Hybrid work isn’t the future. It’s already here. In the knowledge sector, 58% of employees already have a hybrid work model — up from 46% in May 2021, according to digital workspace consultancy Future Forum Pulse.
For employers who fail to create flexibility, get ready for resignations. Of workers who are dissatisfied with their current level of flexibility, 72% said they would look for a new job in the next year. Businesses must adapt their communications and meetings for distributed teams. That includes integrating new technology and activities to run hybrid meetings.
However, hybrid meetings can also be fraught with proximity bias, where in-person participants are treated preferably or have more opportunities to express their options. When participating in hybrid gatherings, 43% of remote workers say they don’t feel included in meetings, according to Microsoft’s 2022 “Work Trend Index” report. Further, only 27% of companies have created new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure that all employees feel included and engaged.
“The remote team has to be the foremost consideration… If they’re the hindmost consideration, then all bets are off, and they might as well frankly not be in the meeting,” says McKenna Sweazey, virtual leadership expert and author of the forthcoming book “How to Win Friends and Manage Remotely.”
So now, according to Microsoft, 54% of leaders are redesigning meeting spaces for hybrid work or are planning to make changes in the year ahead. Execs who fall into the same hybrid meeting pitfalls will lag behind.
Here’s how you can structure hybrid meetings to foster collaboration between your employees in the office and those working elsewhere.
Assessing The Effectiveness of Your Hybrid Meetings
If you’re looking to upgrade your hybrid meetings, start by running a self-assessment to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of your meetings. Begin by asking yourself the following questions.
- Is your internet connection stable? If not, your sound and images may be unclear. A poor connection could also cause an abrupt end to your meeting.
- Do you have the essential hardware? That goes beyond just a laptop. Check to make sure that the appropriate team members have microphones, external webcams and ring lights. If you’re a member of the in-person team, a wide-angle lens can help your remote participants see everyone in the conference room on one screen.
- Do you have the necessary software? Pick a video conferencing platform that your team will use for all meetings. Make sure that the program is downloaded on remote workers’ laptops and in-office devices.
- Do you have technical support to fix glitches? If there is a technical challenge, you should know who to contact to resolve the issue quickly.
If you’re running meetings from the office, be sure to get feedback from your employees working elsewhere.
“I have to be on guard across time…[of] the people who are collectively in the room and the people who are individually not in the room,” says Robert Frisch, founder of the consultancy Strategic Offsites Group. “I have to make sure that the balance of power, and [that] the ‘out of sight out of mind’ syndrome doesn’t result in separate classes of subordinates.”
Pay attention to video and audio quality, adds Frisch. Be sure to ask your remote participants if they can see and hear their co-workers. After the meeting, circle back with your remote workers, and ask the following questions:
- Do remote participants have enough opportunities to join in the discussion?
- Are members of your remote team being called on to contribute?
- Do in-office staff talk over or interrupt virtual participants?
Redesign Your Conference Room
Creating a more equitable environment for your online employees starts by optimizing your conference room. You may think that having your in-person employees open up your video-conferencing platform on their laptops is the best move. Frisch says this effort to put everyone on an equal footing is often misguided, as remote attendees may appear small on the monitor and easier to dismiss.
Frisch recommends setting up a main screen in the center of the room and two more, one on each side of the room, that can project large images of remote workers during the meeting. Frisch adds that showing remote workers this way also helps in-house employees view their out-of-the-office co-workers as full participants. This technique also acts as an ongoing reminder to include remote teammates in the conversation.
Assign a Facilitator and Buddies
A well-run hybrid meeting involves balancing moving parts — from re-arranging the conference room to rethinking group activities to ensuring equal participation. That’s why your meeting needs a facilitator. Different from the meeting’s leader, a facilitator ensures everyone gives input and is called on to participate, Frisch says.
Facilitators can identify instances where remote workers have been ignored and help leadership quickly pivot to include all participants. For example, Frisch attended a hybrid board meeting with a 45-minute break for lunch. During the break, the chairman and CEO tapped other board members for their insights. Noticing what was happening, Frisch asked the chairman if he had checked in with the remote attendees during the break. The chairman had not. After Frisch’s query, the chairman called virtual participants to gather their thoughts. Lesson learned.
