Planning and etiquette are essential to avoid the pitfalls associated with hybrid meetings.
By Jessica Mudditt
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With many organisations set to retain flexible work practices beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the hybrid meeting is here to stay.
Hybrid meetings involve a combination of in-person and virtual attendance, and, like all worthwhile meetings, they require a well-defined purpose, an agenda and the right attendees.
Unlike regular meetings, however, hybrids require additional preparation – and special etiquette, says tech commentator Geoff Quattromani, starting with the planning stages.
“Regardless of whether you think people will be in the office or not, when you book a meeting room you should always add a virtual option,” says Quattromani, who works as digital transformation manager with Johnson & Johnson.
“That way, someone who is working from home can make a spur-of-the-moment decision to join in.”
Equality is key
The biggest risk a hybrid meeting runs is denying participants an equal voice, says workplace performance expert Dermot Crowley.
“A hybrid meeting is definitely the most challenging meeting format, because it involves two different audiences,” Crowley explains.
“It’s natural to favour those who are in front of us over virtual attendees.”
If the meeting facilitator does not make an effort to level the playing field, a hybrid meeting can drain morale.
“Hybrid meetings existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but my goodness – they were atrocious back then,” recalls Quattromani.
“Most companies only had teleconferencing, so the person joining remotely was just a little voice in the room. I remember joining a hybrid meeting and being completely forgotten.”
Back then, if someone hadn’t “made the effort” to be physically present and had simply “dialled in”, their opinion was often thought to carry less weight. This is an outdated attitude, says Quattromani.
Crowley agrees and takes it a step further, suggesting others pretend that the virtual attendee is the CEO.
“That way, you will make a real effort to constantly engage them,” he says.
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Seamless tech for success
Technical hiccups can undermine the best intentions to make all participants equal, warns Quattromani.
“It’s hard to treat people the same if you can’t hear someone properly because the speaker quality is terrible, or the video isn’t working. It’s important to make sure that the technology isn’t a barrier.”
He suggests checking that the set-up is adequate before the meeting starts, and that everyone takes responsibility for ensuring they can be seen and heard.
“It’s been a year since we started working in these new ways, so the excuses are starting to wear thin as to why things aren’t working,” says Quattromani.
Queensland-based IT service provider ADITS discovered the inherent challenges of hybrid meetings when it began running them in July 2020. Its 20 staff are spread across three offices in Queensland, one of which is still wholly working from home due to space constraints that prevent social distancing.
“We had a few hybrid meetings where the online participants had turned off their microphones, which interrupted the natural flow of conversation,” recalls Shannon Willcox, ADITS’s marketing manager.
“During others, some had turned off their cameras, so without the non-verbal cues it was impossible to know that they were about to speak. As a result, people were jumping in on top of one another.”
ADITS has since refined its approach to hybrid meetings. Participants must raise their hand if they wish to speak, regardless of whether they are there in-person or virtually. (It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Microsoft Teams have a “raise hand” function – simply click the button and a golden hand icon shows up next to your name.)
ADITS also started using a projector screen with a camera and central microphone for in-person attendees, rather than having them sit in front of their laptop cameras.
The camera automatically focuses on the person who is talking and captures the entire room of participants. The tile depicting the room adjusts according to the number of people present, so that they are clearly visible.
“It’s hard to treat people the same if you can’t hear someone properly because the speaker quality is terrible, or the video isn’t working. It’s important to make sure that the technology isn’t a barrier.” Geoff Quattromani, Tech commentator
“We found that it stopped people talking among themselves, because everything is pitched directly through the central device in the middle of the table,” Willcox says.
Social distancing remains vital for in-person attendees, but it is important not to let it get in the way of effective communication.
“The more we spread out, the less we may understand another person’s point of view,” says Crowley.
“I think the solution is to make our work as visible as possible. Now, I’m not one to suggest death by PowerPoint, but including a few slides to illustrate your point can be helpful, as it gives people something to focus on instead of just looking at you from the other side of the room.”
Post-meeting etiquette is also important.
“People in the meeting room should be mindful that when the meeting is over, it’s over,” says Quattromani.
“In the past, once the virtual participants had dropped off, someone might say, ‘While you’re here, let’s continue the conversation.’ That is excluding people.”
Running a successful hybrid meeting is the first step towards business success in a post-COVID-19 world, says Crowley.
“It’s an exciting future, because we have the ability to work in a more flexible way. But the bigger picture is hybrid working, and I think that collaborating well from different locations is a key challenge for the corporate world.”