Global organisations have been holding virtual meetings for many years, using myriad platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx to bring their teams together when individuals are in distant locations. More than two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced office workers around the world to work remotely, even when they lived near their place of employment.
Today, the business world has settled into a unique and flexible work environment, and whilst some employees are returning to their offices, others are working at home, creating a new hybrid structure. This hybrid structure often includes meetings where some employees gather in person in a conference room with others joining virtually. It's the new normal and likely here to stay.
Hybrid meetings are complex, challenging to execute, and laden with opportunities for failure. One bad audio link, an unstable internet connection, or an ineffective leader who loses control of the agenda can ruin the meeting for everyone.
The hybrid model has long been the standard business environment for Manilla, Philippines-based Jesmin Ehsan, ACMA, CGMA, business controller at Ericsson for Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and Pacific Islands. Her teams of finance professionals support her from offices in various distant locations, and she's become well versed in meetings of all types.
"During COVID, everyone met virtually, and even though our employees are starting to return to their offices, we are not mandating they work on-site, so we often have a blend of online and in-person meetings," she said.
As the pandemic raged, business executives learned how to run effective virtual meetings. Now, it's time they learn how to meet in a hybrid environment as well, said Ehsan and New York City-based Dawn DiPeri, learning passport global content management specialist with UNICEF.
They share best practices for setting up and managing hybrid meetings.
Practise hybrid etiquette. Having good manners is important in any setting, but when teams gather both remotely and in person, it is paramount that everyone exercises proper decorum. And it helps to establish etiquette guidelines before each meeting, such as avoiding side conversations and keeping personal devices out of sight.
Ehsan sometimes notes in-person attendees talking amongst themselves during meetings. It is not only rude; it can derail engagement for everyone and make those attending online feel less engaged.
"When some of the participants conduct their own private conversations, those joining remotely will struggle to follow the flow of the conversation," she said. "Avoid the side talk as much as possible."
Ehsan also advises meeting participants to put away their personal devices and focus on the meeting. "Using your phone or tablet and not paying attention to the speakers and other participants during meetings is disrespectful to the speakers and other participants," she said.
Put your best face forward. Even in a remote environment, humans long to be connected to each other, including at meetings. Keeping your camera on during a hybrid meeting shows you are interested, engaged, and actively listening to others on the call.
In some informal settings, Ehsan favours flexibility around the attendees' use of their cameras, but in a more formal gathering, she requests that everyone show their face.
"And I make sure to tell everyone in advance that they will need to have their camera turned on so they will be prepared," she said. "Keeping cameras on will facilitate greater interaction amongst the team members."
On the other hand, DiPeri advocates a different approach — to always give participants the option of leaving their cameras off since, for some, appearing on screen can cause stress and anxiety. She also considers forcing people to have their cameras on to be a noninclusive practice.
Consider body language. In a hybrid setting, your digital presence is as important as it is in person, but it is somewhat diminished when you are just a face on a screen, DiPeri said. She added there are ways to compensate.
"If you are participating remotely, try standing up, especially if you intend to speak," she said. "This simple act makes you feel and appear more confident, and your voice projects better."
She also suggested focusing on looking directly at your computer camera to simulate making eye contact with the other online and in-person participants.
"Sometimes I'll put a sticky note or a small scrap of paper under the camera lens because it reminds me to look at the camera," she said. "This also helps you engage with the other participants and assures them you are listening to what they are saying as if you were face to face."
Give everyone an equal voice. Whether participants are joining a meeting online or in person, giving everyone a chance to speak is one of the most important aspects of a successful hybrid meeting, DiPeri said.
"One of the biggest mistakes I have witnessed is not giving enough attention to the online participants and focusing too much on the individuals who are attending in person," she said.
DiPeri suggested everyone join the hybrid meeting online, using their laptop, even those gathered in the same room. This puts everyone on the same platform and enables them to participate in the chat function.
She also suggested the meeting facilitator appoint an assistant to help keep the interactions going by monitoring the chat box and watching for participants who wish to speak. "This will help the online participants feel they are an important part of the meeting and help them stay engaged," she said.
Get comfortable with the platform. "All meeting platforms have both positive and negative attributes," DiPeri said. "The most important thing is to ensure participants are comfortable using the software of choice."
DiPeri recommended informing participants about the platform or software they will be using in advance of the meeting, giving them time to download it, if necessary, test it, and ensure they are familiar with the interface and know how to turn on the camera and microphone.
Some platforms are basic, and others are more advanced. Having access to the one that best suits your needs can be key to a successful hybrid meeting.
"I have been in multi-lingual meetings with people on Zoom because it has the capability for real-time language translation with interpreters," she said.
Ask for feedback. Asking for feedback is a good practice for quality control, and there are a variety of ways to go about collecting input from participants — filling out survey forms, completing five-star rating boxes, or simply asking them directly.
Ehsan favours informal methods for soliciting opinions.
"My hybrid meetings are often with small-to-midsized teams, and during regular one-on-one meetings, I just ask how they like our hybrid format," she said. "Instead of a survey, I prefer a personal chat."
End meetings succinctly. At the end of the agenda, all that remains are sometimes awkward goodbyes. Participants attending the meeting in person will simply engage in casual conversation with colleagues as they leave the room, but for those online, exiting the virtual meeting room can seem clumsy and uncomfortable.
"When I close a meeting, I usually summarise the decisions we made and next steps," Ehsan said. "Then I thank everyone for attending, signalling the meeting has come to an end, and we say a proper goodbye and sign off."
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.