How to bridge the gap between in-person and remote meetings

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With the right technology and facilitation, hybrid meetings can offer the best of both worlds: the benefits of face-to-face meetings, such as non-verbal communication and spontaneous collaboration, combined with the convenience and cost-effectiveness of remote meetings.

But to truly reap the benefits of hybrid meetings, it is necessary to overcome our intuitions and knee-jerk reactions about how to manage meetings and invest in quality AV technology, develop new meeting norms and train participants on how to use this technology and follow these norms. Otherwise, hybrid meetings can be a miserable experience for in-person participants — especially remote participants, as I saw consulting with 21 organizations on how to implement hybrid work arrangements.

Related: What’s the Best Way to Run a Highly Effective Hybrid Meeting?

Importance of great 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 often located at one end of the table so that those at the other end are not easily visible in the video. This creates a problem for remote participants as they cannot clearly see the body language and gestures of face-to-face participants. Likewise, remote participants need to be able to hear points made by everyone in the room, but typical narrow meeting rooms are not set up to capture audio well from all participants, just those at the head of the table.

Remote participants need to see the person speaking at all times. To do this, a camera is needed that tracks and focuses on who is currently speaking. They also need a second, room-wide camera to capture their personal colleagues’ nonverbal cues. After all, the purpose of a meeting is not simply one-way communication from the speaker; it is also to observe the reaction of meeting participants to the speaker. Finally, they need a third camera showing the PowerPoint and/or whiteboard.

In-person participants, on the other hand, must be able to clearly see remote participants. This ideally means having them sit on one side of the table and on the other side is a large conference room screen with the remote participants. So the natural focus of face-to-face participants is on the remote participants, not each other.

Separate facilitation for remote participants

Another key factor for successful hybrid meetings is having a separate facilitator for remote participants. Team leaders act as traditional meeting facilitators and are already busy managing the personals of the meeting and the agenda while being participants.

Instead, the team leader needs to appoint a face-to-face participant as a remote facilitator. This person’s role is to ensure that remote participants can fully participate in the meeting and that their contributions are heard and recognized. They can also help manage any technical issues that may arise. The remote facilitator should solicit feedback and input from remote participants and intervene on their behalf as needed. They also need to read aloud chats typed by video conference participants who ask the remote facilitator to make a note on their behalf.

Related: Making hybrid models work is no longer a luxury – it’s a necessity

Express yourself through emojis or chat

Remote participants need to collaborate with the remote facilitator and advocate for their perspective and full 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 remote participants’ responses to what the speaker is saying, so the remote participants need to be more deliberate about their responses. Fortunately, when using chat or reaction emojis, they don’t have to interrupt the speaker or impede the flow of the conversation. These features are much easier to use, especially for introverted participants, making them more likely to excel as remote participants in hybrid meetings.

And since there’s someone in the room whose job it is to make sure the remote participants are heard – the remote facilitator – that person will interrupt the speaker on your behalf. For example, a remote participant can indicate that they have a question or comment in the chat. If this happened in the room, the speaker could see that someone was frowning or looking confused. But they can’t easily see this for remote participants. However, the remote facilitator can intervene on behalf of the remote participants, addressing their confusion and making sure that the remote participants can make their contribution.

Behavior standards for face-to-face participants

In-person participants should pay attention to remote participants and make an effort to include them in the discussion. This can be done by joining the meeting on their laptops or phones and tracking responses from remote participants via chat or emojis. In fact, they can contribute to the conversation if they join the meeting and ensure they don’t miss out on valuable chat subtext.

Likewise, in-person attendees need to overcome their intuitive and natural temptation to prioritize other in-person attendees. They need to give preferential attention to remote participants and encourage other face-to-face participants to do the same. That’s why it helps to sit facing the remote participants, not the in-person participants.

Training meeting participants

To achieve this change in norms and address cognitive biases, it is necessary to train both face-to-face and remote meeting facilitators and participants, including face-to-face and remote ones. At first, the new norms will seem artificial and uncomfortable because everyone will have to deal with their miscalibrated intuitions, but they will help maximize everyone’s participation and solve the problems of typical hybrid meetings. Training – which should involve practice and role-play – will help overcome initial discomfort and facilitate alignment with new norms.

Part of the required training involves creating feedback systems for continual improvement. So, especially as teams are starting to define 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 participants. As you make these transitions, ask participants about various aspects of the meeting, such as their overall evaluation of the 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 attend and impact the meeting, how well did the face-to-face participants accommodate remote participants, how well did the facilitator accommodate remote participants, how effectively were features such as chat and emojis such as “raise your hand” used, which could have been done better to improve its experience and impact, and related issues. Specific feedback needs to be provided to meeting facilitators, including watching recordings with a trainer who can point out specific times the facilitator performed well and other areas where they may need improvement.

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