Feeling anxious in meetings was a given for me 20 years ago.
I worried that my hand would be clammy when I shook the client’s hand (the more I worried, the sweatier my hands became). I worried that I was wearing the wrong thing. But mostly, I worried that I wouldn’t have anything sufficiently interesting or additive to say.
I would watch and listen to the smart, experienced people around the table and look for a small opening in the conversation where I might insert a comment that made my presence meaningful in some way. When I couldn’t think of anything to say, I wrote notes furiously and perfected what I hoped was a bookish and curious presence in the hopes that people would assume my head was full of insightful observations rather than abject fear.
Around the same time, I was also learning to moderate focus groups and identify “dominant respondents” (the people who highjack the conversation, talk incessantly, and challenge you as the leader of the group). I learned, for example, that the dominant respondent in a focus group would tend to sit directly opposite or next to you.
In these early years of my career, I began to observe similar power dynamics in agency meetings: the senior client would often sit at the head of the table, the men would generally speak more than the women, the senior people would give long, self-aggrandizing introductions, junior folks would always troubleshoot the (plentiful) IT issues, and the younger women would often deal with the catering. The agency people would never be late, but the clients often would be.
The hierarchy of the people in the meeting was continually reinforced through patterns of behavior. On reflection, this doesn’t seem conducive to encouraging diversity of thought or creativity—or diversity in general.
I’ve also noticed moments over the years when this power hierarchy has been disrupted in interesting ways. In the pre-pandemic days, I watched Suzanne Powers, the chief strategy officer and now president of McCann Worldgroup, introduce herself as “the strategy person” during a round of intros at the beginning of a meeting. It was a small but a significant thing for me at the time. Here was the most senior person in the room reminding everyone in a subtle way that we were all just people around a table with jobs to do and equal and valid contributions to make.
As we transition into a new world of virtual and hybrid work, we’re reimagining our professional environments. In our most recent research at McCann, we found something intriguing; among people who self-identify as a minority, 81% believe that remote work has helped their working life (vs. 69% of non-minorities) and 77% of the minority group believe that remote working has encouraged greater diversity and inclusion at their company (this is also higher among younger employees, with 75% of 18-34s agreeing to this versus 54% of those aged 55+).
For many, it seems that the virtual meeting is something of a leveler. The “hand raise” function in Teams or on Zoom allows those who are reticent to speak over others to get some airtime. The chat window allows for contributions from more introverted people who might not want to speak in front of the group.
Our research revealed that 30% of people say they feel more introverted after the pandemic. I suspect that junior people more frequently find themselves in meetings with clients and senior people (as there are fewer limits on the “number of people in room”). It goes without saying that there is less pressure on dress codes, and shaking sweaty hands is no longer an issue!
Most importantly, we’ve all had a little glimpse behind the curtain of the lives of the most senior clients and colleagues. I’ve seen paint-covered children begging for biscuits, cats leaping in front of screens, faded favorite coffee mugs, hair wet from the shower, and posters in a childhood bedroom. The pandemic has upended the carefully controlled boardroom environment. The glass table is no more. I don’t know who’s sitting at the head of the table because there isn’t one.
This isn’t to say, of course, that power dynamics are a thing of past; who gets to turn their camera off, for example? I’ve been in meetings where all the clients have their cameras off and all the agency people have their cameras on. Is it rude to turn my camera off when someone is presenting? Even if I want to do some squats because I’ve been sitting for three hours? And who gets to drop off five minutes before the meeting ends because they have someone else to talk to or somewhere else to be? (I’m definitely guilty of this.)
The pandemic hasn’t just blurred the boundaries between the physical and virtual; it has blurred all kinds of boundaries—between junior and senior people, between geographies, and between professional communities. This blurry moment in time offers a radical opportunity to rethink all kinds of things about the way we work, from how we do vacation time, to how we hire people, to how we hold meetings.
If I could travel back in time, I would reassure 24-year-old Laura that listening is just as valuable as speaking. I would tell her that her presence was always meaningful. I also wish I could gift her the hand-raise function.