During the last few months, I spoke both in-person and virtually at hybrid meetings attracting a global audience. A few of these meetings were great, some were poor, and the vast majority were plain average. What made these few great meetings stand out? They were designed with a virtual first approach, an inclusive approach that aims to eliminate distance bias and provides everybody with equal opportunities to contribute to the meeting.
Why do most hybrid meetings fail?
To say it bluntly, most hybrid meetings aren’t organised with a clear end goal or vision in mind. Instead, they just happen because … Firstly, because some members of the organisation are now working remotely and they can’t attend in person. Alternatively, someone somewhere felt that hybrid would be a good idea, without expanding on the ‘why’, ‘what and ‘how’. Finally, because the meeting has to happen for some reason. It could be either as part of a series of regularly scheduled meetings; or because it is a key meeting where decisions affecting the future of the organisation will be made.
Organising a meeting without a clear purpose is not a good recipe if one wants to make an impact. However, as far as hybrid meetings are concerned, the meeting’s purpose will significantly impact set-up and logistics. Why? Because ensuring that online attendees can contribute in the same ways as in-person participants, will mean shaping the meeting around their needs.
Not shaping the meeting around the needs of online attendees will prevent them from contributing equally and may lead to miscommunication. At worst, it could turn a hybrid meeting into two meetings happening in parallel, one online and the other offline.
What does virtual-first entail?
The starting point of this approach is to ensure that everybody attending the meeting can see and interact with one another. Setting up the meeting room with one camera looking at audience members and a screen where online attendees appear is insufficient. Online attendees must clearly see and hear anyone in the room. Doing so may mean having additional cameras pointing at a speaking area. It may also mean having microphones that can be passed around the room so that in-person contributions are clearly heard online. In short, an organisation seeking to do excellent hybrid meetings will need to invest in a first-class technological infrastructure to support them. There is no point in taking shortcuts by trying to do hybrid with a tablet and a smartphone (which I have seen done, to mixed results). Either commit to doing hybrid meetings well or don’t do hybrid meetings at all!
I mentioned the importance of meeting logistics in a previous article on hybrid meetings. Good meeting logistics begin with knowing how many people will attend online and in-person. Having only a few online attendees may require extra care to ensure their active participation. Literal logistics may need to be involved in a hybrid meeting too. For example, by sending prototypes or proofs to virtual attendees ahead of time, if a product is to be discussed and tested. If a meeting takes place during meal hours, there are also no reasons not to provide catering to online attendees too. Finally, sending all meeting related documentation ahead of time will be imperative since online attendees won’t have access to hard copies of documents.
Adopting a virtual-first mindset to hybrid meetings also implies having a clear hybrid meeting etiquette. For example, all online attendees should switch their cameras on and treat the meeting as if they were attending it in person. Attention will also need to be paid to ways to maintain focus on the meeting itself for all attendees. Traditional audience interaction methods like asking open-ended questions will need to happen differently. This is where tools like Mentimeter enabling everybody to answer questions or to take part in quizzes shine to maintain audience engagement.
How to do hybrid meetings properly
Purpose is power. Therefore, the intended purpose and outcomes of the meeting will bring in specific virtual-first considerations. In my previous article, I identified three possible meeting purposes: seeking an agreement, building relationships, generating ideas. I will add a fourth purpose to this list, delivering information.
For a hybrid meeting where agreement is required, a virtual-first approach means ensuring that virtual attendees can voice concerns, speak freely and vote in any proposal. Of course, any paper-based or device-based voting system cannot be used, so a suitable e-voting platform needs to be selected, thoroughly tested and explained. Providing room to voice objections may also mean using an e-queuing system so that in-person attendees raising their hands aren’t unfairly prioritised by the meeting chair.
If the purpose of the meeting is to build relationships. Here I would challenge the wisdom of organising this meeting in a hybrid format. One of the things I miss the most since the world moved online, are side conversations while queuing for lunch or over coffee afterwards. Building teams online is possible, and I made some great friends in 2020 playing the social deduction game mafia online. However, I struggle to see how hybrid teambuilding events could work well and include everyone.
Doing brainstorming in-person is very easy with some pens and some post-it notes. Brainstorming ideas during a hybrid meeting will require technological solutions enabling real-time collaboration. While it may mean that both online and in-person attendees will be working individually from a computer or tablet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it may provide more opportunities for introverted team members to share and contribute ideas. Techniques like brainwriting can also be easily replicated online with some preparation to include everybody attending.
Delivering information or training in a hybrid environment can be easy or difficult, depending on the methods used. Delivering a lecture in a hybrid setting isn’t too different to doing it in-person, since information mainly flows one way from the speaker to the audience. Interactive training and workshops are nonetheless more challenging. Physical hands-on activities cannot be organised unless they are done individually by each attendee. A possible replacement could be computer-based activities using games, scenarios or taking attendees on journeys either alone or in teams.
Organising a hybrid meeting? Ask yourself these questions
Organising impactful hybrid meetings and adopting a virtual-first mindset to include all attendees does requires some extra effort and investment. If in doubt about any aspect of the meeting, ask yourself these questions:
Will online attendees be able to see and hear all in-person attendees clearly?
What is the purpose of your meeting? What are your expected outcomes?
Do you need to send information or objects in advance?
When does the meeting take place?
Is meeting etiquette communicated and understood by all?