The COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to have far more employees work remotely than ever before. Just how many will continue to do so will vary based on many factors: employee sentiments, perceived or real productivity gains or losses, cost savings, and more.
Some organizations like Twitter and Zillow have already announced that the shift to remote work will be permanent, while others are only committing to remote work through a certain date (such as Google which indicated July 2021).
Regardless, it seems inevitable that many organizations will
soon be (if they aren’t already) holding more hybrid meetings—that is, meetings
where some employees are at the office or other traditional worksite, and
others are dialed in via Zoom, WebEx, Teams, or other platforms. Hybrid
meetings are not new; many organizations have been holding them for the past
two decades. But few can say they have figured out how to do them well, even
though best practices do exist.
Hybrid meetings need to be designed with intention
In general, hybrid meetings will work best if the organizers focus on the needs of the remote employees first, or at least equally, to the needs of the in-person employees. How many times have you been to a meeting and just before it begins you hear “Oh right, Janice and Bill are dialing in. How do we do that again?” Or even if there was some minimal planning, such as a Zoom or WebEx link included in the meeting invite, it is rare that the meeting’s agenda, activities, or other components were intentionally designed with the remote employees clearly in mind.
Beyond that overall principle, here are specific best practices to follow for your hybrid meetings:
- Use producers. Have someone in the role
of “producer” in the physical room, and for larger meetings, another that is
remote. They should be experienced with both the technology being used for the
meeting, and how to help handle the physical hardware in the room (e.g.,
cameras, laptops, etc.) and the online platforms involved (video conferencing
and/or audio dial-in systems). Ensure that these two producers (sometimes
called facilitators, assistants, or other role names) are aligned on all
expectations for how the meeting will run.
- Enable chat. Make sure the chat functionality
is turned on in Zoom, WebEx, etc., for those who are remote. Having a chat backchannel is the
best way to keep virtual attendees engaged, and is arguably the biggest benefit
of attending remotely that in-person attendees will usually miss. It allows for
peer-to-peer comments, learning, etc. in a way that can’t be done in person (since
people in the audience talking would disrupt the main speakers/leaders). Using
the chat is so valuable that you should consider having your in-person
attendees leverage their smartphones, or even laptops if it won’t be
disruptive, to login and participate in the backchannel as well.
- Equalize the Q&A. When you have question
and answer segments during the meeting, make sure to ask for questions from the
remote audience. Either ask them first, or at least be balanced between the two
- Display the remote employees. If
possible, have a big screen in the front of the room with as many of the remote
employees showing on video as possible (e.g., Zoom supports up to 49
simultaneously in gallery view on a big screen). If video is not enabled, or if
some employees don’t want to be seen, even displaying their static photos or
names is a good way remind presenters/leaders and all attendees in the room
that the remote folks are out there.
- Display the leaders/presenters. On the
flip side, make sure the in-person leaders/presenters are the main visuals the
remote employees see. After all, that is where the attention of the in-person
attendees is focused, so provide the same experience for the remote attendees. Also displaying a view of the in-person
audience is nice if you have a second camera, but not if it means giving up
seeing the leaders/presenters. Avoid displaying an audience looking at a
disembodied presenter voice off camera.
- Include everyone in activities. Make sure
to include the remote attendees in all meeting activities. If there is a moment
when people break into small groups, make sure to use your platform’s breakout
functionality for the online attendees. If flip charts are used to brainstorm,
leverage your platform’s whiteboard/annotation tools to do the same online.
Almost every in-person activity can be replicated virtually in some way—ask
your instructional designers for assistance, as they are expert at designing activities
for not just training and webinars, but for company meetings as well.
- Raise your audio game. Using video in a
meeting is very powerful, but it isn’t as crucial as having good audio. Just as
you wouldn’t hold an in-person meeting with someone jackhammering in the room,
so too the audio your remote employees hear must be clear and strong. Chat is powerful, but don’t relegate remote
employees’ participation to text only.
Encourage remote employees to come off mute and ask questions directly, or if you have a large meeting make sure producers can selectively unmute attendees when appropriate. Everyone’s audio skills are slowly improving during the COVID-19 pandemic, enough that “having bad audio” will increasingly be a thing of the past. To hasten that day, educate your remote employees about using headsets, earbuds, etc., and not relying on the built-in microphones and speakers on their laptops.
- Consider a platform upgrade. The online
meeting space was already a competitive technology arena, but it clearly was turbo-charged
by the work-from-home needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Investigate what options
your provider has (e.g., Zoom
Rooms) for meeting room setups ranging from small conference rooms to
larger town-hall style events.
- Survey everyone about the experience. Employee experience is at the top of everyone’s list these days, and one aspect of it is how they experience meetings, whether in-person or remotely. For large meetings, survey everyone about their experience, making sure to ask how they attended so you can filter the data to look for differences. Were those attending in-person more engaged, or did the online cohort have a better experience? Ask questions about each aspect of the meeting described above, so you can improve those that are lagging.
Lastly, please consider: Do you need to hold a hybrid meeting at all?
I have worked for four companies over the past twenty years, and since 2003 I have been either partially or entirely working from a home office. I’ve seen it all when it comes to hybrid meetings—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Following the above tips will lead to far more good hybrid meetings than bad or ugly ones. But few leaders stop to ask the critical, first question: do we need to hold a hybrid meeting at all?
Initially the answer might seem obvious: you have some employees in the office, and some who are remote, so of course any meeting that involves both groups means you’ll need to have a hybrid meeting.
But just because some people are in the same building doesn’t mean they have to gather together in-person for a town-hall or other such large meeting that also involves remote workers. Simply stated, it is optional to gather together in a room.
I certainly appreciate that there is something about proximity that can’t be replicated online. Doing so now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is problematic and might remain so until a vaccine is found. But even then, consider the attendee numbers for your meeting.
If the vast majority are in-person, then perhaps the benefits for those people of gathering together in a room are worthwhile. But if the split is more like 50/50, or if only a minority are in-person, then I strongly recommend having everyone be “remote” in the sense that everyone stays in their offices / home offices, uses Zoom, WebEx, etc., so that all are attending in the same way. Doing so puts all attendees on an equal footing, and all the issues you are trying to mitigate with the above best practices will evaporate.
Tom Stone is a senior research analyst at the Institute for Corporate Productivity.