With the tectonic shifts caused by the pandemic, decades’ worth of professional evolution got squeezed into a single tumultuous year. Leaders who viewed remote work with scepticism were forced to adapt to it overnight. Teams that had never done a day of WFH had to collaborate remotely for months on end. Organisations where digital was the last priority had to make accelerated strides towards doing business virtually.
We’ve all had to unlearn and relearn so much, so quickly. And now things are changing yet again. Although physical workplaces have reopened in several regions, remote work is here to stay. As my ex-colleague, Bain partner, David Michels notes in his excellent Forbes article:
Even in a world in which the pandemic is largely defeated and travel resumes, having had a taste of the new and innovative features that technology can provide for real engagement – not to mention what the CFO has to say about all those travel and hotel expenses – we won’t so quickly revert back to in-person standard PowerPoint presentations.
What we are seeing now is a new combination of physical presence and virtual work. Hybrid teams are fast becoming the norm, with certain team members easing back into office life while others continue to work from home. Managers will need to achieve a balance between these two environments – especially with regard to meetings. Post-COVID, the vast majority of in-office meetings will likely have virtual participants as well. This is a good opportunity to figure out how to transform meetings and make them more productive and more inclusive.
So, this week, my message focuses on optimising hybrid team meetings. What are some of the obstacles and opportunities here? How can leaders increase the effectiveness of hybrid meetings while also reinforcing a sense of community?
Hybrid interactions come with their own set of challenges. To begin with, there is an inherent imbalance between those in the office and remote employees. Those who are present in the office tend to be in the spotlight and receive a lot more face time with their manager. Those joining virtually tend to get overlooked. Not only does this make your remote team members feel isolated and disengaged but also causes you to lose out on their valuable contributions.
Another issue is the double disadvantage faced by introverts who are working remotely. Even at the best of times, leaders may struggle with eliciting participation from their more reserved team members. When these employees begin working from home, there is a danger of them disappearing entirely, side-lined by louder and physically present voices.
Best of both worlds: Re-envision future meetings
Of course, hybrid events have been around for some years in the corporate world: think conferences, product launches and award ceremonies. But in the past, this simply meant filming the event and livestreaming it one-way to employees in other locations. Post-COVID, a much more interactive format is emerging for day-to-day interactions, boosted by cutting-edge technology.
These new-age hybrid meetings offer unique benefits, allowing you to combine the advantages of in-person as well as virtual interaction.
While physical proximity facilitates spontaneity, energy and interpersonal connection, virtual formats enable wider participation, co-creation and customisation. Looking at it this way, the transition to hybrid is a golden opportunity for leaders and organisations.
The canvas of future meetings is mostly blank, which gives you a great deal of flexibility. You can re-imagine how your team will communicate and collaborate going forward. Discard elements that have outgrown their usefulness, and integrate some of those insights you’ve been reading and hearing about. With WFH becoming par for the course, you also have the chance to look beyond borders and bring in team members from other geographies.
Optimise hybrid team meetings
The ability to include everyone on the team, no matter where they’re working from, is a vital skill for tomorrow’s leaders. In order to succeed, you’ll need to foster inclusive participation, build a strong sense of connection, and enable collaboration across two very different environments. Consider the following seven suggestions to enhance hybrid team meetings:
1. Pay adequate attention to your remote team.
In her Harvard Business Review piece, Erica Dhawan illustrates a classic problem faced by remote employees – becoming an afterthought to those who are present in the office:
I’ll never forget a 30-minute conference call I once had with some colleagues… The host waited until the 26th minute to ask the virtual team if we had any questions. Up until that point, he seemed to have forgotten that we were on the other end of the line, waiting to give our input about the project at hand.
To correct the bias towards in-office employees, make your remote team members a priority during meetings. Dhawan suggests asking them to weigh in first with their thoughts and questions. If they offer suggestions via chat or virtual whiteboard, give them airtime to flesh out their ideas. Dhawan adds:
I also make a point to remind the people in the room that there are virtual participants by saying things like “Let’s hear comments from our remote attendees first,” or “I’d like to start with the questions coming in via the virtual chat tool.”
2. Redesign the format.
In order to be effective, hybrid meetings require intentional design. For example, attendees in the office must be able to sit in a way that ensures social distance, while still facing each other – and the camera(s). That means taking the time to get your room and AV setup right. Share the agenda in advance and be sure to keep the meeting on track. Impromptu, unstructured discussions make it more difficult for your remote team to join in. If you’re planning breakouts, create sub-groups that mix virtual workers with their office counterparts. This will allow your team to work together across the location divide.
3. Bolster engagement.
The best hybrid meetings are built on interaction. Remote team members aren’t meant to be passive observers but active participants. Changing things up is one way to increase engagement. Rotate the meeting facilitator regularly and ask each host to begin their session with an interesting activity that involves the rest of the team. Leaders are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the creativity of their team!
Another tool to foster two-way dialogue is through virtual tools. Online polling, for instance, helps you check the temperature of the group and get their opinion on key questions. Make sure in-office participants also have their devices on them, so everyone can participate via the same medium. Virtual whiteboards are another way for the entire group to brainstorm and ideate together.
4. Follow up afterwards.
Introverts like to process information in a more measured way, which means they may not offer their insights during a fast-paced team meeting – especially if they’re participating virtually. One way to ensure you get their contribution is by following up with your team after meetings, either via email or in a chatroom. Introverts are likelier to share their thoughts in these settings. Another good practice is to schedule regular one-on-ones with your remote employees, especially those who tend to be more reserved.
5. Build bridges.
A hybrid model allows you to benefit from the advantages of both in-person and digital interactions. In the article mentioned above, Michels highlights experiences that bridge the two environments. For example:
For larger events pulling from many locations, one bridge can be the creation of small pods or groups of people who experience the journey together. They may interact in person with their pod and virtually with others, or vice-versa, depending on the different functions and geographies represented.
6. Sustain camaraderie.
Along with work meetings, facilitate informal interactions to reinforce a sense of community. Sharing fun experiences or even simply chit-chatting in a casual setting allows team members to bond across the digital divide. During the pandemic, most teams activated tools and developed rituals to keep in touch: Slack channels, chatrooms, coffee hour, pizza night, etc. Retain the best of these and keep them active as you move forward into the hybrid era.
While some employees will continue to work from home full-time, leaders should explore the possibility of occasional in-person gatherings that include the entire team – wherever feasible. Meeting face-to-face enables deeper personal connections that are tough to achieve virtually, even with all the technology at our disposal.
7. Invest in expertise.
This is a key point of consideration for senior leaders. Do you have experts to support collaboration at the intersection of physical and virtual? Does your organisation have the skills to leverage cutting-edge virtual platforms? Are you equipped to train managers on the new competencies they need? To succeed in an increasingly hybrid future, leaders must lay a strong foundation.
Upgrading expertise will mean increasing investment in the short term – but don’t forget the huge financial benefits that come with a hybrid model. With several employees working from home, organisations will save on office space and a host of associated costs in the long run.
As we learned during the pandemic, collaborating remotely on a long-term basis isn’t easy. Add a layer of in-office participants, and things become even trickier. Being able to connect and deliver in this newly hybrid setting will take imagination and effort, especially in the initial phase as leaders re-shape team meetings. Doing so is imperative for organisations that want to survive and thrive in the future.