As companies continue to navigate the challenges of remote work, hybrid meetings have emerged as a critical solution for successful collaboration between in-person and remote teams. A hybrid meeting combines in-person and remote attendees and allows for face-to-face interaction between all participants, regardless of their location. And with the right technology and facilitation, hybrid meetings can provide the best of both worlds: the benefits of in-person meetings, such as nonverbal communication and spontaneous collaboration, combined with the convenience and cost-effectiveness of remote meetings.
But in order to truly take advantage of the benefits of hybrid meetings, organizations must pay attention to several key factors. Otherwise, hybrid meetings can be a miserable experience for both in-person but especially remote attendees. In fact, after consulting for 21 organizations on how to implement hybrid work arrangements, my experience shows most companies have a policy that if one person is attending virtually, then everyone will attend virtually.
However, as I tell my clients, by doing so they miss out on the real benefits of in-person interaction for those who are in the room. Attending in person has been shown to improve attendee motivation, connection to fellow attendees, ability to communicate effectively through conveying and reading nonverbal signals; no wonder more than eight in ten executives prefer in-person meetings to virtual contact.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the best approach is to learn best practices for hybrid meetings, which can create a positive experience for both in-person and remote attendees. Doing so requires overcoming our intuitions and gut reactions about how to manage meetings and investing into quality AV technology, developing new meeting norms, and training participants on using this technology and following these norms.
Importance of Excellent Meeting AV Technology
One of the most critical elements of a successful hybrid meeting is having excellent audio and video (AV) technology that allows all participants to see and hear each other clearly. This is especially important for remote attendees.
Many conference rooms are long and narrow, and cameras are typically located at one end of the table, so that those at the far end are not easily visible on video. That creates a problem for remote attendees, since they can’t see clearly the body language and gestures of the in-person attendees. Similarly, remote attendees need to be able to hear the points made by everyone in the room, but the typical narrow meeting rooms are not set up to pick up audio well for all participants, just for those at the head of the table. That’s fine for presentations, but fails to work for collaborative meetings with discussion by various participants.
Remote participants need to see the person who is speaking at any given time. To do so requires a camera that tracks whoever is speaking at the moment, and focuses on them as a speaker. They also need a second camera that shows the whole room, in order to catch the nonverbal cues of their in-person colleagues and thus participate fully in the discussion. After all, the point of a meeting is not simply one-way communication by the speaker; it’s also observing the reaction of the meeting participants to the speaker. Finally, they need a third camera showing the PowerPoint and/or whiteboard.
In-person participants, in turn, have to be able to see remote attendees clearly. That means, ideally, having them sit on one side of the table and on the other side having a big conference room screen with the remote attendees. Then, the natural focus of the in-person attendees goes to the remote participants, not to each other.
For example, a mid-size insurance company was experiencing a lack of engagement from remote employees during meetings. Based on my advice, they implemented better AV technology, such as directional microphones and a 360 degree high-definition conference camera that tracked the speaker on one screen while also offering a wide shot of the attendees on another. With this technology remote employees reported feeling more included in the discussions and were able to better understand the reactions of their in-person colleagues. In turn, such understanding led to improved collaboration and more efficient decision-making.
Separate Facilitation for Remote Attendees
Another important factor in successful hybrid meetings is having a separate facilitator for remote attendees. Team leaders serve as the traditional meeting facilitator, and they already have their hands full managing the in-person portion of the meeting and the agenda while also being a full participant; they really struggle with the additional burden of managing remote participants, which requires substantial work, and the remote participants are typically left behind.
Instead, it’s important for the team leader to appoint an in-person attendee as the remote facilitator. This person’s role is to ensure that remote attendees are able to fully participate in the meeting and that their contributions are heard and acknowledged. They can also help to manage any technical issues that may arise. The remote facilitator should solicit the feedback and input of remote attendees, and interject on their behalf as needed. The facilitator needs to call on remote attendees as soon as reasonable whenever they use the “raise your hand” function electronically, skipping in-person attendees in queue to speak. They also need to read out loud chats typed by videoconference attendees who ask the remote facilitator to make a point on their behalf.
For example, a large financial services company struggled with ensuring that remote employees were able to contribute to meetings in a meaningful way. By assigning a separate facilitator for remote attendees, the company was able to improve participation and engagement from remote employees, leading to more effective decision-making and improved productivity.
Expressing Yourself through Emojis or Chat
Remote attendees need to collaborate with the remote facilitator and advocate for their perspective and full-fledged participation in hybrid meetings. They need to express themselves in reaction to what people are saying through reaction emojis or chat.
