The COVID-19 pandemic forced a grand experiment for knowledge workers worldwide: Can working from home actually work? By large measure, the answer was a resounding “yes,” with nary a blip in productivity — an amazing feat given the steep learning curve most had to climb in order to adapt to a world suddenly gone remote.
Now, with the continuing vaccination rollout, businesses are facing their next significant hurdle: a transition to the post-pandemic workplace. But what does that workplace look like? For some companies, it means making work-from-home options permanent. For others, it translates into a welcome return to the brick and mortar office. But for most businesses, it will likely be a combination of both, creating a hybrid workforce for the foreseeable future.
At the center of doing business in this workplace is the hybrid meeting. Managing the expectations, participation and conversation flow during a hybrid meeting can be daunting, but recognizing the potential pitfalls can help leaders avoid them.
The Network Effect
The crux of the challenge in managing a hybrid meeting is the presence of several “networks” within one meeting, rather than just one. In this context, a “network” refers to the people who are present and communicating at the meeting. Prior to the pandemic, people primarily met in person. In fact, according to research conducted by the Center for Meeting Effectiveness at the University of Utah, more than 77% of meetings were face to face. All of the people at in-person meetings created one network in which participants could easily interact and engage.
When the pandemic hit, meetings went almost entirely virtual, with video meetings increasing 20-fold practically overnight, according to research from the Center for Meeting Effectiveness. But even in that situation, those meetings consisted of just one network — albeit a network that appeared in an egalitarian way on laptop screens and monitors.
The hybrid meeting introduces a new level of complexity with multiple networks. You may have three people in one room (network A) meeting with three people gathered together in another location (network B) and four individuals connecting from their own home offices (network C — solo virtual participants). As a leader, how can you encourage people in all of those networks to communicate with each other effectively?
Dr. Joseph A. Allen, director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness, anticipates a significant skill gap. “The reason why hybrid meetings are going to be so hard initially is because they’re a lot more complicated,” he says. “A lot more facilitation is going to be needed than ever before because it’ll be easy for each group to have its own meeting and just occasionally talk to each other. It’s going to be really easy to get stuck in our own pods.”
The Video Imperative in a Hybrid World
When everyone is seated around the conference table, the meeting leader can quickly scan the room to gauge how messages are resonating and ensure that everyone is engaged. Even during a virtual meeting, provided that everyone has his or her webcam on, a leader can still do a quick assessment by doing a sweep of the screen. In a hybrid meeting, a full assessment takes more effort and intention. Given this monumental task, cultivating a “webcam-on” culture is imperative for leaders and attendees.
A hybrid meeting creates automatic disparities that are exaggerated when video is not used. Participants in the same physical space find it easy to read the body language of their counterparts across the table and adjust their delivery based on that nonverbal feedback. They also can communicate their message more fully, with their words, tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures.
In a hybrid meeting, however, webcam participants are at a slight disadvantage. While they can still communicate using visual cues and interpret the nonverbals on the screen, body language from the chest up is a bit more muted than what you can see in person. Participants who simply “dial in” without video will find themselves in the dark.
Strong Facilitation Is a Must
It is incumbent upon the meeting leader to remind everyone who is “in the room,” a more difficult task given the combination of physical and virtual spaces, and to drive dialogue among everyone in attendance. With that task in mind, here are some steps meeting leaders can take to effectively manage this new form of meeting:
1. Encourage Participants to Join With Video
Too often, out of sight too can mean out of mind. Someone’s physical presence, even on camera, can keep that person from being left out of the conversation.
2. Assign Agenda Items to Each Participant
If every person in the meeting has an opportunity to use his or her voice in the meeting, it creates more even participation, regardless of location.
3. Consider Making the Facilitator Someone Other than the Decision-maker
Often, the person running the meeting is the decision-maker — but it can be difficult to attend to the agenda, monitor participation and process everything everyone is saying, all at the same time. For critical meetings, consider asking someone without a direct stake in the meeting outcome to facilitate and guide the discussion. It’ll lessen the cognitive burden on the decision-maker and enable him or her to focus on the information shared and the actions to take.
Success Is Not Solely on the Meeting Leader’s Shoulders
While much of the discussion here has been geared toward meeting leaders, the onus for making hybrid meetings work is shared by the attendees as well. As Dr. Allen explains, “If you’re in your pod and you realize you haven’t talked with people from another pod for more than 90 seconds, then you’re not having an effective hybrid meeting.”
Following a year of navigating uncharted territory, leaders may find it par for the course that now, they need to figure out how to manage the demands of a hybrid meeting. However, businesses should take heed.
“Organizations have a moment here,” says Dr. Allen. “They can choose to prepare their people for the hybrid meetings they’re about to have in the future or they can have the natural dip in productivity that is going to happen if they don’t.” A new kind of meeting may also drive a need for a new kind of training that will be mission-critical for business success.
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.