Hybrid Meetings

As the post-pandemic world moves into a new stage, a new genre of meetings is emerging, hybrid meetings where some participants are in a room with mics, cameras and technology, while the rest of the participants are joining from afar. When meetings moved on Zoom, we quickly learned to mute our microphones when not talking, to use calendar invites with meeting links embedded, we learned to raise hands, use emoji symbols, instead of speaking over each other and to use the chat when appropriate. We learned how to look, act, and be professional in such meetings. The Internet was quickly flooded with advice and best practices so resources were plenty. Unfortunately the movement towards hybrid meetings has not mirrored the quick learning with ample information available upon a quick search. This post is a first attempt at remedying this.

I partook only in three hybrid meetings since meetings could take place where there were a reasonably large contingent both in the room and afar connecting through technology (Zoom, in this case). And these meetings sucked. They mostly sucked because people in the room paid little regard to the people who were participating through the technology. I understand why. They were caught up with the local social interaction. No judgement in this message. But the situations clearly showed that, to make such meetings viable, we need to consciously consider all meeting participants and conduct meetings accordingly. Here are a sampling of the mistakes and recommendations for overcoming them from these few meetings. This is far from an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will serve as a conversation starter. (Feel free to send me more points to add.)

    1. Please begin the meeting on time. If for some reason the meeting cannot begin on time, please inform the people joining from afar so they don’t just sit there disoriented not knowing what is going on.
    2. Mute the main room microphone until the meeting is officially ready to begin. I have listened to over an hour of 15+ people engaging in independent chit-chats around the microphone. (Yes. One of the meetings started that late. And we could only guess what the hell was going on as we sat there for 10-20-30-40 minutes listening to disorienting chatter.) The noise of multiple conversations through a microphone and a headset is extremely disorienting, stressful and unproductive. I could turn my volume down but then I don’t hear if the meeting actually starts or I am spoken to, so I was worried to fix the problem on my end. Had I known what was going on, what delay is expected, I would have done so, but I didn’t (see point 1).
    3. Organize the room so that any guests of honor at the meeting, or anyone whose role is to officiate or is expected to say a lot (not to be confused with speak a lot), do not end up with their back to the camera. I spent two out of the three meetings looking at the backs of the most important guests in the meeting.
    4. Watch for interventions by those afar. (One of the things that helps a lot with this is point fixing #3.) The raise hand function should work well even in hybrid meetings as long as someone is watching for the raised hands. At the same time (to also offer advice to those being afar as well) the use of the chat is useless. Nobody in the room will see it. So, just don’t.
    5. Try to actively bring people into the meeting who are only there from afar. Ask them explicitly. Introduce them first before the people in the room are introduced. In hybrid meetings, there is a need for someone to be a firm master of ceremonies. Say what will happen now. Say it clearly, slowly, articulately, into the microphone as you are looking at the camera. Watch for feedback on the screen to see if it was understood. It does not help if the MC says “we start”, in the middle of the chatter chaos, because that message will simply get lost. Call on the people on the screen one by one for introductions. In one of these meetings I was at, the introductions went to the room first and the people afar really wondered if anyone knew we were there. It was over an hour before any interaction from the screen was even possible. In another such meeting those afar went first. But I did not even catch that we were starting, or doing introductions. I had no idea if I was supposed to just say my name or more. It was probably said, but with 5-6 other conversations going, nobody who was not there heard it.
    6. When using a shared screen in the room, don’t assume people see what you are pointing at. Any visual aids held by people in the room (like holding up a book) will be lost through the camera as in hybrid meetings people are tiny on the screen anyways. In one of my meetings there was a shared document and somebody was clearly standing in front of a screen pointing at things, but nobody who was joining from afar, saw what.

These are just some of the basics of how such meetings could be made enjoyable. Of course, advice #1 is: be there. This was not an option (or in one of the three meetings, a priority) for me unfortunately. In a different world, I would have just missed that one. Alternatively, organize online only meetings. It works better. But I understand why all of us are eager to get back to a normal life where Zoom is minimized. Finally, consider just not being there if you have to Zoom in. (This is what I should have done with the one meeting for sure.)

Unfortunately, such meetings will become the norm. I think they could be done well. But we need to learn how to do such meetings well and do it quickly to maintain our sanity.