Meeting room with some folks on a screen

Hosting Hybrid Meetings: Ensuring Equal Participation

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One of the most obvious results of the pandemic is that more and more busineses interactions are happening virtually. But what happens when you host hybrid meetings – with some folks in person and some folks online? How do you balance physical presence with virtual connection in a way that works for everyone?

It is important to note that, in many ways, virtual and hybrid meetings are just like any other meeting and can benefit from general best practices for meeting (see my 4 P’s for Effective Meeting Planning here). In fact, moving to hybrid and virtual formats amplify the need for a clear purpose and effective plan. But the P I’m most concerned with in this article about hybrid meetings is PARTICIPATION.

How do you ensure that the folks in the room AND the folks on the phone or online are able to participate equally in the agenda for your meeting?

The first step is acknowledging that hybrid meetings are going to be much more common these days and being intentional about how you host them. Then, you need to implement some regular practices that will support equity in participation among all attendees.

The following are six tips and tools that I suggest to hybrid meeting planners to address participation equity:

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #1: Introduce Virtual Participants Meaningfully

It may seem obvious, but acknowledging that you have participants on the phone or online is a clear first step in ensuring that they will be able to participate effectively in the meeting. Give them a chance to say hello before you get started, introducing each one by name and position and potentially in terms of the role they will play in the meeting.

“I’d like to invite Joy to introduce herself; she’s going to play a major role in assessing this program so we wanted her voice to be here at the beginning as we start planning.”

materials for hybrid meetings spread out on a table
Materials for your Meeting should be available virtually, not just physically.

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #2: Visually Project Participant Images (or at least their names)

It is easy to forget who is on a conference line when you get carried away with conversation in the room. As virtual participants are introducing themselves, make sure there is a way for people who are physically in the room to see them throughout the duration of the meeting. With strong technology, this can be done by projecting a participant grid from your webinar on a screen in the room. But if that kind of technology is absent, that is no excuse. Try writing the names of virtual participants on a large white board or easel paper that everyone can see, or even print or project headshots of virtual participants visual on the wall.

At any point during the meeting, you can use this list to remind people who is in the “room” virtually, “Let’s remember that Alina, Joe, and Lael are on the phone and make sure there is time for them to chime in.”

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #3: Designate a Virtual Facilitator or Checker

Once you know who is participating virtually, the next step is to ensure that they are not forgotten or ignored in deference to those who are there physically. One strategy for this is to designate a specific person who is in the room as the one who will attend to virtual participation. Their job is to pause the conversation in the room when necessary to invite input from virtual paritcipants. They can also pay attention to things like raised hands, or calling on someone who is particularly involved in one component of the work to ensure they have space to contribute. This person should be empowered to attend to virtual participation as their primary objective, and shouldn’t necessarily be someone who also has a primary facilitation role in the room.

The virtual facilitator will use phrases like, “Can we pause for a moment here to see if anyone on the phone wants to add to this topic?” or “I know Brian is on the phone and he’s been involved in this conversation; Brian, can you jump in here?

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #4: Ensure all Materials are Available Virtually

Equity cannot be achieved if virtual participants have to listen to you describe the handouts or visuals that you are providing to folks in the room. If you are providing anything to participants, make sure EVERYONE can access it. This is a concept similar to Universal Design – rather than creating something special or extra for folks who are participating virtually, create materials that anyone is able to access whether they are virtual or in-person. This may mean that all meeting materials are virtual and it is incumbant upon all participants to access them ahead of time. Likewise, when you are presenting, consider presenting within an online format that people in the room can also watch.

In short, you should never have to say, “I know some of you can’t see this, but…”

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #5: Take notes Virtually

If you are documenting any component of your meeting – whether that is a brainstorm that you would typically jot down on easel paper, or notes about who is taking responsibility for which task, consider taking these notes virtually instead of physically in the room. In the simplest form, this can be done with Google’s set of virtual tools (Docs, Slides, and Sheets). You can even invite folks to contribute their own ideas to a brainstorm by typing them into a slide or a document all at the same time (even the folks in the room!). This puts everyone on an equal playing field.

There are also many virtual participation tools like virtually sticky notes and visual collaboration sites; if your group is going to have regular hybrid meetings it might be worth investing in some software to support this modality. Some examples include Mural and Lucid (online whiteboards), Mentimeter (online polling), or Fellow and (online meeting and team planning tools).

Hybrid Meeting Strategy #6: Discourage side Conversations

Lastly, attend to equity in participation by making sure that folks in the room do not take advantage of the lack of physical presence of others. If hushed conversations are taking place so that those on the phone cannot hear them, you have an equity issue on your hands. If important topics are being addressed during breaks, folks who are not there drinking coffee with you are not able to participate. Be vocal about this – ask people to speak up so others can hear them; or update virtual participants on break-time conversations when you re-group.

There is no harm in saying, “Hey Corin, you’re making a really great point there but I don’t think folks on the webinar could hear it; can you repeat it so we can all benefit from that point?”

As I’ve noted in previous articles, hybrid workplaces are here to stay. We simply must adjust our practices to account for this new normal. We can capture all of the possibilities that technology offers us, but we can’t lose the importance of human interaction and meaningful participation in workplace conversations. Let’s be intentional about attending to our meeting structures to ensure equity in participation – whether folks are sitting in a chair in the conference room or at home in their living room.

What other strategies would you add to this list?

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