Along those lines, consider pairing each remote attendee with an in-house buddy, or “in-house avatar.” Frisch says this onsite teammate can serve as a dedicated advocate for that remote employee during a meeting. If technical challenges arise for the remote participant, the buddy can call glitches to the attention of someone who can fix them. The buddy system guarantees offsite employees are heard, seen and able to participate fully in exercises.
If your meeting calls for breakout groups, Sweazey recommends that each one includes both in-house and remote workers, so that remote attendees don’t feel like second-class citizens. She also suggests that breakout groups have no more than six participants each, with one member assigned to record what’s been discussed and decided.
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Invest in Hardware
After taking a look at your hybrid meetings, you’ve likely identified shortcomings. Technical solutions and specialized training can help you fill the gaps, says Joseph A. Allen, an industrial and organizational psychology professor at the University of Utah.
Hardware refers to physical devices and infrastructure needed for your meetings. That includes wireless presentation systems, monitors, cameras and microphones. Consider these hardware upgrades:
- Extra webcams to capture what’s happening in a conference room. Position one camera to face in-person participants, allowing remote attendees to see who is speaking. Another camera should capture flip charts, wall charts and Post-it notes placed by in-house attendees, so that remote participants can read what colleagues have written on them.
- Omnidirectional microphones that can be positioned at the conference table and pick up sounds in all directions. That will allow your at-home employees to hear in-person participants clearly. If you’re waiting for an omnidirectional mic, passing handheld microphones among in-person speakers can offer a temporary fix.
- For example, for a meeting of 20, Frisch recommends three microphones pointed in different directions should sufficiently capture audio. If using handheld mics, three or four are enough for a meeting of 25.
If your team runs slide-heavy meetings, consider a wireless presentation system. This technology allows you to mirror your tablet or computer onto a shared screen. Simply plug into the leader’s primary device. The system also includes peripherals that meeting participants can plug into their laptops when they want to project additional data and visuals.
Use Software to Rethink Your Interactive Activities
You’ll also need to adopt new digital tools, or software, to keep hybrid meetings interactive and collaborative. For example, a simple raise of hands to gauge participant options have to be shifted to an online surveying tool, such as Kahoot!, Slido, Glisser or Poll Everywhere.
Digital whiteboards are also gaining popularity. In fact, 40% of companies are planning to adopt digital whiteboards, according to TechTarget. This technology allows everyone in the meeting to synchronously draw or write from individual devices. Online whiteboarding sessions facilitate “equitable participation” and “equitable access to information afterward by storing what was co-created,” writes Allen in his book “Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting.” Popular digital whiteboarding tools include Mural, Trello Board, Google Jamboard and Conceptboard.
If you currently use the Google Workspace, GoogleDocs is an option to which you already have access. The document creator can give meeting participants either suggesting or editing privileges. Once the doc appears on the monitor for all to see, attendees can make copy changes while the meeting is in session. The leader may direct one person to incorporate the relevant suggestions and come up with a clean copy that can be reviewed by all at a subsequent meeting.
Be sure any software participants need for these activities is downloaded on devices before your gathering.
Take the Time to Train Your Team
Allen also emphasizes the importance of “skillware,” or training your employees to manage the complex communication needs of seamless hybrid meetings.
“In a hybrid meeting you have multiple modes of communication,” Allen says. “A manager needs to be able to facilitate and lead the meeting, so [that] everyone is seen and heard, and that requires new skills that not all managers have.”
You’ll have to invest the time to train your team on new infrastructure — both software and hardware — that will be integrated into your meetings. Frisch suggests testing all technology components in advance. That includes giving your remote employees early access to your video-conferencing platforms and the software used in their activities.
Consider bringing in a coach to observe your meetings and guide your team toward improvement. “Hiring someone to teach or coach your meeting leaders is probably a worthwhile short-term investment in the long-term success of your organizations,” says Allen.