Let’s start with a definition: Hybrid Meetings are those that include both on-site and off-site participants. The off-site participants are often geographically spread across time zones and countries, and these days, typically connected via a platform like Webex, MS Teams, Zoom, or other similar tools.
But here’s the catch: in our view, a hybrid meeting is made up of two very different audiences with different needs.
The participants taking part remotely often have an inferior experience, feeling somewhat excluded. This is because onsite group members are typically being called on more often by the meeting leader, are offering more opinions, and are having more fluid conversations.
The outcome? If someone isn’t onsite, they may not only feel disregarded, but they’ll disengage, and possibly leave the meeting altogether.
The dynamic above can be aggravated by two additional factors: if the language of the meeting is not the remote participant’s “mother tongue” (first language), that adds a layer of complexity. On top of this, if that participant has a cultural background, gender, or gender identity that taught them to wait until they are invited to speak before offering an opinion or adding input, they might experience an even greater sense of alienation.
This is generally not the case for people raised in Western cultures – especially Western business cultures. They’ve have been taught to express their opinions and input openly and freely without any prompting. Naturally, and usually without being aware of it, they consume the majority of airtime. But even in Western cultures, a gender bias still exists quite widely, whereby men are more encouraged (and ‘allowed’) to speak up.
In the above situation, remote participants can easily grow increasingly puzzled. Why hasn’t the leader called on anyone in my group? Have they forgotten about us? Don’t they think our input is valuable?
The onsite participants are also puzzled. Why aren’t any of the online participants saying anything? Aren’t they interested? Don’t they care about the issue?
Unfortunately, as a meeting leader or facilitator, unless you recognize the inherent onsite/offsite imbalance; unless you’re aware of potential cultural differences; and unless you also know how to manage extroverts and introverts, you’re going to be conducting an inequitable meeting…to say nothing of missing out on potentially valuable input because it is not shared.
Your biggest challenge as a hybrid meeting leader is to realize that the participants must be treated in an equitable way. That means you should purposefully address and seek input from both onsite and offsite participants throughout the meeting, and in particular, be sure to speak to and include the offsite participants explicitly – every time you start a new discussion, every time you start an activity, etc.
You can start to do that when you issue the meeting invitation. One option is to set it up such that everyone – even the people onsite – will be using laptops rather than shared large screens. That alone will go a long way to wiping away the onsite/offsite ‘status’ differences, and the differences in participation that come along with it.
Harvard Business Review suggests that if you want everyone (not just the extroverts) to offer ideas and build on them, you should email up to five questions beforehand and ask people to spend time reflecting on them. Furthermore, HBR suggests you put those questions in the meeting agenda and the calendar listing so everyone knows what’s coming and can prepare. Great advice.
- Since everyone onsite will be seeing each other throughout the meeting, ask the offsite participants to do the same and keep their cameras on to the extent they feel they can. This of course depends on practical considerations such as:
- Internet bandwidth of the online participant(s);
- The time of day in the participant’s time zone;
- The size of the meeting; and
- Their specific physical set-up (i.e. are in they in a physical setting where they feel comfortable having their camera on?).
- Generally speaking, in larger meetings most online participants understandably feel less comfortable having their cameras on. Fair enough; in that case, create activities for small breakout groups (3 – 5 people per group) and encourage them to turn the cameras on while they’re in the breakout session.
- Introduce your Producer/Technology Coordinator. (Don’t miss reading the Tip below, as it will lay out the reasons you need a knowledgeable person in this role.)
- Given that the meeting will have a time limit, outline your expectations about participant input and feedback.
- If you think some of the “reaction” options such as clapping or waving hands will be a distraction, ask the producer to disable this functionality and let people know it’s been deactivated (and why).
- The Chat function can be a great tool, but casual chatting could interfere with and diminish your message, plus disrupt the flow of the meeting. Consider asking people to refrain from using it until you ask a question. Let them know you’ll be using Chat strategically for polling (“Type 1 if you agree; 2 if you disagree”), and for feedback (“Use one word to describe…”).
- Consider using tools like PollEverywhere, Mentimeter, Slido for audience interaction – especially in larger meetings (above +/- 30 participants).
- After each exercise, you can follow up by asking different individuals to unmute and talk about their experience and insights. Or, instead of putting a specific person on the spot, address the online audience as a whole, and ask them to submit questions and comments via Chat. When you address the written point, you can ask that person if they would be comfortable speaking about it, and give them easy permission to say “No”.
- Asking people for input is a great way to address the offsite participants as often as you address the people in the room…without having to constantly remind yourself to include them. The Chat function also lets you get feedback in real time which you can address on the spot.
- Appoint a specific person to monitor the Chat, and let your remote participants know that this person will be monitoring the Chat for questions and comments. Let them know that this person has been asked to interrupt the leader of the meeting with questions as they deem appropriate. Also indicate to remote participants that they can message this person privately if they want to submit a question but don’t want to put it out in the public domain.
Final Tip | Consider using a Producer
As the meeting leader/facilitator, you will have enough on your plate without having to deal with equipment or connectivity hiccups. So, even before you issue the invitation (and definitely before the meeting), designate a skilled Producer/Technology Coordinator.
This could simply be someone from the team of people organizing the meeting. Just make sure they are comfortable with the technology platform you are using. And of course, be sure to talk through the logistics before the meeting, and consider a “dry run”/rehearsal before the actual meeting – especially for larger meetings.
When meetings involve more than about 30-40 participants, it’s probably worth getting help from more than one person. You might have one person monitoring the Chat function, another person available for technical issues experienced by participants, and a 3rd person managing other technical components – such as a camera following the presenter in the room (which is broadcast to online participants).
Keep in mind that people in different locations will likely have unequal meeting infrastructure. For instance, although we believe it’s a more cohesive experience for all the participants use their own laptops, one team may prefer to use a large common screen which will definitely affect how you set up your presentation and the various tools you’ll be employing. It will also affect the instructions you provide when you put the group(s) into a breakout activity.
People will also have different bandwidth connections…some super-fast, some quite slow.
All of the above will increase your need to appoint a producer and/or other colleagues to help the meeting run smoothly, as noted above.
Before the meeting, they’ll be responsible for sorting out the connectivity issues. And before setup, as audio quality is paramount, they’ll want to ensure remote attendees can, at very least, clearly hear the presenter, and that they can be heard by everyone in the room if they choose to speak during the meeting (versus simply providing input via Chat or other tools).
They’ll also need to confirm that your documents can be seen and easily read by both on-site and remote participants no matter what screens are being used. One option for assisting in this regard is to provide a PDF of key documents before the meeting.
Yes, hybrid meetings can pose challenges, but as you see, with some purposeful effort, a flexible approach, and an attentive meeting leader/facilitator, they can work well.
Over to you!