How we’re planning more useful and equitable meetings
As public servants, we’re focused on what we can do to improve services for people in Canada. Like any job, this involves spending time in meetings to coordinate the work. While meetings are necessary, not everyone experiences them in equitable ways or uses this valuable time as effectively as possible.
Teams across the Government of Canada (GC) are creating resources to help public servants run effective meetings, such as: Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC) guide to planning inclusive meetings, FlexGC’s resources supporting remote & hybrid work, and the Canada School of Public Service’s (CSPS) course on planning meetings fit for purpose.
Planning plays an important role in shaping how people experience meetings, especially for marginalized individuals who often take on more of the administrative planning workload. For the Policy team at CDS, they’ve found action-oriented meeting principles are helpful for planning more useful and equitable meetings, resulting in improved experiences for all and enabling more time to focus on delivery.
Sam Burton, Rashi Khilnani, and Melissa Toutloff (Senior Policy Advisors at CDS) are sharing their experiences, resources, and tips from their team’s meeting principles initiative to help other public servants use their time as effectively as possible.
Q1: Why was an initiative needed to plan more useful and equitable meetings?
A: Sam Burton
Team retro made it clear we needed to look into meeting experiences
As part of CDS-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, a conversation started up about ‘office housework’. This includes tasks like planning and running meetings, note-taking, and organizing social events. We learned these tasks are often disproportionately taken on by women and people of colour, usually with little recognition or reward.
My team (Policy) held a retrospective to help us build a shared understanding of what office housework looked like for us. We learned it’s often invisible and informal, and the biggest opportunities for improvement were in the ways we planned and ran meetings.
If your team runs retrospectives too, I suggest reading our colleague Clementine Hahn’s blog on how to run inclusive retros.
Survey results proved the importance of this initiative
We decided to use a survey to get more specific about what people wanted to be different.
The majority of Policy team members participated in the survey, and the results revealed some clear trends:
- 100% said they want meetings to have an agenda and/or process;
- 78% want to know the meeting’s intended purpose or outcomes; and
- 78% specifically asked for materials in advance.
All of this feedback requires office housework. The survey also showed us that not having a shared understanding of who was responsible for these tasks was leading to inequitable distribution of work and frustration on our team.
Tip: You can use the GC Forms tool to build your own bilingual and accessible survey for team feedback on meeting experiences!
Example: See our Policy team’s survey on meetings.
Tip: You can use the GC Forms tool to build your own bilingual and accessible survey for team feedback on meeting experiences!
Survey to inform Policy team meeting principles
Context on the survey and the process for designing action-oriented meeting principles
Guidance for filling out this survey:
- Please feel free to share thoughts from both the perspective of a meeting facilitator and participant.
- Some suggestions might apply more to small meetings, while others might apply to bigger meetings – that’s okay! Feel free to specify, if needed.
- Real-world examples are great and so are links.
- Responses are anonymous and candor is encouraged.
- If you have questions or would like to be more directly involved in putting together the first draft of the Policy team meeting principles, reach out to the organizer (name)!
- For more context on this meeting principle initiative and how this survey fits in, read additional documentation (linked).
Problem we’re trying to solve:
There are currently no shared, agreed-upon expectations for how meetings led by Policy team members are designed, run, and followed-up on. This has led to some confusion, frustration, and concerns amongst the team (especially about equitable distribution of labour and effective use of scarce time).
Everyone on the Policy team is aware of, and agrees to do, what’s expected of us as a facilitator and/or participant in a Policy team-led meeting, whether there are 2, 20, or 200 participants.
A set of collaboratively developed Policy team meeting principles, which will guide all meetings led by CDS Policy team members moving forward.
- While there’s a designated team member(s) (name) responsible for running this process, it is open to any and all ideas/offers of help!
- All members of the Policy team will have opportunities for input and Policy team management will make final decisions.
- This will be an open, living document that will be returned to and iterated on at regular intervals by Policy team management.
- Solicit input from Policy team: First discussed in team’s office housework retro (linked) and now more targeted input through this survey.
- Share trends from retro and survey with Policy team and interested colleagues (on our open Policy Slack channel).
- Draft Policy team meeting principles and share with Policy team for feedback.
- Finalize 1.0 of Policy team meeting principles guidance and start implementing them! Also decide when to review success of implementation and at when/who is responsible for iterating on them.
Q1: I think all meetings should:
Q2: I find a meeting most effective when:
Q3: I find it frustrating when a meeting:
Q4: I find hybrid meetings (where some attendees are in-person and some are remote) most effective when:
Q5: I find distributed meetings (where all attendees are remote) most effective when:
Q6: Overall, when it comes to meetings led by the Policy team, I wish:
Q7: These are some meeting-related resources that I think would be helpful for our team: anecdotes, books, blog posts, videos, practices, formats, frameworks, and everything in between are welcome!
Q8: Anything else to add?
Q2: How did the team turn feedback into deliverable action for public servants?
Designing hybrid meeting principles around usefulness and equity
A: Sam Burton
Image caption: To start the process, the facilitator gathers feedback from the team on the current state of meetings (via a retro session and an online survey). Then, the team aligns on what their common goals are for improved meetings (by meeting to analyze the feedback). Using the goals, the facilitator then drafts and iterates on the meeting principles in a shared doc with the team, so they can share feedback asynchronously. Once the principles are agreed on by the team and management, the team can start using them! The process then repeats by the facilitator checking back in for feedback.
