Four rules for hybrid meetings

Four rules for hybrid meetings
Photo by Sigmund / Unsplash

Last week, I posted this article with thoughts for organizing and running effective meetings. One of those rules was "Respect People", and at the end of that rule I said:

Suffice to say that, in 2023, every meeting should have a remote participation option unless there is some legitimate reason not to (for example, meetings with sensitive or off-the-record discussions taking place) and remote participants should be on equal footing in every respect with in-person participants.

I also said that I could do a whole blog post on "hybrid" meetings where some participants are in person and other remote. Well, here you are. In this post I want to share four more rules for handling hybrid meetings. Keep in mind that I have no authority over anything, so when I say "rules" I mean "rules of thumb", or ideas that I think would help hybrid meetings work well.

Full disclosure: I am an online meeting partisan. I enjoy working from home and always have. Plus, all of my classes this term are on our second campus, away from my office and the Math Department (where most of my meetings are held). So I have a particular agenda with this topic. But I think I'm not the only one.

Are good hybrid meetings possible?

In 2017 when I was on sabbatical at Steelcase, the Steelcase Education team had an all-hands meeting every Monday morning. These were always hybrid, with sometimes as many as 8-10 remote participants, often from the other side of the planet. We patched in the remote folks through Skype (!) using only audio and screen sharing. Aside from occasional glitches from someone's microphone, or some weird behavior from 2017-era Skype, it was fine. Ideas were exchanged, designs were prototyped, creative problem solving got done.

So yes, good hybrid meetings are possible.

But are they are good as face-to-face meetings? you may ask. It depends on who you ask. For example, this Harvard Business Review report has pull quotes like: "Face-to-face communication is the broadest bandwidth you can have in professional life". This piece by Forbes says much the same thing, with a particular focus on forging business relations. And this article concludes that online meetings are significantly less efficient than face-to-face ones.

But there are a couple of problems with these reports and all the others I was able to find.

First, many of them are outdated. The HBR report above is from 2018 and the Forbes report is from 2009, which is eons ago. Zoom and Teams might have their downsides, but the technology for online meetings is light-years beyond what it was just 5 years ago. And the need for the online option, of course, is much greater than that.

Second, I have not found one of these reports that uses objective measures. The ones that claim face-to-face is "better than" online are typically surveys asking people if they felt like an online meeting was more efficient or less efficient than a face-to-face one; and there's no operational definition of "efficient".

If it all comes down to personal preferences, let's just be honest and say so, particularly that there seems to be no objective evidence that one kind of meeting is inherently better than another. Let's stop focusing on things we can't prove, and turn our attention to how to make a good option better.

Rule 1: Default to hybrid

Conventional thinking says that an online participation option for a meeting will be available if there's a good reason for it. By contrast, this rule says every meeting should have an online participation available unless there is a good reason not to.

There are good reasons not to. The agenda for the meeting might contain sensitive information that you don't want on a videoconference transmission. Or, you might want to have an off-the-record discussion. Or perhaps the physical space itself is one of the agenda items. Or maybe the group has come to a consensus, through a robust debate and fair vote, that all meetings will be in person. In these cases, in-person-only meetings are justified.

But there are also a lot of bad reasons. One of these is Hybrid meetings just aren't as good as in-person meetings, which as we saw, doesn't seem to have much evidence behind it. Another is It takes too much time and effort to set up for a hybrid meeting; this is often simply code for laziness, since in fact it does not take much time or effort to do this.

Still another is something like I just think it's nice to be in person. to which I would say, of course it is -- for some. This is another way of saying, I like in-person meetings better than hybrid or online ones. If that's the case, then OK: You're allowed to have personal preferences. And there are definitely tradeoffs with holding meetings with online participants. But there are also tradeoffs with face-to-face meetings with many folks. A person who's immunodeficient has to trade their safety to attend a face-to-face meeting. A person with unpredictable child care has to trade their money for a babysitter. A person with a 50-mile commute and no other commitments on campus that day has to trade their time and a piece of the ozone layer. Imagine if we treated any sort of accommodation this way.

Conversely, there are many good reasons that a person might want to have an online participation option for a meeting. And, none of them are the chair's business. Just default to hybrid and don't make people explain themselves.

Rule 2: Make them viable options

Having an online option is no good if participating online is annoying, unpleasant, or difficult. The audio for online participants has to be clear, so that every person in the room can be heard clearly. And vice-versa, there need to be speakers set up in the room so that online participants who speak can be easily heard. This means the chair needs to figure out what causes audio feedback when you have speakers and microphones in proximity to each other and find a way to prevent it. Ask the IT department for help if needed.

Video has to be good too (although audio is a lot more important), so that online participation has as high of a fidelity as possible to being in the room. Getting the audio/visual angle right is not easy. It takes practice and planning. And again, getting IT involved is not a bad idea. (Hybrid meetings are an excellent way to introduce people to active learning classrooms set up for remote learners by the way.)

Most especially, figure out some system of voting that can be done in a hybrid setting. This can be simple, like a show of "hands" where the people physically present raise their hands and the people online raise their virtual hands (practically all videoconference apps have this feature). Or it can be more complicated, like using PollEverywhere or any of a number of dedicated secure online voting solutions. Whatever you decide, practice it on your own until you can run the voting without thinking. Do not disenfranchise the online people.

Rule 3: Remember it's one group

I say "the online people" like remote participants are some separate tribe or species from the in-person participants. But although physically separate, the people involved in the meeting have to be treated as one group. Otherwise it defeats the purpose of even having the meeting in the first place. (Should you be having the meeting in the first place?)

People participating remotely shouldn't feel stigmatized for doing so, as though they have to apologize for not being physically present. Part of the reason for defaulting to hybrid (Rule 1 above) is that people shouldn't have to ask for a hybrid meeting. And they should not be referred to as a separate group, for example What do the people on Zoom think? This is well-intentioned but othering. Instead, arrange your computer workspace so that the chat and participant list are always visible; alternate your eye contact between the people in the room and your camera; look at the chat and videoconference app several times a minute.

Going back to voting: Don't privilege the in-person participants with your voting procedures. For example if you use the "show of hands" approach, and call for a vote, give the online participants time to click through the menus to find the hand (why isn't that button on the top of the user interface, anyway?) Slow down and make sure everyone's vote is treated equally.

Rule 4: Practice, plan, and learn

Making hybrid meetings work well requires practice and forethought. It requires a level of intentionality that just sitting in a room talking with people doesn't. I think this is one of the reasons I like them so much.

What it doesn't require, is being "tech-savvy", or having loads of extra time to make up for a lack of "tech-savvy". Sure, there is technology involved, and not the ordinary kind we use every day (A/V equipment as opposed to plain old laptops). So you may have to learn some things, and this takes time. But people can and do learn how to use the tech. Most of us did, in fact, during the Big Pivot in 2020. And somehow we made it all work, because it was a priority. You've learned hard things before and you can do it again.

As I've mentioned, practice with the setup for the meeting, so that you encounter in advance all the weird technical glitches that are likely to happen and get a feel for what it will be like either in the room or online. Experiment with microphone placement, camera angles, audio-video hardware connections --- everything that takes place in the meeting.

Finally, get other people involved. Deputize group members who know more about this stuff than you and have them help. Designate a member of the group to be the official online-participant contact whose job it is to make sure their needs are taken care of. Call up IT and ask them for help.

Hybrid meetings are more work, but the payoff is worth it. They can be just as good as in-person meetings with the right amount of planning, practice, and positive attitude. And it makes meetings more meaningful because they are more inclusive. Running hybrid meetings is a 2023-era skill that every person who chairs a meeting can and should have.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.