With more and more companies electing to adopt a hybrid work model to accommodate a growing need for workplace flexibility, mastering the art of the hybrid meeting or conference has become a necessity. We sat down with Emmy award winning on-camera communications expert, Karin M. Reed, and Meetings Scientist and organizational psychologist, Joseph A. Allen, PhD., co-authors of the new book, Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting, to discuss the how the 2020 pandemic has forever changed the way we use technology to communicate at work.
The Future of Work is predicated on flexibility – the workforce of today demands it. Countless surveys all support the same notion – the majority of knowledge workers appreciate having more control over how, when and where they work, and they will vote with their feet if their current employer doesn’t offer the hybrid arrangement they desire. " According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, more than 90% of employers are planning to adopt a hybrid model for their knowledge workers. Good intentions though may not result in sufficient business outcomes, especially if employers do not support a hybrid model with the training, technology and strategies required to make it a success. As a result, some organizations may try to revert to an in-office model. However, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle when it comes to flexible working arrangements, and talent retention may be a struggle for those who try to move away from a hybrid model once it is implemented."
The biggest benefit of a hybrid work model is you are giving employees the opportunity to choose where they work best – optimizing individual performance that will benefit the team as a whole. The downside of running a business when employees can be working from anywhere is it requires more intention and more planning, especially when it comes to creating and maintaining team cohesion and culture. It can’t happen by osmosis by simply sharing the same space. Leaders need to be strategic in setting up opportunities to build connections and relationships regardless of location, while guarding against creating a two-tier system where in-office employees have better access to information and opportunity than their remote counterparts.
The biggest misstep that people are still making is not turning on their camera in meetings that call for collaboration. Having your video on is not imperative if you are in a meeting with a large number of people and you are not expected to actively participate. However, if you are in a meeting where you are a key stakeholder and you do not have your camera on, you are dramatically diminishing your “presence” in that meeting as well as your influence. Having your camera on allows you to communicate in full. Video + audio is a much richer medium than audio alone. Video makes you and your message more memorable and allows for greater impact.
Technology companies have been solving for hybrid meetings practically since the start of the pandemic. There are myriad options to support this new way of gathering. However, we would advise ensuring you have the basics covered. In the physical meeting room, you need a high-quality conference room camera and microphones that can allow everyone to be seen and heard clearly regardless of where they are seated.
Our initial feedback indicates that a common deficiency is in the in-room audio system. Remote attendees can’t adequately hear the conversations being had in the conference room. One microphone may not have the range to pick up the voices of everyone present which is frustrating for remote attendees who are straining to hear and be a part of the conversation flow. Conference rooms also need to have large monitors, so the remote attendees are visually represented in a way that the in-room attendees are constantly reminded of their presence.
Remote attendees also need to have high-quality webcams and microphones that allow them to be seen clearly and heard crisply. A strong internet connection is table stakes. The best tools won’t make up for video that freezes or audio that cuts out. The key is creating participation equity and presence for all on both the in-person and remote sides.
People certainly can apply tips from the first book – and they should. After all, a hybrid meeting by definition involves a virtual component. However, a hybrid meeting introduces a new level of complexity because of the presence of in-room attendees. When we meet in person, we form one communication network using one medium – the air we breathe. When we meet virtually, we form one communication network as well, but this time the medium is the video conferencing platform.
In a hybrid meeting, you have multiple networks and multiple mediums which all need to be managed and, in some cases, mitigated. Inequities can easily arise in terms of how fully people can participate if strategies aren’t in place to better ensure meeting equity. For example, we’ve seen several hybrid companies implement a policy where remote attendees speak first. Not only does it provide an opportunity for the voices of the virtual attendees to be heard but it also raises everyone’s collective awareness of who is actually in the meeting. It’s not just the people sitting around the conference table.
Yes, in fact, I’ve written 25% of the scientific literature on the topic, more than any other person (as far as I know). The science of meeting or meeting science is the systematic study of workplace meetings with the hope of identifying what makes them work and what makes them not work as well as they ought. As for tips, the fun thing about Suddenly Hybrid is that it’s a science-based practical guide to make hybrid meetings better. So, all the tips I’d give are already in there. Probably my favorite three, supported by the science of meetings, are the following: 1) Ensure participation for all by setting the ground rule that people will be called upon by name for their input, 2) Enable remotes to engage first in each agenda item by calling on them before letting folks in the physical room speak, and 3) Humanize the meeting by starting with a little small talk upfront and ending on time (or early) so folks have time to find the restroom or a beverage before their next task, often a meeting.
#1 – If you are attending remotely, make sure you polish your personal production value. Make sure your face is well lit, so people can read your facial expressions easily. Frame yourself so you are seen from mid-chest up so you can adequately convey nonverbals. Make sure your background is not distracting and neutral.
#2 – Remember where your fellow attendees are. The camera represents people so interact with it as you would with a person face to face. If you are a remote attendee, primarily look at the lens when speaking. It’ll feel like you are making good eye contact with the people on the other side of the camera. If you are in the conference room, address the camera as you would other participants in the room with you. Remote attendees will feel like you are including them in the conversation.
#3 – Don’t try to perform for the camera. Have a conversation with it. The camera is simply a conduit to your conversation partner. Focus your energy through the camera and know that’s the best way to connect with the people on the other side. Authenticity is what works best on camera. Not perfection.
What type of technology do you both anticipate will become the prominent platforms for business meetings and conferences over the next few years? Any predictions as to where this technology is headed?
Organizations are starting to select and streamline the technology tools they are using internally. However, the friction occurs when their customers, clients and vendors use another tool – and are not keen to use a different one. For example, a Microsoft Teams shop may outright refuse to take a Zoom meeting. Perhaps there will be a software solution that will bridge those gaps on a large scale.
We also predict there will be a push towards collaboration equity with more disconnected tools being replaced by those that are connected. We saw an exponential rise in the use of virtual whiteboards that take the place of the physical whiteboards… and those dry erase markers that often seem to have only a one-week shelf life.