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Think remote meetings are hard? Hybrid meetings are much more complicated

<i>Luis Alvarez/Digital Vision/Getty Images</i><br/>Think all-remote meetings are difficult? Running an effective and productive meeting is going to be even harder in a hybrid least at first.
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Luis Alvarez/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Think all-remote meetings are difficult? Running an effective and productive meeting is going to be even harder in a hybrid least at first.

By Kathryn Vasel, CNN Business

Think all-remote meetings are difficult? Running an effective and productive meeting is going to be even harder in a hybrid office…at least at first.

When everyone is in person in the same room or when they are squished into the same small virtual boxes, the playing field is even for everyone participating in the meeting. But that dynamic changes with a hybrid workforce, in which some meeting participants are in the office and others are remote.

“There is going to be a big hurdle to cross for companies,” said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs, a videoconferencing technology company that has had a hybrid workforce since before the pandemic.

“Right now, we are all so equal…now we are going into a world where some of those people are going to be at home and a bunch are going to be gathered in [a room],” he said. “How do you make sure the remote folks are still going to be able to participate and not just watching the meeting?”

Here are some tips to getting meetings right in a hybrid setting:

Meeting leaders: your role is important

The person running the meeting should come prepared.

“You are essentially designing two meetings…and they need to intersect and play well together because the things you need to do for virtual are different than the things you need to do with the people in the room and yet somehow they need to feel connected,” said Kim Christfort, managing director of Deloitte’s Greenhouse Experience.

Make sure everyone has the same access to handouts, visuals or tools so they can participate and contribute easily.

“You as the meeting host have to be meeting ready, your energy and preparation matters,” said Jenn Saavedra, chief human resources officer at Dell Technologies which has offered flexible work schedules since before the pandemic.

Create and share an agenda that includes details like the meeting’s topics, objectives and participants’ responsibilities.

And before calling a meeting, ask: Is it really necessary? Meetings can be draining, and other forms of communication, like email and instant messaging, can be just as productive for things like project updates.

“You need to prepare for meetings in advance…we’ve been a lot more prescriptive about our meetings: ensuring that all the proper people are invited, determining whether or not there are people that are going to be in the room and are they enabled with proper technology to be able to do what we need to have a successful meeting,” said Weishaupt.

Level the playing field

There are some advantages to being in the room — especially if the meeting’s leader is there too, for instance: it can be easier to participate in pre- and post-meeting chatter, and to gauge body language and interact.

However, facilitators want to avoid giving favor to the people in the room.

“You want to have parity between the presence and participation of everyone regardless of where they are,” said Katy Tynan, principal analyst at Forrester. “You don’t want a situation where people sitting in the conference room have an advantage from a presence perspective.”

Having the technology that allows remote workers to fully participate can help level the playing field, but if a company doesn’t have that set up, Tynan suggested having everyone join on a screen — even if they are in the office.

“Replicate what we have right now, everyone sits in front of their computer with their own headset on and is one face on the screen, even if they are physically in a conference room at the same time. And you might have an electronic whiteboard or something that you are using to allow participants to collaborate.”

Meeting leaders should pay attention to the online chat among participants. “There are a lot of ways that you can bring out voice and be thoughtful of providing many avenues for people to express their perspective, voice and point of view,” said Saavedra.

She also suggested recording meetings. “Many times, there are people that process things differently or have conflict….record it so people can reference it afterward.

Get the tech right

Being able to clearly hear and see everyone — no matter where they are located — is a big factor in a meeting’s success, and not all offices are set up to show remote contributors.

According to Weishaupt, the majority of meeting spaces aren’t wired for video.

“There is a huge gap in terms of providing the technology for the remote person to be able to really participate at the level they’ve been able to when everyone is on a videoconferencing platform,” he said.

When it comes to outfitting a space for a hybrid meeting, Christfort suggests focusing on audio, camera and being able to see everyone.

“For all meetings, not just hybrid ones, people need to be able to hear one another clearly and be able to identify who is speaking,” she said. “Many meeting spaces have microphones and speakers in the ceiling because that works best for people in the room, but often this can make it much more difficult for remote participants.”

She added that a camera in the conference room that can zoom in on the person speaking and also pan the room can help remote colleagues pick up on social cues. “If you’re at home, ensure you have a good web camera set-up with ample lighting.”

Being able to see people and visuals, like any charts, lists or videos, will also make a meeting more productive.

“A large screen to allow participants to collaborate using a whiteboard or digital Post-Its is best. This can also play a huge role in ensuring everyone is engaged,” said Christfort.

And the technology should be user friendly, so anyone can get a meeting up and running.

“You have varying degrees of operators in the room who are going to want to get a meeting started quickly,” said Weishaupt. “No one wants to fumble around in a 30-minute meeting for 10 minutes trying to get the technology to work. You need to be able to walk into the room and start your meeting with ease.”

Engagement is key

Getting people to interact and participate is critical to having a successful and productive meeting.

“It needs to be engaging,” said Saavedra.

Christfort recommends making the meeting interactive by either having different people talk on certain topics (give them a heads up prior to the meeting) or varying the format: for instance, talk for a bit, then show a video, discuss another topic, take a poll, etc…

“In a virtual or hybrid model you need to design for impatience and attention deficit in order to hold people’s attention.” Christfort said.

Meeting leaders should also be intentional when it comes to including remote colleagues. For instance, Tynan suggested that if chit-chat about weekend plans comes up, purposely ask those not in the room about their plans.

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