Meeting Culture

Are your hybrid meetings as inclusive as in-person meetings? You might have some work to do.

All-virtual meetings and all in-person meetings are likely more equitable than hybrid meetings, but there are ways you can up your hybrid game.

We’ve all heard it thousands of times at this point: the way we work has changed. Remote work was here well before 2020, but the pandemic undoubtedly heightened the number of people working from a home-based setting. Although many former office workers stagger back to their brick-and-mortar workplaces on occasion, the flexible work schedule appears here to stay.

In fact, many companies now employ a mix of remote and in-person employees, or operate cross-continent, with offices thousands of miles apart. With workplaces scattered both categorically and geographically more than ever, hybrid meetings – meetings that blend a mixture of in-person and virtually remote attendees – are on the rise. So how do hybrid meetings stack up against their entirely in-person or entirely virtual counterparts, and what are the best practices for optimizing these kinds of meetings?

Hybrid vs. in-person vs. all-virtual

In a perfect world, every meeting could be fully catered with everyone’s dream lunch, occur at a convenient time for all attendees and allow a comfortable space for maximum problem-solving and collaboration. So, can hybrid meetings stack up to all-virtual or all-in-person meetings? And how do virtual meetings fare against their in-person counterparts?

Well, it’s sort of a hierarchy. According to the “Media Richness Theory” (Daft and Lengel, 1986) media deemed to be higher in richness (e.g., face-to-face interaction; video conferencing) is better suited to the development and maintenance of team trust, effectiveness, satisfaction, and performance than is media lower in richness (e.g., e-mail). Therefore, face-to-face meetings offer the more “richness” than virtual meetings. As for hybrid meetings? Some experts believe they rank lowest due to the imbalance of experiences they foster for different meeting attendee types.

When asked if she recommends hybrid meetings, Liana Kreamer, Ph.D. student in the Organizational Science Department at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, her answer was definitive. “No, I do not (and neither does the literature),” she said. “First, those virtually attending the meeting face additional challenges with virtuality (e.g., lack of nonverbal cues, challenges with transitions, etc.), putting virtual attendees at a disadvantage compared to those in physical attendance … Those physically present at the meeting have the benefit of being able to see and read the body language of their team members and can better time their contributions to the conversation. This naturally creates an imbalance, where physical attendees contribute more to the discussion than remote attendees given the ease of doing so.”

In other words? For the most democratic meetings, if your team can’t all attend in person, the next best alternative is an all-virtual meet as every participant’s experience will be somewhat similar. However, with employees offered more flexibility than ever and more choices, such as whether to commute or work from the office, hybrid meetings are bound to happen, and this imbalance should be considered when planning such meetings.

This certainly doesn’t mean hybrid meetings are doomed (or that you shouldn’t run them). There are ways, right now, that you as a meeting leader or participant can optimize these types of meetings right now.

Hybrid meetings still happen. How can you maximize their effectiveness?

In one study, in an attempt to battle the imbalance virtual attendees face during hybrid meetings, a workplace gave each remote employee their own laptop and tied balloons to these computers to remind the in-person workers of their virtual cohorts (White, 2014). However, you don’t need to stop at Party City to help all your hybrid meetings just yet. Below are some ways you can enhance your hybrid meetings right now. Hint: getting the best tech – and learning how to use it – is the best bet for your hybrid meetings.

Stick to the tech, and get everyone on it

No matter what chat or video app your company uses for internal communication, maximize connection among virtual and in-person participants by having everyone use their computers. According to Microsoft’s “The New Future of Work,” during hybrid meetings, “Everyone should have a device open to the meeting chat when it is used.”

In addition to getting everyone looking at identical screens, and to ensure virtual attendees are heard, try using a “hand raise” feature to order speakers. Creating uniform tech rules for your hybrid meetings can equalize the experiences for virtual attendees and contribute to increased meeting attendee equity.

Set meeting agendas, purposes, and expectations

Even if the in-meeting experience can’t be completely equitable, attendees can have an equal amount of time and resources to prepare for the meeting. This starts with a shared agenda that a meeting leader sends out ahead of time. For best results, if you are the owner of the meeting (and if applicable), allow participants to collaborate on the agenda. This will encourage buy-in and participation from all the attendees that could lead to deeper collaboration or problem-solving.

Like all meetings, it’s vital you attach a purpose to your meeting so everyone begins the meeting on the same page. Add structure and inclusivity to your hybrid meeting by establishing “rules” or common practices all attendees must abide by – such as only speaking if they are presenting or following a digital hand-raising feature mentioned previously.

Solutions that foster democratic meetings

As technology evolves to support the rise of the hybrid meeting, it’s important that your workplace fosters these meetings. To do so, you set yourselves up for success with the right tech solutions for you.

 Consider a meeting management tool, like Decisions for Microsoft Teams and Office 365, to help you build agendas, create meeting minutes, allow agenda collaboration, assign presenters to meeting topics, and more. By using tech to organize your meeting upfront, you will democratize the meeting simply by making the meeting more uniform for all attendees – whether they are calling in from 3,000 miles away or sitting right next to you.

The bottom line?

With a little tech-aligning TLC, your hybrid meetings can run more smoothly but may not be taking the place of our in-person caucuses any time soon.

 But Kreamer still had a final thought about running hybrid meetings in general: “If some attendees are able to attend in-person (e.g., are co-located) but other attendees are not able to, due to geographical or physical constraints, that the meeting leader decides to hold the meeting entirely virtual in order to even the playing field – promoting comfortability contributing, increasing inclusivity, equalizing participation, and, in turn, fostering greater meeting effectiveness.”
So, stick to all virtual or all in-person meetings when possible, but when going hybrid, strive to level the playing field at all costs leading with the best hardware and software strategy you can implement!

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