my world of work and user experiences

August 31, 2021

Hybrid discussions

Filed under: New world of work — frederique @ 22:36

We have been working from home for over a year, but soon we will go back to the office. At least, some of us, some of the time. So we will work in a hybrid world: partly online and partly on-site. This is particularly challenging when it comes to meetings. We have been doing meetings in real life meeting rooms for ages. Online meetings using tools like Microsoft Teams are quite straightforward, although they can be tiring and restrictive. But hybrid meetings with a mix of online and on-site participants are even more tricky.

Don’t forget about the few online participants

Back in the days before the pandemic, I often joined meetings online: I just happened to be working at my clients’ offices rather than our own office most of my time. And not always the same client office as the others in the meeting. That usually worked well when at least half of the participants were online and everyone was geared towards a meeting that was at the very least partially online.

But I have also attended meetings where most of the participants were together on-site in a meeting room, and I was one of the few online participants. One of the unhappy few. In those meetings the online option was clearly an afterthought. Often the onliners could not hear or see properly what was happening. And in some cases they even forgot to connect to the online meeting, or the presenter turned out to have a laptop that could not be connected and nobody bothered to even tell the online participants that we had been left behind. Very very frustrating.

For those meetings, my experience actually improved when we were all locked down and the entire meeting moved online. It is much easier to be inclusive when everyone is online, instead of only an invisible minority.

So if you want to do hybrid meetings in which some participants are online while many others are together in a meeting room on-site, make sure that you pay serious attention to the onliners. Make sure that:

  • The online participants can see and hear what is happening: what is being presented, the discussion and interaction in the meeting room, who is talking in the meeting room, the handwaving, drawing, object demonstrations anything relevant in the meeting room
  • The online participants can be seen and be heard when they want to contribute. In such a way that everyone in the meeting room can see and hear it, not just the presenter on her laptop.
  • The online participants get a chance to ask their questions and make their contributions. Have a moderator keep an eye on the online meeting, to see what happens in the chat, if anyone has raised their hand etc.

If you cannot do that, you either have everyone join online or make it very clear that this is an on-site meeting where you can only join online as a last resort workaround without any guarantees. And in that case, plan the meeting to allow everyone to actually travel to the meeting location.

Get audio and video devices that allow for hybrid meetings

Part of the problem with hybrid meetings is caused by the devices we use, especially at the end of the meeting room. You need to be able to actually pick up and display the audio and video of the people talking online and on-site.

  • Ask the online participants to turn on their camera and use a headset or speaker phone.
  • Get an audio device in the meeting room that not only picks up the presenter but also the others in the room, who will probably ask questions and make contributions. So not a microphone pinned to the presenters jacket, but something in the room itself.
    To me, catching the audio from the rest of the meeting room is key. We usually were watching a shared screen with a demo or something and we wanted to discuss that. When the presenter was talking, we usually could hear. But then we got silence or some very faint murmurings when the rest of the people in the room were talking, so we missed that entire interaction.
  • Preferably also get a video device in the meeting room that not only picks up the speaker, but also the others in the room. It does enhance the communication if you can also see the people talking: it makes it easier to follow the discussion, less tiring and more “human”.

These devices do exist, with software to make it work in meeting rooms. Years ago we already used a RoundTable device we put in the middle of the table to hear the on-site half of the department in our knowledge sharing sessions, while the other half of the department was online. Now there are many more option. I don’t know much about that hardware, but Microsoft is rather emphatic about their support of hybrid meetings with Teams Rooms.

Get a hybrid version of a whiteboard

In real-life meetings, we used a flip-over or brown paper and sticky notes to jot down ideas and answers that we came up with in the meeting. When we all moved online, we could no longer use those. If part of the meeting is back on-site, those participants may be tempted to get back to the physical flip-over, but the online participants cannot see that.

So your best bet is to use a digital whiteboard for the hybrid meeting. Microsoft is improving their Whiteboard: designed to hybrid work. I haven’t been able to play with it yet, but it seems promising. Some of my colleagues have used and enjoyed Miro. I was fortunate enough to get away with a very low-tech workaround of a whiteboard in my meetings: just jot down the contributions from the meeting participants in the PowerPoint presentation we were discussing, live on my shared screen…

Learn how the new hybrid meetings work

People won’t just “automagically” know how to conduct hybrid meeting properly. So you’ll need to not only invest in tools in the meeting rooms to support hybrid meetings, but also have foolproof instructions on how to use them and share the rules of engagement.

Today I participated in a hybrid meeting – I was in an office for a change. That meeting started late, because we could not get the spiffy new screens to connect wirelessly to my colleagues laptop. And yes, we should have set that up and tested it before that meeting. Fortunately it was an informal one, so we could chalk it up to learning experience…

When we all were locked down overnight and had to work from home, we were scrambling to get tools like Microsoft Teams to work for us and get the microphones we all suddenly needed. Let’s see if we can be better prepared for our transition to the hybrid world of work, and have the discussion about our hybrid discussions.

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