Some of the key pieces of feedback the team raised and how they were incorporated into the final draft, included:
- “We want more explicit connections to inclusion and equity.”
- We connected with CDS’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program Manager for guidance and feedback on the principles.
- “We need more guidance in some areas, like keeping time zones in mind and separating the notetaker and facilitator roles.”
- We got more specific about things like scheduling and time management in the principles.
- “How will we communicate these to new team members, and ensure they’re kept top-of-mind for everyone?”
- We created connections between the meeting principles and other foundational team documents (like onboarding) and decided Policy Team Leads would facilitate an initial pilot where we’d put the principles into practice, reflect on how it went, and make any changes needed.
Example: Read our Policy team’s principles for planning useful and equitable meetings.
In practice, this might mean being intentional about our use of language rituals (e.g. land acknowledgments to start a meeting), ensuring a plurality of voices are offered the spotlight (e.g. when organizing a panel conversation, ensuring gender or racial uniformity is not present, whenever possible). It also means naming and deconstructing terms or concepts that have historically contributed to systemic oppression.
- We ensure that every meeting has at least one organizer and one facilitator, who collaborate to do the hard work to make things easier by ensuring meeting participants are set up for success.
For example, meeting invites contain POP descriptions (purpose, outcome and process). For a Policy team meeting, that may include:
Purpose: To discuss and gather feedback on the draft principles, and in particular make sure our expectations about how to implement them are aligned.
Outcome: The Policy team is ready to start implementing the draft proposal.
Process: 20 minutes of silent reading/commenting and then discussion.
- When we are organizers or facilitators, we put people at the heart of our meetings by striving to be inclusive and equitable in planning and design.
For example, team members often have many meetings in a day, so we mark attendance as optional when it applies and provide meeting agendas in advance. This allows team members to improve their time management and get the most value out of meetings, enabling them to better deliver.
- When we are meeting attendees, we take care of each other.
For example, we strive to create brave spaces, which encourage dialogue by recognizing differences and holding each person accountable.
Tips to help public servants build meeting principles
A: Melissa Toutloff
When I onboarded to CDS in February 2023, the Policy Team Meeting Principles were part of the materials I reviewed to help get me oriented. As a career public servant, it was the first time I encountered team meeting principles.
While the principles were developed by and for the Policy team, they’re general enough to be adapted across multiple contexts, including remote, in-person, or hybrid workplaces.
Quick tips for teams interested in establishing their own meeting principles!
- Get buy-in from management to implement the principles.
While the Policy team’s principles were a bottom-up initiative (developed as a team), support from management was necessary to ensure they were adopted and implemented.
- Consider your organizational values and acknowledge the culture and context that influences your meetings.
For example, Policy Team Meeting Principles recognize that, like all aspects of work and life, meetings are influenced by systems of oppression, white supremacy culture, colonialism, and individual experience and bias. This aligns with our broader organizational commitment to inclusivity, and encourages us to address inequities that permeate all aspects of work.
- Identify meeting roles and define their expectations, making sure they connect with your organizational values.
For example, the Policy team meeting principles set specific expectations for organizers or facilitators to create inclusive and equitable spaces when planning meetings. This includes making time to connect as humans, avoiding booking meetings that would put participants in a long block of back-to-back meetings, and making sure meetings end early or on time.
Q3: How are these meeting principles improving experiences and capacity to deliver?
A: Rashi Khilnani
Shaping meeting experiences for the better
Policy team meetings have an impact on the well-being of team members as they’re safe, supportive spaces to discuss challenges and set action items to address them. Our ethos around meetings has shown me that it’s possible to be humane while being effective.
We’re respectful of our colleagues, making space for conversations and also humour (Dan Monafu on our team is great at this). It creates an environment where we’re not afraid to bring our true selves to work, which ultimately leads to a happier, more productive team.
For example, our team retrospective meetings use the principles to implement these helpful practices:
- Sharing retro boards in advance, giving us time to think about what we’d like to discuss in the meeting;
- Providing a structured meeting agenda, starting and ending meetings on time to ensure we’re mindful of how much time is being spent on each topic, and allocating time at the end to identify action items; and
- Allowing anonymous responses on all topics, as there’s trust within the team. This increases the chances of issues being brought up and addressed.
Increasing our team’s capacity to deliver
Our team’s meeting principles increase our capacity to deliver on our priorities. They’ve resulted in better use of time, as many team members have felt comfortable asking for a meeting agenda in advance of a meeting (especially for recurring ones). If there aren’t any items to discuss, it’s become a common practice to cancel meetings and give time back to the team. As Sam Burton on our team said, “It’s been nice for that practice to feel easy and normal, and for anyone on our team to have the space to start the conversation, leading to a decision.”
The meeting principles have also led to the acceleration of onboarding new team members and increased participation in discussions. I’ve personally felt that having shared values around equity in meeting participation made me understand that the Policy team was a safe space to ask questions. This made onboarding to the team a lot quicker. Melissa Toutloff on our team mentioned that she found the principles helped her in understanding team norms and culture, which is another crucial aspect of onboarding and adjusting to working in a new environment.
I’m confident that this ethos of effective kindness in meetings is applicable to teams everywhere. My hope is that everyone feels the same sense of luck that I do being part of a team that purposefully engages with each other.
Let us know if these resources help!
We hope you find these resources and tips helpful for building meeting principles with your team. Using them improves everyone’s experiences and increases their capacity to deliver on priorities.
If you have feedback or experiences to share on this topic, let us know! We’re happy to learn from our colleagues across government.