually “going round the table” to ensure that all voices are heard is especially important in virtual meetings. This is key to engaging introverts or those who are otherwise inclined to hold back. If someone is dominating or interrupting, acknowledge their positive intent to contribute, and politely remind them to give space for other voices.

Working at home is only one of the many challenges brought about by the astonishing moment we’re in. We now have an opportunity to see with fresh eyes just who we are to each other, to gain a new understanding of how imperative our connections are, of how quickly we’ve come to miss the daily human interactions that we’ve always taken for granted.

Online video gives us the next best thing to being together, to share ideas, to solve problems, to maintain morale through a difficult time. We can draw strength from each other’s faces and expand our workspace beyond our dining room table. Feelings of belonging, of knowing that we really are in this together, will help to get us all through.


From the front line to the C-suite, Sarah Neville helps people to bridge difference through the power of Inclusive Communication. Her company, Open Line, works with organizations who are interested in creating positive, respectful workplaces, and making authentic connections with their clients and stakeholders. 

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.