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The Growth of the Hybrid Meeting
May 21, 2013 - 9:00pm

We are all trying to figure out the best way to include remote colleagues in our team meetings.  A number of factors have come together to drive the use of online tools in meetings where some people are meeting face-to-face in one room, while other colleagues are participating in the meeting at a distance.

There are many factors driving the growth of hybrid face-to-face / online meetings. Here are 3:

1. Shifting and More Flexible Work Arrangements:  A growth of people working part-time, or bundling together multiple positions. These .5 or .25 colleagues often need to join our team meetings while traveling or onsite at their other gigs.

2. Distributed Teams and Partners:  We work on teams with people at other institutions, as projects and groups now span multiple locales. Our local teams must find methods to bring distributed colleagues into the normal flow of our discussions.

3. Improvement in Online Meeting Platforms:  Online meeting tools are getting both better and cheaper.  Incumbents such as Adobe Connect, WebEx, Collaborate, and GoToMeeting are improving - while new players such as Zoom and FuzeBox are shaking up the market.

There are many ways to run a hybrid meeting.   

The best method (I think) is to have everyone in the face-to-face / local meeting all open up their laptops, start their cameras, and participate in the meeting in the same way that the remote colleague is participating. This puts everyone on a more level playing field, with each person getting access to the same digital tools (webcam, chat, notes) independent of location.  

The agenda for the meeting can be displayed through the web meeting, so that everyone can see what is going on. Any PowerPoints or exhibits can also be displayed through the web meeting, again giving everyone equal access to the discussion. Having everyone participate in the meeting with laptops open has the added benefit of encouraging the meeting facilitator to better include the non-local participants in the meetings, as comments and questions can be solicited by going down the online list of participants.

An alternative method for running a hybrid meeting is to display the online meeting platform on a large conference room monitor.  A webcam can be set up to show all the local people, and anyone distant can have their webcam images shown on the large screen.  Presentations are run through the meeting software, displaying on the large screen for the local participants and in the browser (or mobile) window for the distant colleagues.  Meeting notes can also be taken in the meeting tool, displayed in real time to all participants. 

Whatever method you decide to run your hybrid meeting it is important to keep in mind that the non-local people are at risk of not being fully included in the discussion.  A discussion is a sort of dance, with everyone in the meeting trying to figure out the right mix between listening and contributing.   There exists no correlation between the amount a person speaks and the value of their contributions. Some people talk more, some people talk less - the balance is never perfect.  

What is clear is that the flow of conversation depends largely on non-verbal cues.  Who leans forward.  Who makes eye contact.  Relying on non-verbal cues to jump into the conversation is impossible for the distant meeting participants. They cannot see when the best time is to interject, and cannot easily signal they have something to say. The result is that the distant participants will almost always say the least, even when they have the most to add.

What is the solution?

One idea is for whoever is running the meeting to have as an explicit goal to equally include all participants, whether they be local or remote.   Announce at the start of the meeting that this is your goal, and talk about how you plan to achieve your aim.   

Some best practices for running hybrid meetings include:

  • Share the meeting agenda ahead of time, and sticking to that agenda.  Don't overload the agenda, as going through each item always takes longer than you'd expect.
  • Start and stop the meeting on time.  (Particularly important for people contributing online).
  • Don't neglect the social aspect of a hybrid meeting.   Draw the online people into the conversation by asking them about where they are and what they are doing.   Set a relaxed but inclusive tone for both the face-to-face and online meeting participants.
  • Go down the list of all meeting participants at set times, asking if there is a comment or question.
  • Make sure to provide enough time to discuss the issues at hand.  Sometimes to get the right decision, consensus or buy in there needs to be time for people to get things off their chest, vent, think while they are talking.  True, it can be annoying, but you need to give colleagues (both local and online) the chance to be heard.
  • Utilize collaborative writing platforms like Google Docs to allow everyone to contribute to the ideas and notes in real time during the meeting.
  • Solicit comments and questions specifically from the distant participants, and keep track of the relative contribution of everyone in order to keep some balance.
  • Make sure good meeting notes are taken and have these notes promptly distributed to everyone after the meeting.  In most cases rapid notes are better than detailed notes.  A quick synopsis of the decisions and items to work is far more important than detailed minutes that are ratified at the next meeting.
  • Have specific action items out of the meeting that include the distant and local people.  It is important to not only track the action items, but to also capture when and why decisions are made.  
  • Once the meeting is over, solicit and enact feedback from the online participants about how the hybrid meeting could be improved.

What should you do if you find yourself on the distant side of a hybrid meeting, trying to participate online and being hampered in your efforts to contribute?

One tactic is something that I observed the other day from a colleague. This is a colleague who is the coolest customer one could imagine - a guy who before coming to academia used to literally drive (steer?, navigate?) aircraft carriers.   He was trying to participate, and was having challenges finding the right place to jump in, as all of us (including me, well most especially me), were talking too much and not bringing him equally into the conversation.  This was bad, as this colleague had given the most thought and put the most work into the topic we were discussing.   

What this colleague did was very effective.  He jumped in, and articulated clearly how frustrating it is not to be fully included in the conversation. This made all of us aware of the issue, and it changed the dynamics of the meeting.  

If you are participating online in a hybrid meeting, and you are not able to participate equally, perhaps the best approach is to also jump in and say how this makes you feel.

What advice would you give for running hybrid meetings?


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