Office doors are slowly opening back up. Consequently, the structure of meetings is shifting again.
Many organizations are opting in with a hybrid meeting format, a fusion of virtual and in-person meetings to accommodate teams now made up of remote and in-person staff. However, with hybrid meetings, there’s a risk of assuming it’s essentially an in-person meeting with a few folks calling or Zooming in. Not so! We want to challenge that mentality.
We know that a hybrid meeting takes as much planning and preparation as a stand-alone virtual or in-person meeting. Here is what our colleagues at Third Space Studio shared about what they’ve learned so far.
Co-facilitation is key. Having someone on hand to focus on the technology and audio during the meeting will free you to focus on the facilitation. Hybrid meetings, large and small, require extra focus and coordination throughout. Case in point, we had an unexpected A.C. unit turn on mid-meeting during a recent hybrid meeting (luckily, it didn’t impact the audio). Still, it caused us to stop and check the sound for our virtual participants, which put a momentary pause in the group work.
Be flexible, especially with your first hybrid meeting. The first hybrid meeting is an experiment in itself. You’ll figure out what works best for you and your group and what doesn’t. Be open to feedback and adjustments as needed throughout. Some of the activities we’d facilitated online or in-person took us longer to set – especially considering hybrid meeting activities require accommodations for participants in person and online. On that note …
You need to adjust your meeting design accordingly. Small group activities may require extra setup time – add that time to your meeting design. Consider your location. Do you have enough space to send small groups out into separate areas where audio won’t be impacted by multiple conversations happening? If not, you may have to adjust your meeting design to accommodate the space and potential audio impacts.
Intentionally and consistently check in with your virtual participants. For instance, you might say, “Does anyone at home have something they’d like to share?” or, “I want to hear from our Zoom participants first” at the beginning of a group share out. Without intentionally and consciously engaging virtual folks, it’s easy to forget they are there.
Establish new group norms. For example, encourage all to avoid holding off on side conversations or multiple conversations simultaneously as it impacts virtual participants’ ability to listen. Or make sure both in-person and virtual participants remember to put their cameras on. We’d suggest building these out after you experiment with the hybrid setup. Let your team adjust to this meeting style and develop group norms from what they learn works for them.
Create deliberate ways of connecting people. Be sure to build time in the agenda for socializing and mingling with all participants involved. It might be tempting to quickly shift back to the familiar pre-COVID in-person meeting socializing activities (e.g., team meals, happy hours, and those classic pre-meeting side conversations). However, creating deliberate opportunities for both in-person and virtual participants to gather and connect is critical to the success of your collective work. That’s not to say “avoid team meals”; it’s a gentle nudge to get creative in connecting those that join virtually. Maybe that means blocking out time on the agenda for participants (in-person and online) to share a photo that means something to them or keeping some of those virtual happy hours in place. Whatever it is, make sure you create space for all to build connections. We’ve got some ideas to help you get started here with our connection builders list.
Experiment and get feedback. Remember when you first pulled your groups together online and had to learn a new way of holding gatherings? Allow yourself and your team the same grace period to figure out what works best for your team. Build-in feedback opportunities so you can make adjustments as you go. It can be as simple as asking your group, “what went well?” and “what would we adjust next time?” at the end of your hybrid gatherings.
It may take some getting used to initially for those that are new to hybrid meetings, but we promise it’s worth giving a go. Hybrid meetings are an opportunity to maintain some of the tools and efficiency of virtual meetings. For one, you’ve got an increased likelihood of pulling in guest speakers who are typically time-constrained. We were able to invite and host three guest speakers in one half-day session since the hybrid meeting format allowed our guests to jump in virtually (cutting out travel time that may have prohibited, due to their packed schedules, from joining us). In the past, had we invited a guest speaker to join us from out of town, we might have blocked an entire half-day out hosting them, feeling obligated to make up for the amount of time they’ve gifted in attending. But, because we were not asking our guest speakers to take extra time traveling to us – we didn’t have to block as much time out of the agenda – effectively cutting down our meeting time. And, we were able to invite more guest speakers to join, given the time efficiency of hosting them virtually.
Hybrid meetings can also include long-distant partners or partners in need of more flexibility (e.g., parents, folks working multiple jobs, or various projects). They can include partners with limited mobility or those not ready to meet in person, perhaps because they live with an immune-compromised family member. They do offer a lot of room to accommodate all and by doing so, increase participation rates.
A Note on Technology & Virtual Tools
You’ve just spent a little over a year skilling up in the virtual world. As we move into the hybrid space, we encourage you to bring forward the online tools and collaboration software you’ve found the most helpful. For us, that’s Google Docs and Mural. We’ve discovered in-person participants and virtual participants can easily collaborate and engage together meaningfully with both. Not sure where to start? We’ve got a list of recommended virtual tools for you to consider if you aren’t sure where to start on our website.
We recently facilitated a 15-person meeting with 12 in-person participants and 3 virtual participants. The meeting was held in a hotel conference room with enough space for in-person participants to physically distance themselves. All in-person meeting participants had their own laptop, with the cameras on and audio off (all sounds were captured via two primary speakers centered on the table). Given we were depending on the primary speakers for audio support, we had them elevated.
A projector and screen were set up at the front of the room, near the facilitator. We invited three virtual guests to speak with the group. During their presentations, we spotlighted and projected them on the primary screen. When guest speakers were not presenting, we had Zoom meeting participants pinned on the primary laptop screen throughout the meeting to avoid having 15 or so ‘heads’ on the screen at once. The image below captures this full tech and room setup.
Small groups were challenging to set up, but ultimately worked well.
For groups with mixed in-person and virtual participants, one in-person participant set up a call and set the phone on speaker. Groups moved into separate spaces to keep their audio clear of background conversations. Each group worked collaboratively online through a Google Doc viewed by all participants.
This is just one possibility. Consider setting aside time to test out your equipment and the room set up before your meeting. And, ask the group for feedback after identifying areas for improvement moving forward.
P.S. Don’t forget to bring extension cords and confirm your meeting location has reliable and fast wifi!
Ultimately, you can achieve your desired meeting outcomes via hybrid meetings. Just like an in-person or virtual meeting, they need some intentional planning and designing. Yes, it will take some getting used to, but hey, we just spent over a year adjusting our work habits to fit new realities. This is a drop in the hat.
-Heather, Meredith, & Charlie
Third Space Studio’s lead consultants, Meredith Emmett and Heather Yandow are an inter-generational team with more than 40 years of combined experience as nonprofit capacity builders, facilitators, trainers, and coaches. Third Space Studio knows meetings can be fun, productive, and better. Whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid, Meredith and Heather can help you and your team hold better meetings. To learn more about workshop and training options, visit https://www.thirdspacestudio.com/better-meetings