Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
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 to truly take advantage of the benefits of hybrid meetings requires overcoming our intuitions and gut reactions about how to manage meetings and investing in quality AV technology, developing new meeting norms, and training participants on using this technology and following these norms. Otherwise, hybrid meetings can be a miserable experience for both in-person — especially remote attendees, as I’ve seen in consulting for 21 organizations on how to implement hybrid work arrangements.
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.
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.
Remote participants need to see the person who is speaking at any given time. To do so requires a camera that tracks and focuses on whoever is speaking at the moment. They also need a second camera that shows the whole room to catch the nonverbal cues of their in-person colleagues. 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.
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 participant.
Instead, the team leader needs 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. They also need to read out loud chats typed by videoconference attendees who ask the remote facilitator to make a point on their behalf.
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.
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.
Norms of behavior for in-person participants
In-person participants have to pay attention to remote attendees and 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 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.
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 the required 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.