The pandemic has brought about a huge number of changes, one of these being the shift to online working and virtual meetings.
Although adjusting to this change was very challenging, virtual events often levelled the playing field, allowing people to attend meetings/conferences that they may have not been able to do before due to reasons like expense, travel, childcare, accessibility, etc.
We now have a further adjustment to make as we return to some semblance of normality. However many are keen to retain some of the benefits that were identified during the pandemic in the form of hybrid meetings: some are keen to get back to face to face meetings, whilst others welcome the flexibility that online brought.
It is important to acknowledge that hybrid meetings are challenging to organise and run (likely more difficult than just organising either an in-person meeting or a fully virtual meeting), but offer an opportunity to strike a balance between the benefits of in-person and virtual, something that was pretty much unheard of in pre-pandemic times.
This blog post aims to highlight the potential pitfalls that can occur with hybrid meetings and how to mitigate these; and ultimately it’s a celebration of what hybrid meetings can do!
Pitfalls and how to avoid them
Bad tech (choosing the best platform & tools)
The technology used for a hybrid event can make or break both the organisation of and participation in an event.
In terms of the software used to host the event, there are several well-established platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Blackboard, all of which have similar formats, which makes it easy for people to feel comfortable using them. However, there are several drawbacks with some of these. For instance, for some platforms communication specific to either moderators and not participants, or communication between break-out rooms and the main room, can make moderation and time keeping more difficult.
In hybrid formats in particular, having a platform in which in-person participants and online participants are aware of questions raised and their answers needs additional thought. Some of this can be fixed through using different tools together, providing multiple streams of communication, such as Zoom and Slack, or having people dedicated to interacting with and championing the online participants to the face to face participants. However, invariably, the more tools used, the more likely people are going to have difficulty in keeping up to date with all the communication.
Hardware difficulties are another consideration for hybrid meetings, which need more thought than hosting either entirely in-person or online meetings. In particular, sound difficulties may arise that are more likely to adversely affect online participants. This could be due to in-person attendees not being picked up by microphones, being off camera or writing on white boards with text that is too small etc. To have adequate representation, online attendees may also need an onsite person/people to monitor the digital channels to ensure that the virtual community’s needs are taken into account. Virtual attendees may also need additional support to configure their hardware and software before or during the meeting.
Time zone conflicts
In a hybrid meeting where people may be attending from all over the world, there may not be times that work for everyone in their own time zones. For example, people from the US attending CW22 had to start at an awkward time: 2330 (Hawaii), 0130 (Alaska), 0230 (Los Angeles), 0330 (Denver), 0430 (Chicago), or 0530 (New York). There is no possible solution for this problem that will keep everyone happy in a fully synchronous event. Some options to make this better, however, include the following, considering both presentations and discussions (or other interactive sessions):
Record initially in-person presentation sessions, then replay them 2 or 3 times, with discussions repeated with a different combination of moderators, participants or speakers.
Record all presentations before the meeting, then play them for both in-person and remote attendees, and make discussion fully asynchronous (via message boards).
For interactive sessions, have multiple versions (about 3) for people in different time zones, with outputs captured and shared with other groups of participants. Allow at least two cycles so that all groups can see what other groups have done and react.
Work fully asynchronously, with one recorded “work-in-progress” that people can come to, view, comment, and edit at any time. Keep this open long enough for all participants to be involved. For in-person participants, the moderator must ensure all discussion/work is captured in this document.
Facilitation and neglecting either online or in-person audience
Moderating a meeting is a skill that can be learned but may not actually come naturally to most of us. Making sure that every voice is allowed to make a contribution without the loudest voice winning out is hard to do in a face-to-face environment. In a virtual context, you can just mute a uncooperative participant or, if they are violating the code of conduct, you can exclude them from your meeting - something that would be a lot harder to do in a real world context. So, the moderator is effectively empowered within a virtual context.
In a hybrid context you have to ensure that you are serving both your in-person community as well as your virtual community, in terms of making sure presentations and discussion are seen and heard correctly by all participants. An in-person question might be heard by the people at the meeting but your virtual audience may not be able to hear the question due to inadequate microphone coverage, so in this instance repeat the question for the benefit of the virtual attendees - in effect, you need to be aware of the audiences that are attending your meeting and ensure that you are serving everyone attending. It is difficult to pay attention to both communities at the same time so you may need to divide this work: perhaps have one person to champion the virtual attendees, paying attention to their chat channel and speaking on their behalf.