After all, with high-quality AV technology that provides a wide shot of the room in high-definition video, they can see how the in-person participants are responding to the points made by the speaker. And they’re invited to the meeting because their contributions are valuable; otherwise, why waste their time coming, right? They could just watch a meeting recording.
The challenge is that you can’t see the responses of remote participants to what the speaker is saying, so remote participants have to be more deliberate about their responses. Fortunately, by using chat or reaction emojis, they don’t have to interrupt the speaker or impede the conversation flow. It’s much easier to use such features, especially for introverted participants, making them more likely to shine as remote participants in hybrid meetings.
And since there’s someone in the room whose job it is to make sure remote participants are heard – the remote facilitator – that person will interrupt the speaker on their behalf. For example, a remote participant may indicate that they have a question or comment in the chat. If that happened in the room, the speaker could see that someone had a frown or confused look. But they can’t see that easily for remote participants. However, the remote facilitator can interject on behalf of the remote attendees, addressing their confusion and making sure the remote participants can make their contribution.
For example, a small health care company was having trouble getting remote employees to participate in meetings. By implementing a norm that remote attendees would express themselves through emojis or chat, the company was able to improve participation and engagement from remote employees.
Norms of Behavior for In-Person Participants
In-person participants have to pay attention to remote attendees and to make an effort to include them in the discussion. This can be done by signing into the meeting on their laptops or phones and tracking the responses of remote attendees through chat or emojis. In fact, they can contribute to the conversation if they sign into the meeting, and make sure they don’t miss the valuable subtext in the chat.
Likewise, in-person attendees have to overcome their intuitive and natural temptation to prioritize other in-person attendees. They need to pay attention preferentially to remote attendees to deanchor their gut reactions and encourage other in-person attendees to do so as well. That’s why it helps to sit facing the remote attendees, not fellow in-person attendees.
For example, a mid-size retail company noticed that remote employees were not being fully included in meetings. By implementing a norm that in-person participants would pay attention to remote attendees and track their responses, the company was able to improve participation and engagement from remote employees.
Impact of Cognitive Biases on Hybrid Meetings
It is important to note that cognitive biases can also play a role in the effectiveness of hybrid meetings. Confirmation bias, for example, can lead to in-person participants only paying attention to and confirming the ideas of those in the room, while ignoring the input of remote attendees, harming their ability to build positive relationships. Attentional bias can also lead to in-person participants focusing more on the in-person attendees and neglecting the remote attendees.
Additionally, the empathy gap can cause in-person participants to underestimate the difficulties faced by remote attendees, leading to a lack of consideration for their needs. To combat these biases, it is important to make a conscious effort to actively engage and include all attendees, both in-person and remote.
Training Meeting Participants
To achieve this change of norms and address cognitive biases requires training both the in-person and remote meeting facilitators and also the attendees, including in-person and remote ones. The new norms will seem artificial and uncomfortable at first, because everyone will have to address their miscalibrated intuitions, but it will help maximize everyone’s participation and address the problems with typical hybrid meetings. Training – which should involve practice and role-playing – will help overcome the initial discomfort and ease alignment with the new norms.
Part of training involves setting up feedback systems for continuous improvement. Thus, especially as teams are starting to figure out their new meeting norms, they need to measure and get feedback on the quality of the hybrid meeting experience, for in-person and especially remote attendees. As you’re making these transitions, survey participants on various aspects of the meeting, such as: their overall evaluation of their meeting experience, how well they were able to hear and see others, how well they think others heard and saw them, how much they were able to participate in and impact the meeting, how well the in-person participants accommodated remote participants, how well the facilitator accommodated remote participants, how effectively were features like chat and emojis like “raise hand” used, what could have been done better to improve their experience and impact, and related questions. Particular feedback needs to be provided to the meeting facilitators, including watching recordings with a coach who can point out specific moments the facilitator performed well, and other areas where they may need improvement.
Hybrid meetings can be a great solution for companies looking to bring together both in-person and remote teams. However, to ensure their success, companies must have excellent AV technology, a separate facilitator for remote attendees, and norms of behavior for in-person participants to pay attention to and engage with remote attendees. It is also important to be aware of and actively combat cognitive biases that can undermine hybrid meetings. To develop these norms and address cognitive biases requires training with an associated measure and feedback mechanism for continuous improvement until such norms become ingrained.
Hybrid meetings can succeed with proper AV technology, a separate facilitator for remote attendees, and norms of behavior for in-person participants to engage with remote attendees, all of which requires effective training and feedback… >Click to tweet
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Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts