By Lynette Nixon, Director, PwC

I don’t know about you but I am finding the number of hybrid meetings increasing. These are meetings where some participants are online and then there are a number of people together in a room. I do have to say upfront, they are not my favourite experience.

Before I share my observations and ideas to improve the experience from a recent hybrid meeting, I want to reflect on what we’ve discovered about online meetings over the past few months.

Once we became familiar with the multiple platforms being used we realised we can work remotely very effectively. Historically regional participants often ‘dialled in’ to meetings rooms full of their colleagues; their experience was often very poor and awkward. With everyone online it’s different – the experience is equal and even for all. Secondly, because it’s a ‘click in/click out’ process, you can often get access to people more easily ie no travel time. Of course the impact of that on our wellbeing and cognitive energy is a whole different story as we sit/stand without moving between meetings.

The shared experience of the virtual meeting has also become part of our community and social media folklore – wi-fi lag, “can you hear me?”, the ever present mute button, our facial expressions being amplified, cats walking across the screen and more recently cat avatars speaking. Even with all of this we continue to have rich and productive conversations.

Hybrid meetings risk losing the equality and inclusive experience of online 

And now to the hybrid meeting. Let’s set the scene – 25 or so of us on-line and with another 15 sitting together in a room at a long table, which was perpendicular to the screen, not parallel. I think there were 15 but I don’t really know, no one introduced who was in the room and we couldn’t see anyone’s faces given the room shape – challenge #1.

As the meeting started a voice began to give context – those of us online couldn’t see who was speaking (challenge #2) and so we called it out. In response the people in the room opened their laptops and logged into the meeting so we could see the face of those speaking in the room and so the conversation began.

I set myself the task to keep stepping ‘out’ of the conversation and observe what was going on – the behaviours, experience of users both in the room and online. I also captured my intuitive reactions/ideas about what would be helpful to make the experience better and retain that wonderful sense of equality and inclusion that 100% online offers.

These are below – as the list unfolds what is clear is that everyone has a role to play in making hybrid meetings more successful.

Meetings – time and space to think together

In the day to day flow of how we work meetings are often characterised as being a burden on time and energy. Let’s remind ourselves – the core purpose of meetings is to create time and space for groups to think together.

In the new hybrid world, we really need to challenge ourselves and reset our approach to meetings – thinking together is critically important as we explore the implications of our Covid normal world.

Now to the hybrid meeting tips and tricks

The camera is on your laptop

One tip that is relevant not only to hybrid meetings but all online meetings. Your camera is on your laptop not on the screen where you see the person you’re speaking with. Our need to make eye contact often overrides that logical fact and so we see the sides of people’s heads, chins, and so it goes. It might feel unnatural but speaking to the camera actually increases your impact and ability to engage.

Setting the tone for your hybrid meeting 

  • Agree before you start how you will manage the conversation – perhaps nominate someone in the room to watch for signals from the online participants eg hand up for questions and field them to the appropriate person for response
  • The key elements of meetings come down to how we use time, space, energy and information:
  • Time – structure the meeting to create time for conversation and shared problem solving
  • Space – make space for everyone to talk – in a hybrid meeting you need to be alert to that being equal for all those involved, not one person dominating (often the most senior person)
  • Energy – monitor closely how people are feeling – in a hybrid meeting if you’re online it is easy to drift away from the conversation because the energy will naturally be in the room
  • Information – be thoughtful about what information is needed to support the conversation – can it be shared ahead of time and if it is, assume it has been read and progress from there
  • Make sure the meeting lead has their laptop set-up ready to start so online participants can see them as other arrive and log in
  • For large groups online, slides knock people off the screen so you can’t see them – ask the question do you really need the slides or can information be shared ahead of the meeting so it’s about a conversation – remember, the real purpose of meetings is space and time to think together, not information sharing.

If you’re in the room

  • Before you start the conversation – tell those online who is in the room
  • Log into the meeting with your laptop so those on the screen can see if you if you’re talking ie all ‘faces’ are equal – mute your computer to avoid echo, the room sound system (if there is one will pick up your voice)
  • If you’re talking think about your hands – you will naturally speak to those in the room because it’s easier to make eye contact and when you gesture your hands will be in front of the camera so those online see waving hands and not much else
  • Side-bar conversations make those online feel excluded – and it’s just good manners not to do it – same goes if jokes happen in the room
  • Try to resist talking only to those in the room – but remember your camera is on your laptop, not the screen where you see the faces
  • We are generally very polite and so those online could be having a less than helpful experience, check in with them regularly.

If you’re online

  • Remember you have a range of tools to help you participate (vs interrupting) – raise a hand, thumbs up etc – use them
  • Use the chat to offer comments along the way
  • If you’re not getting a response because the conversation has drifted wholly into the room, waving of arms is always a good stand by!

As I look at the tips the onus is very much on the people in the room to be inclusive and empathetic to those online. That’s not surprising because we are loving being able to be physically back together and so the energy that comes with that will naturally be in the room, almost disproportionately. Keeping this in mind as we facilitate hybrid meetings will create shared experiences that are positive and meaningful to all involved.

Lynette Nixon is a Director with PwC with a specialisation in facilitating strategic conversations.

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