Maintaining good audio for both in-person and virtual attendees is not the only concern. It is also key that additional materials are shared to both in-person and virtual attendees. This means both slides and additional communications that might arise as a result of a discussion type session, such as whiteboard annotations, are available to all participants. This can be facilitated through software, with free options like Jamboard and Padlet already offering solutions to this.
Lack of clarity/objectives
A hybrid meeting involves having both people online and in-person, which increases the chance of miscommunication. You need to ensure all your attendees are aware of the meeting’s purpose, objectives and decisions that need to be taken, and most of all, what you are meeting to achieve.
Setting these goals ahead of the agenda and far enough in advance of the actual event can help people organise their thoughts. You can ask attendees to add their comments on agenda items, and add their sticky notes to the (real or virtual) brainstorming board. Then you should stick to the agenda, and make concise notes regularly during the meeting. Hybrid meetings usually end up with more notes and comments that need organisation, so it’s important to focus on conclusions and action items to ensure the meeting satisfies its goal.
How Hybrid still makes your event the best ever
Hybrid meetings present a unique opportunity in our post-pandemic modern-day collaborations. If we avoid the pitfalls described in this article, we will gain benefits that neither in-person nor online-only events can provide. Here are three of these benefits that make our events better than ever:
Accessibility, inclusivity and flexibility.
Meeting artefacts are recorded & retained by default.
These are described in greater detail in the following subsections.
Accessibility, inclusivity and flexibility
Hybrid meetings allow every attendee to engage in the way that works best for them. Some people strongly prefer to attend events in person while others may be constrained to only be able to attend online. The choice to attend online or in person can be influenced by many factors, including expense, location of the event, disability and access needs, preferred communication style, caring responsibilities, social needs, and so on.
There are also many cases where, if someone cannot attend an event remotely, they would not be able to attend at all. Online-only events have provided a great step towards including these people, but this has left others feeling socially isolated, virtual meeting fatigued etc. Neither exclusively online events nor exclusively in-person events are accessible to all disabled people either, and so hybrid events can help to mitigate some of those barriers.
Even on a local or day-to-day scale where travel is not a concern, in a group where everyone has different hybrid working schedules, choosing one model or the other will still always be disruptive to somebody.
The most inclusive way forward is hybrid!
One of the major limitations to having open research discussions is the need and expense of having to travel long distance, usually via flights. This is amplified by the international nature of open research. Reducing our environmental impact is key to sustainable workflows.
Hosting online and hybrid events allows key researchers to meet with significantly lower carbon footprints. It also improves the requirement of green technologies to generate and distribute required material, e.g. softcopies of the research articles over printed versions. In addition, it encourages the development of data visualisation methods to allow for smoother transference of information. This is a valuable reason for the current use of hybrid events and the continuation of them in future events. Hybrid meetings also reduce other impacts, such as food, items and waste products.
Meeting artefacts are recorded & retained by default
Prior to the pandemic, we organized meetings in specific ways and some things were possible and others deemed impossible by default.
Back then, meeting notes were delegated, talk discussions were “more of a comment than a question”, and you had to be there to see the presentation. Nowadays, we can use machine learning to aid real-time transcription, and watch recordings of talks within hours of them happening. We get copies of the slides and access to the artefacts of the collaboration platforms and documents straight to our inbox.
Figuring out the tech stack that provides the most engaging experience for audience members has become a race for events that care about audience participation. Going back to these products of our interaction has become a way to retain and repeat the information that many people spent time distilling.
Be it talk recordings, meeting transcripts, slides, poll results, online whiteboards, virtual sticky boards, or full-fledged documents, when we organize hybrid events, we retain these innovative concepts that deepen our connection and understanding.
Hybrid events can be a way to enable everyone in your community to sustainably attend and have a positive experience. Although it can be challenging to get things right, if you can avoid these pitfalls, you can organise an event that everyone will find worthwhile. Then we can take the positives out of our online-only experience and bring them into a hybrid future.
For further information, take a look at the following links: