All-virtual meetings are like in-person meetings in one important sense: Everyone attends the same way, so people are in the same place. In the hybrid workplace, though, holding a productive, even enjoyable meeting is going to require more forethought and mindfulness to avoid massive frustration.
Here are some top tips for doing it right:
Douglas Ferguson, president of the Austin-based consulting company Voltage Control, says technical considerations should be the first concern when running a meeting. Ask: When some people are online and others are in the room, what’s everyone looking at? If it’s a whiteboard and “we’ve got one laptop in the conference room that’s logged in [online] and everyone that’s remote can only see wherever that laptop happens to be pointed, then the point of engagement may or may not be in focus,” he says, “or someone might be standing in front of it.”
“That’s a whole lot different than if our point of engagement is a Mural that everyone can see,” he adds, referring to one of many apps designed for online collaboration. (See Quartz’s field guide on the future of the digital workplace.)
Companies ought to get familiar with meeting and collaboration software that goes beyond Zoom, he says. Too many organizations still use cameras installed in the corner of the conference room, giving remote staff a security camera-like view of what’s happening in the room. Often, you end up staring at someone’s back. “Is that a way to interact with folks and connect?” Ferguson asks.
When running a large meeting with some people in person and others elsewhere (including smaller regional offices and at home), you’ll need one facilitator for each location, says Ferguson, including one for the purely online group. “You might have a lead facilitator who’s overseeing it all, but you need to make sure that all of you are aligned on how things are going to go down,“ he adds. “If there’s any glitching, the local person can kind of keep things rolling and you don’t have to bring down the whole communication structure.”
In a hybrid meeting, you need to pay extra attention to making sure everyone feels prepared to share and invited to speak. Ferguson suggests looking at particular structures (rather than freestyling it) to avoid having your meetings dominated by one group. In a hybrid workplace, the people working at the office are almost guaranteed to forget about their peers linked into a digital presentation, unless leaders manage that divide well.
All kinds of meeting formats exist, he adds. One is the simple 1-2-4-All. “You have everyone, quietly think through the problem, then you get people in groups of two to talk about it, then you get groups of four to talk about it, then you bring everyone for a group discussion. Then if someone’s even having some trouble or they don’t quite feel safe speaking up in front of the CEO,” one of their peers will likely speak up on their behalf. “You end up having people advocating for other folks,” says Ferguson.
Another option is called Popcorn: you speak once and your kernel is considered popped. You can’t contribute again until everyone has had a chance to speak.
Whatever method you choose, build in time for people to reflect, he says. “I’m a really big fan of giving people personal time to think through something before we do group work,” he says. “So many times, we’re running from one meeting to the next, or we haven’t thought about this thing for two weeks and we are supposed to have a really intelligent conversation about it. For all intents and purposes, our IQ is functioning at like half of what it could if we just took a couple of minutes to reboot ourselves.”
If you don’t give people that time, he adds, “everyone’s actually spending time thinking through what they might say or their own ideas and they can’t actually listen to anyone else.”
Besides, as Quartz once reported, even the advertising executive who popularized “brainstorming” did his best thinking alone.
Drawing up a seating chart is a smart idea when you’re leading a meeting with people whose names are not burned into memory. In a hybrid meeting, your map should include the people who are logged in or on the phone. “There’s always a phone on the table, right?” says Ferguson, “so how are you going to remember that the phone is a person?”
To be inclusive in meetings, “Do anything that you can do to remind yourself that you’ve got these folks there, and they need to be taken care of.”
There’s been a lot of advice about finding time to connect when companies go hybrid, but be intentional about it. One problem Ferguson has encountered when he’s diagnosing meeting failures is that managers call meetings with a fabricated or not a completely justifiable reason; their real agenda is to “just be with their people and connect,” he says, “It’s therapy. I’m getting to work through this need to be surrounded by people and connect and get all that goodness.”
By all means, meet for that purpose, he says—just be upfront about it so people don’t walk out of the room or leave the video call thinking,“What was that about?” Some people might feel angry enough to need a therapy meeting of their own, he says.
As offices reopen, there might be an urge to go back to old schedules, reviving meetings that had become memos during the pandemic because people were Zoom-fatigued. But don’t do it, says Ferguson. “People hang on to some of these meetings like sacred cows,” he tells Quartz. “We’ve always done it,” they say.
“So I’ll ask people, ‘What is this meeting about? And what’s the purpose of this meeting?’” Usually, it’s about disseminating information, which is easier to do in an email or video that would-be meeting leaders can post online.
If going hybrid has led to a need for more online meetings, share the responsibility for making them fun and social, says Lynne Oldham, chief people officer at Zoom. When you have a meeting with the same people every week, share the responsibility for keeping them lively or opening with something interesting, like a piece of trivia or a quote. Because it can be too onerous for the meeting owner to have that responsibility all the time.
Most advice is aimed at company leaders, but Douglas Ferguson, president of Voltage Control, has this suggestion for employees. If management is going to be flexible about work from home policies, “[t]here might be moments where they’ll say, ‘It’s going to be really important for this session for everyone to come in[to the office],’” he says. “Employees should respect that.”
Give teams and individuals in different time zones equal access to a convenient meeting time, Joshua Zerkel, head of global engagement marketing at Asana, explained in a recent Quartz at Work workshop. He is based in San Francisco, but he “switches up meetings to be convenient one week for US mornings and Europe’s afternoons, and the next week for daytime in Sydney and Tokyo,” Quartz editor Heather Landy explains.
Hybrid organizations will need to document their conversations and decisions in writing, but meetings should be recorded for anyone who misses them. “It’s just a lot faster than typing a book-length status update,” Zerkel says.