Like it or not, hybrid meetings are here to stay. Managing these gatherings, where some attendees are in the room and others are Zooming in, requires new skills from meeting planners.
In their new book “Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting” (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), authors Karin Reed and Joseph Allen, Ph.D., offer a guide to navigating this new normal. She’s a former Emmy-winning broadcast journalist who now coaches C-suite executives in effective on-camera communications; he’s a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Utah and a leading expert on workplace meetings. Reed and Allen are also the co-authors of a previous book, “Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work.”
They shared insights and advice with California Meetings + Events.
M+E: Is there more to planning a hybrid meeting than providing remote attendees with a Zoom link?
JA: Actually, there’s more to planning any meeting than scheduling a room, physical or otherwise. Too often we just schedule a meeting without thinking about if the meeting is needed in the first place or if another form of communication would suffice.
As for hybrid specifically, you should follow all the good meeting practices that have been preached for years (e.g., have an agenda/purpose, identify appropriate attendees, make sure you schedule the right space, start/end on time, and so on), and then you have to be prepared to manage a multimodal communication environment.
That, my friend, is the hard part. You have to be prepared to make sure the remote attendees, video or audio, aren’t lost to the in-person conversation. And since hybrid can include all sorts of multimodal compositions (two in a room with three on Zoom, three in a room with two on Zoom who may or may not have cameras on),
assuming that you know how to navigate this environment without a little practice is probably not a safe assumption.
KR: With a hybrid meeting involving
in-person and virtual attendees, there’s always a risk that those joining remotely will be forgotten unless efforts are made by the leader and attendees to ensure that doesn’t happen. That means the leader needs to raise everyone’s awareness about who is in the meeting room virtually and physically. Policies like letting the remote attendees speak first also can help to ensure those who are virtual have their voices heard. It sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. Attendees also can do their part by prompting remote attendees to give their opinions.
M+E: For brainstorming sessions, where some attendees will be on-site and others will be remote, what are two or three things that meeting planners should do before the meeting?
JA: First, figure out how people will share their ideas. Perhaps assign a person in the room to record in-room ideas onto a virtual whiteboard that the remote attendees have access to and can add their ideas to directly. Second, identify in-room allies for the remote participants. It’s so easy to forget the people online; we already have memes to joke about it. By assigning an ally, it allows the organizer to facilitate the meeting and the ally to help keep remote folks involved.
KR: In a hybrid meeting, a leader has to be more proactive in facilitating the discussion. Just letting it be a free-for-all won’t work because those who are virtual will have difficulty breaking into the conversation being had around the conference room table. Establish a turn-taking policy that works for your team’s culture, and then make sure people stick to it. By letting everyone know how to get into the conversation queue, it levels the playing field of ideas, allowing people to participate in a more egalitarian way.
M+E: In pre-pandemic times, a large meeting, complete with keynote speakers and presentations, might have taken place in a hotel ballroom with hundreds of people in attendance. Is it possible to do that type of event in a hybrid format? If so, how can a planner avoid some common pitfalls?
JA: Yes, it’s possible. The question is, are the in-person people trained on how to facilitate such a meeting, and do they have the right equipment to do it? In other words, you need the hardware, the software, and the skillware to do it. For example, one common pitfall is calling something hybrid and then it really becomes a lot of remote attendees watching in-person folks have a meeting. To avoid that, make sure that the remote attendees can be seen and heard, and encourage them to chime in even when it might feel like they are interrupting.
KR: It’s also important to train the speakers or at least make them aware of the virtual audience. Suggest that they play not just to the people sitting in front of them but also to the people joining remotely. Consider the camera as the conduit to that audience, and spend time speaking to the camera lens as much as they do to the audience in the physical room.
M+E: What are some lessons you’ve learned about running large hybrid gatherings that might be counterintuitive?
JA: I’ve learned that remote folks actually still want to participate, even though they aren’t in the room. So, make it as easy as possible to let them.
KR: A little training goes a long way. Too often, we assume that if we have the technology available, people will use it. However, people are sometimes afraid to try something new without real guidance. Do a quick tutorial on how to use any technology that
is available during the gathering, so it doesn’t just gather metaphorical dust.
Lower the barrier to usage by empowering them to test it out. For example, if you have set up kiosks where in-person attendees can connect with virtual attendees, explain how to use them at the beginning of the meeting, perhaps showing them live how it works.
M+E: How can meeting planners learn to love hybrid meetings?
JA: Well, from our data, hybrid meetings appear to be just as good as face-to-face and virtual, when done right. It is the most inclusive type of meeting. But, to make it so, it takes extra work. However, a good meeting inspires people. A bad meeting causes a minimum of three follow-up meetings. I think the extra effort is worth it.
KR: Flexibility is the key when it comes to the future of work. If you truly believe in hybrid work, hybrid meetings are the essential communication pathway that allows people to work from wherever, whenever. Hybrid gatherings break down geographic boundaries and allow you to cast a much wider net for participants and attendees, leading to a richer exchange of ideas. Who doesn’t love that?