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Anonymity: Why it's the secret weapon for digital workforces

Is anonymous participation more inclusive?
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Written by Greg Nichols, Contributor on
A middle aged man in casual attire sat at his computer desk speaking to colleagues via a split-screen video chat application
Image: Getty

The future of work has every company considering new policies around engagement and inclusion -- one thing they should take very seriously: Anonymity.

This may sound strange in a work climate obsessed with engagement, particularly as employers grope to find best practices for a new digital workforce. One recent survey of 2000 Americans found that over 71% of participants want anonymous ways to engage for both in-person and virtual meetings. 74% of respondents in the survey reported that meeting tools enabling them to engage anonymously have helped them feel heard.

Anonymity is a way to feel heard... What's going on here?

One element is simply that some people don't do well in live meeting environments where participating means standing up in front of a group. It's the quiet kid in class syndrome, but of course, being quiet or shy in group settings doesn't equate to being unintelligent, just as being loud and quick to comment doesn't make someone more correct in collaboration situations.

"Historically, meetings favor extroverts," explains Johnny Warström, CEO of Mentimeter, an audience engagement platform that makes it easier to listen and to be heard by transforming passive audiences into active contributors. "The people who are most comfortable speaking up and have the loudest voice in a room. But that means you miss contributions of those who are more introverted but who have insights and ideas that are just as valuable. Anonymity helps people who are not by nature extroverts and leads to more meaningful exchanges."

The idea here is that anonymous engagement gives people the opportunity to express themselves freely without perceived judgment or unconscious bias. 

"When audience input is stripped of any context relating to the individual's race, ethnicity, age, or gender identity, we have found that it empowers people to participate and engage more often," says Warström. "For employee engagement, anonymity should fundamentally be viewed as a diversity and inclusion issue. Having tools that provide anonymous voting, questions, and input allows for every voice to be heard rather than just the loudest in the room."

Also: The complete Zoom Guide: From basic help to advanced tips and tricks

The recent survey supports that idea. Of people who are anxious about presenting and participating in meetings, many noted they had used illnesses, including COVID-19, to excuse themselves. About 40% have called in sick, 22% have said they have COVID, and 27% have said they need to care for a sick family member or pet to be exempt from presenting or participating in a meeting.

Think about that for a moment. A substantial number of workers are so uncomfortable in live meeting situations that they make excuses to avoid them. That not only hinders their chances at promotion, it robs the company of needed value.

Which raises the question, how do you introduce anonymity?

"To further explore this concept, during the pandemic, we conducted a neuroscientific experiment with the research firm Emotiv," Warström tells me. "The first-of-its-kind study using EEG technology remotely found the greatest impact using an audience engagement platform has on the participants. The study showed turning a passive audience into active contributors by asking them to interact through polls, word clouds, Q&As, etc. led to reduced boredom and higher engagement, attention, interest, and cognitive load."

The idea here is that technology plays an essential role in fostering engagement, especially as we continue to work in a hybrid-model. 

"In too many virtual meetings, some people don't say a single word. There are a lot of workers who go through their workday moving from meeting link to meeting link, not having their voice heard. We need to end passive meeting attendance and turn everyone present into active, engaged contributors. The shift to more remote work and virtual meetings has created a culture of meeting attendance where employees are unengaged and passive. This is not a good use of their time for company resources. It is inefficient, ineffective, and makes for less meaningful work for employees who feel sidelined."

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