Hybrid remote working has long been touted as the “future of work”, and as pandemic restrictions ease worldwide there seems to be little doubt that it’s here to stay. A recent McKinsey survey found that as we step away from Covid restrictions and get back to “normal life”, 90% of organizations will adopt some combination of remote and on-site work.
Of all the challenges this poses, navigating communication between virtual and office-based colleagues is arguably the biggest—and hybrid meetings lie at the centre of this. Just as teams have had to learn how to run decent virtual meetings over the past year and a half, they now need to figure out how to hold a hybrid meeting that works for both in-office and remote participants.
What is a hybrid meeting?
A hybrid meeting is a meeting of any combination of people who are attending from both a company-owned office location and remotely outside of it. The set-up can vary, being either majority remote when as little as one or two people join from the office and the rest join remotely, or majority in-office when remote participants are outnumbered by in-office employees.
Another layer of complexity is added when you consider who’s directing or calling the meeting. A remote colleague can lead a majority in-office meeting, just as an office-based colleague can facilitate a meeting where most of the attendants are working remotely. While these balances may seem trivial, they can dramatically change the dynamic, participation and feel of a hybrid meeting.
Challenges around hybrid meetings
By trying to unite two different models of interaction into one equitable experience, hybrid meetings raise important challenges for teams. These largely center around the following issues:
Feeling of inclusion
Feeling left out or invisible during meetings is a common complaint for remote employees, particularly majority in-office meetings where they can see colleagues interacting naturally in person and sharing jokes. In such a dynamic, it can be difficult to achieve a natural, democratic flow to conversation, ensuring everyone gets a chance to speak and nobody monopolises the air. The nature of video conferencing software itself also plays a part, as many remote employees don’t feel comfortable putting themselves forward to dominate the audio and mute others’ microphones.
Participation and engagement
It can be challenging to get floor time as a remote observer, leading many meeting participants to simply observe the meeting as mute bystanders. In-office colleagues joining via one communal computer may also feel less drive to participate when they don’t have their own individual video and don’t control their own microphone. This lack of video in turn can limit comprehension among remote participants, since important facial cues are removed and it can be difficult to follow who in the office is speaking.
Quality of discussion
We all know how frustrating virtual calls can be. Tech issues like weak connections or problems with software can easily affect the quality and fluidity of meetings, and unless you speak boldly and immediately, and persevere with your sentence, your microphone may be muted by that of another participant. The unnatural delay in speaking via tools like Zoom also means there’s often a stilted flow of conversation, making it too easy for people to be interrupted and talked over. These issues can make it all too easy for in-office groups to dominate the meeting.
Hybrid meeting best practice
These challenges an be effectively managed by ensuring everyone follows a few hybrid meeting best practices. Make sure your team is up to speed and undersands the importance of these to turn them into regular practise:
All team communication should be remote-first
Before calling a hybrid meeting, first question whether a synchronous meeting is really the best mechanism for solving your problem. If the matter can be better addressed via an asychronous channel that’s universally accessible to everyone—like Slack—keep it there.
Meeting times work for everyone
Hybrid meetings that take place outside of standard working hours, or during school drop-off and pick-up times, make it difficult for parents and caregivers to attend. Similarly, meetings regularly scheduled for very early in the morning can be unfriendly for guest input from employees working in different time zones. More broadly, meeting interruptions can become extremely expensive for our productivity. Consider establishing “core hybrid meeting hours” where all team members are expected to be available, and think about having a set “meeting day” to minimize interruption throughout the rest of the week.
Everyone joins via their own laptop
Even if there are several employees in the office, it’s better if everyone joins the meeting via their own laptop regardless. This makes it easier for remote colleagues to see who’s talking, and it cuts back on cross-talks and impromptu side conversations. When people are sitting next to each other it’s easy to have natural asides that can feel cliquey or exclusive, so if everyone’s on their own laptop, people are encouraged to stay present and control their own participation.
Humor stays inclusive
Jokes and situational humor are a big issue for meeting inculsivity—if all in-office colleagues burst out laughing, remote participants quickly feel like outsiders. Always try to explain what was so funny so everyone is on the same page. If space allows it, consider getting in-office colleagues to join from separate rooms to level the experience.
All remote colleagues turn video on
It may not be fair, but when a remote employee attends a meeting and doesn’t turn their video on, there can be an unspoken sense that they don’t want to participate. If their microphone is muted too, it can seem as though they’re not there at all. Whenever possible, remote colleagues should keep their video on so everyone can see they are engaged in the meeting. Reading facial cues becomes especially important when everyone is on mute.
Everyone is expected to contribute
There’s no point sitting in a meeting if you don’t contribute anything, so make sure everyone knows that if they’re invited to a meeting, they have something to add to it. The easiest way to do this is to give people time to prepare for the meeting—send any discussion or action points in advance. Provide contextual information, list any questions you want answered by the end of the meeting, and let people know that you expect them to come with ideas.
At least one person facilitates the meeting
Managing a hybrid meeting is tricky, so make sure you have one person (usually the person with the meeting agenda or responsibility) to facilitate the conversation and keep it on track. They can also keep the remote/in-office participant balance as equal as possible, and ensure everyone—particularly quiet colleagues—has a chance to contribute. If you see someone unmuting themselves, it’s usually a sign they want to speak, so try to keep an eye on cues like this.
When it comes to hybrid meetings, there are still some people who think that a happy medium can’t be achieved, and believe that meetings should either be all-remote or all in-person. But this inflexible way of thinking is unlikely to survive in the increasingly flexible and inclusive modern workplace, when few people will want to travel into the office just for a meeting. Provided everyone follows hybrid meeting best practice, feels safe to contribute and stays sensitive to the specific balance of each meeting, nobody should have the upper hand.