Hybrid business meetings – those business meetings that have an in-person AND virtual element – are the norm vs. the exception and I don’t see that changing any time in the near future.
It is the “hybrid” aspect that knocks people for a loop: Most leaders believe they have a certain level of proficiency when it comes to running an in-person meeting (although that may or may not be correct!) – and they HAD to develop the skill to lead a virtual meeting during the COVID pandemic.
But now, in these post-COVID times (dare I say that?), there is an expectation that anyone should be able to participate from anywhere – regardless of the type of meeting.
Even when you declare that the meeting will be an in-person meeting, there will be those who want to “dial or Zoom in” – and the expectation is that they will be able to fully participate vs. just listen in!
As a professional meeting facilitator, hybrid business meetings are simply harder to design and coordinate as you need to meet the needs of two audiences and ensure an appropriate level of engagement and collaboration.
So here are my top ten tips to lead and/or facilitate an effective hybrid business meeting:
Top Ten Tips to Lead an Effective Hybrid Business Meeting
- Design the agenda with all audiences in mind. We tend to have a preference – favoring the in-person meeting format OR the virtual format – and that tends to fall in line with where you are leading/facilitating the meeting. So we tend to “forget” the audience that we are not directly interacting with. Design an agenda that serves both audiences, ensuring that all voices are heard and considered.
- Assign/Collect Prework. Attention spans have gotten shorter, so meetings have gotten shorter. What you used to take a day to accomplish, people only want to spend half a day. So assign pre-work to hit the deck running! Send pre-reads (e.g. a pertinent article, briefing deck/book), a survey to gather ideas to present as a “strawman” for the group to react to, or a simple notification to “come prepared to discuss/share…”
- Intentionally Design Interaction Moments. At some point, the two audiences need to intersect – whether it is generating ideas, organizing those ideas, meeting in smaller groups to discuss or flesh out a question or idea, or taking a poll to see how close we are to coming to a decision. (I call this the GODA process) This, my friends, takes some serious thought. Here are some quick ideas:
- Generate – if you are simply making a list from existing parts and pieces, then consider creating that list before the meeting (aka “prework”). If you want to brainstorm a creative list, then capture the ideas on a flipchart with a dedicated webcam, a smart board that can be shared or an online whiteboard/document, so all can see what’s being said.
- Organize – This gets a bit trickier as there are several different ways to organize a list: Prioritize, categorize, or put into a time/process flow. When prioritizing, you can have all the participants use an online tool such as Slido (but you’ll need to generate inside the tool), or use an in-person technique – just be particularly mindful of the virtual audience (webcam on the flipchart, an “ombudsman” to post their dots). When categorizing or putting in a flow, that requires physical manipulation of the ideas. There are plenty of online tools out there for the entire team to do this (Jamboard, Mural, Miro), however, I rarely enjoy the process of having everyone’s heads down looking at a laptop. The key to prioritizing is a “quick sort” so I usually ask permission for the in-person people to let the online people sort the ideas quickly….realizing that the REAL discussion comes in the conversation about the groupings of ideas.
- Decide – Once you have some substance to discuss and decide, depending on the number of people in the room, we’ll either have a whole group conversation OR move into small (breakout) groups. Bob Frische and Gary Greene in an HBR article say, “the easiest solution is to include all the remote participants in a single group. While simpler, this sends them the wrong message by reinforcing their physical absence. It’s likely worth the extra logistical and technical effort to integrate remote participants across several breakout groups to accentuate their equal status.”
One other thing about finalizing a wildly important decision: I always like to do a straw poll to see how close/far apart we are to a consensus. You can also use Slido to help with this as well.
- Take Action. Throughout the meeting, you’ve been collecting ideas to take action. At key points, or at the end, it’s time to identify if that action is still necessary, who should do it/make sure it gets done, and by when it should be done. Unless the nominator of the action agrees to take it on, make sure you canvas both the in-person AND virtual participants, starting with those you tend to forget FIRST.
- Have an “Ombudsmen” Ready. I always find it helpful to have someone who is the advocate for the people online – e.g. watch for a raised hand, look at the chatbox, see if the visuals are visible, and to remind the team to call on them if we skipped them during a round-robin/go around the “room” activity. It is also helpful for the virtual participants to have one point of contact to handle any of their tech or otherwise unique issues. Especially if you break into small groups, each small group will need to have an in-person ombudsman who can make sure the virtual participants can participate fully in the breakouts.
- Have a Skilled Facilitator. It’s a smart investment to have a “facilitator” in the room as the conversation can be quickly dominated by the in-person participants, among other things that can go wrong in a meeting. But more importantly, a skilled facilitator knows how to design and navigate the process, weaving in the best from all the participants, and ensuring the best possible outcome.
- Upgrade Audio. Over COVID, it became obvious that everyone needed to invest in better audio equipment, therefore, I’m assuming your remote participants have a good headset or external microphone. (If not, go get one!). The in-person world is no different, however, many meeting rooms are not equipped with enough high-quality microphones so remote participants can hear the entire conversation in the room – not just fragments! Otherwise, consider supplementing your audio input by having in-person attendees pass around hand-held microphones before speaking or assigning a microphone to each/couple of participants.
- Cameras On. For remote participants, “Video off” is not an option unless you have visual distractions going on or you are eating. Otherwise, turn the camera on. For in-person meetings, consider upgrading your meeting room technology to include the capability that separates in-room participants into their own individual video tile e.g. Zoom’s Smart Gallery. In the pre-Covid days, I used to set a picture frame of each remote participant at the table so we wouldn’t forget them as we “go around the room.” These days, you can project the Zoom meeting and “split screen” so you can see the main visual AND the remote participants and/or set up two additional large monitors on either side of the main screen with “panes” of the remote participants for the duration of the meeting.
- Spotlight Visuals. Think through what the remote participants will need to see during the meeting: their fellow attendees, presenters, flipcharts, and wall charts. Set up separate laptops with webcams that can show close-up views of each visual.
- Check Tech. Test the audio-visuals for both the in-person and remote participant experience on the day of the meeting– and then leave the meeting OPEN. For really important, high-stakes meetings, also do a tech check a day or two beforehand.
- Finish with a Critique. A best practice of high-performing teams is to finish each meeting with a critique: What went well and what could we have done differently? Especially as we move into this new world where hybrid is more the norm than not, take time to celebrate what the team does well and intentionally change/tweak a few things for the next meeting!
As you can tell, there are many more moving pieces to a hybrid meeting. Depending on the size and purpose of your meeting, you may determine that hybrid is not the best approach. University of Colorado UIS Service Desk says, “Some teams follow a ‘one remote, all remote’ principle: If one person is attending remotely, then those in the office also connect online using individual devices. This allows everyone to have the same experience and to participate equally.”
I’ve also seen the other side of that hybrid business meetings coin: Everyone needs to be in-person. Period. We are not going to do hybrid simply because this meeting is too important NOT to have it face-to-face!