I had my first hybrid meeting today. Six people in the same room and four in different locations. Being able to offer the meeting as a hybrid physical/virtual rather than only virtual had its advantages and it was interesting to begin thinking and learning about how to make hybrid working great.
Personally, I’m hundred percent behind work being virtual, remote and asynchronous, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something interesting to explore around hybrid ways of working. A hybrid meeting specifically, and a hybrid way of working more generally, seems to be usually defined as some people in the office and some working from home. I think we can do better than that. I think we can have a more inspiring vision of what hybrid working could be. Hybrid should be able to offer the best of both physical and virtual.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to make hybrid working effective and inspiring, but I have some random ideas…
Some axes for thinking about hybrid work
More physical/more virtual: (Where people are when they are interacting) – This is the main thing people think about when they talk about hybrid. I wonder if location is a bit of red herring and really we should be thinking about the numbers of people in the locations. How many people are in the same space and how many are in different places. The split of these numbers must surely affect the dynamics of the meeting. Nine in the room and one virtual will give a different experience of the meeting than if its two in the room and eight virtual. So knowing the numbers and choosing how to run the meeting accordingly
Synchronous/asynchronous (When people interact) – Synchronous means everyone is involved at the same time. Arguably, asynchronous isn’t actually a meeting, but if the purpose of a meeting is to discuss a topic, make a decision, etc., then those things can be achieved asynchronously. If part of figuring what good hybrid working looks like is to make better use of asynchronous communication so that the synchronous parts serve a more specific and perhaps high value then
Codifiable/non-codifiable knowledge (How information is understood) – Knowledge that can be codifable into written information and explained is different to non-codifiable knowledge. Think about the difference between teaching someone how to fix a bike (codifiable) and ride a bike (non-codifiable, must be experienced). Meetings mostly deal with knowledge that has been previously codified in order for it to be shared with others. However, meeting are also social gatherings with all kinds of interaction dynamics between the people involved, and that is non-codifiable. How much social interaction, hierarchy, relationships, etc., affect what goes on in a meeting should be a consciously designed choice.
Ignore the stats
A Boston Consulting Group study of 2,000 UK employees revealed that 67% of those working remotely since COVID-19 want to be able to split their time between the physical workplace and home working in the future. So? That doesn’t tell you how the people you work with want to work. There are far more options than just ‘in the office’ or ‘at home’. We should be capable of considering work in far more flexible ways (including measuring work by the value it provides not the hours it takes, but that’s for another time).
A hybrid meeting where all the virtual attendees are on the same small laptop screen is likely to be difficult for everyone. At the other end of the scale, a well-designed room with a large monitor, multiple microphones, cameras that ensure everyone can be seen, etc., could completely change the experience. All that video screen meeting fatigue could quickly become immersive audio-visual experience fatigue for the people in the room, but help those in different locations know what it going on in the room.
Lots of companies are developing technology for hybrid working and are betting on it becoming the dominant working model, so they don’t really offer a balanced view of the pros and cons, but an interesting thing to consider is how all the focus is on what can be done in the meeting room for the supposed benefit of those not in the room. It’s quite an assumption that those in different places want to be more aware of what’s going on in the room. Perhaps one of benefits for those virtual attendees is the reduced cognitive load of not having to be aware of who’s sitting where, who’s replying to emails, who keeps fidgeting (usually me).
Involvement isn’t dependent on format
Are the virtual attendees at a disadvantage to the physical attendees when it comes to being recognised and taken notice of? Well, making people feel included depends on the cultural norms and social skills of those in the meeting. It should be a part of all good meetings, whether hybrid, virtual or physical. If people are being excluded from the conversation, blaming the technology abdicates our responsibility for finding ways to help people be included in the ways that work for them. In physical meetings its things like seating arrangements that create those barriers, but do we blame the seats?
The language we use
How we refer to the meeting as taking place in the room, with those not in the room ‘dialing in to the meeting’ affects how different groups of people are perceived. Considering the language we use, in fact probably coming up with new language, will be an important part of how/if/when hybrid working gets accepted and adopted in organisations.
Make everyone be virtual, even if some of them are in the same place.
I can see how this seems like it’s equalising the experience for everyone by making it a virtual meeting, but if we want to explore how to make good hybrid meetings then we’re going to have to hold meetings where some people are in the same room and others aren’t, and find different patterns of interacting that work for everyone. The way meetings were/are traditionally structured, with a chairperson controlling the agenda, is a demonstration of power that worked primarily for that person, and should be challenged in every modern organisation along with all the other power dynamics.
If the discussion about hybrid working does only one thing, let it be that we get better at consciously designing effective interaction patterns at work.