3 Key Elements for Conducting a Successful Hybrid Meeting

3 Key Elements for Conducting a Successful Hybrid Meeting

As we navigate the new normal of the post-pandemic era, it’s becoming evident that many future meetings and events will involve both in-person attendees and remote participants. A recent international survey among knowledge workers revealed that 62% have adopted a hybrid model of office and remote work, with 98% believing that future meetings will always include remote participants. As face-to-face interactions become safer, nonprofit leaders are striving to envision a new approach to the day-to-day operations of their boards and staff, recognizing that expectations and realities have significantly shifted since 2019.

Despite the advantages of hybrid meetings, they present unique challenges, and few organizations are equipped to handle them with ease.

The social sector, in particular, has an urgent need for well-functioning hybrid meetings for several reasons:

1.Connection. Organizations must engage board members and other volunteers through interactive and mission-aligned activities. While salaried employees may endure poorly managed hybrid meetings, many volunteers won’t – a couple of poor experiences and they could disengage from the organization. This is where Huddles’smart summarization feature can play a critical role, ensuring key points and discussions are captured and shared post-meeting, keeping everyone on the same page.

2.Dispersed Workforce. During the pandemic, many non-profits benefited from recruiting staff and board members spread across different locations. As face-to-face meetings resume, finding ways to inclusively involve everyone becomes crucial, despite often lacking funds to reimburse travel expenses for distant employees or board members. Huddles‘ AI meeting efficiency can minimize the need for travel by maximizing the effectiveness of remote participation.

3.Diversity. The most challenging-to-recruit board members, such as people of color and representatives of target demographics, are likely to benefit the most from hybrid meeting formats. The former chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, Daryl Messenger, noted that non-profit boards should not expect young members with children to commute for in-person attendance. This highlights the importance of Huddles’ proactive assistance in scheduling and managing meetings, ensuring diverse participation by accommodating different schedules and time zones.

Given this context, it’s not just about continuing with hybrid meetings, but improving how they are conducted. Pre-pandemic, remote participants often felt overlooked and isolated. The compulsory virtual environment brought on by the pandemic alleviated this issue and raised expectations for remote participation. As meetings evolve into hybrid formats, ignoring remote participants is seen as a missed opportunity and can significantly disadvantage those who could contribute diverse perspectives.

So, how can nonprofit leaders ensure remote participants feel fully involved? How can they make hybrid meetings useful, efficient, and inclusive? Instead of lamenting the inability to gather everyone in one place, leaders should create a hybrid experience that surpasses purely in-person or remote meetings. But how?

01 – The Pros and Cons of Hybrid Meetings

Leaders of nonprofits I surveyed generally acknowledge the necessity of hybrid meetings but also express diverse opinions about this format. They wish to partially resume in-person meetings but recognize that hybrid meetings can involve more people. After two years of remote meetings, it’s challenging to bring board members back to frequent in-person attendance – yet hybrid meetings offer new opportunities. Erica Wolf, office director at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shared, “With increased meeting flexibility, overall attendance has risen, allowing us to be more open in considering board member location and identity… I believe this hybrid and remote participation will inevitably be an option in the future.”

Others have experienced downsides, expressing less optimistic views. Jon Huggett, a board consultant, noted, “Hybrid meetings create a sense of inequality. Some people are in the room, others are outside, some happen to sit in the right spots, while others can barely hear.” Dan Berelowitz, founder of Spring Impact, added, “It’s almost impossible to consistently engage everyone.”

02 – Improving Hybrid Meetings

Concerns about the effectiveness of hybrid meetings are valid, but we need to discern: are these issues inherent to the format, or can they be overcome with experience? Just as our attitudes towards online gatherings improved with enhanced skills and technology during the pandemic, our perception of hybrid meetings might improve as we become more adept.

Starting with a clear sense of purpose is crucial. High-priority goals often include attendance, broad participation and inclusivity, similarity of experience for on-site and remote participants, and productive output. Achieving some or all of these goals in hybrid meetings at an acceptable cost (in terms of money, time, and training) requires thoughtful consideration of three elements: technology, design, and coordination. Here’s a detailed look at each element:

  1. Technology

There are generally two types of hybrid meeting technology: the ‘group method’ and the ‘individual method’. The simplest group method involves using a laptop camera and microphone at one end of the room to capture on-site attendees, displaying remote participants on a screen via a standard projector. However, the fisheye view of on-site attendees is too small for remote participants to see others well, except in very small meetings. Adding one or more tripod or wall-mounted cameras, placing screens on several walls, and using speaker functions can significantly improve video and audio quality. Additionally, ensuring indoor screens display the speaker view rather than the gallery view makes it easier to see remote presenters.

More complex systems use video technology that tracks active speakers. For example, the ‘Meeting Owl’ is a cylindrical device

combining a camera, microphone, and speaker, placed in the middle of the meeting room to zoom in on the person speaking (remote participants still appear on the screen). This is especially effective for small gatherings. Most board chairs I interviewed who have used Meeting Owl reported improved hybrid meetings, though those attempting to connect several devices for larger meetings encountered setup and operational difficulties.

One limitation of any group method is that on-site and remote attendees appear differently. On-site participants appear together (in several blocks if there are multiple cameras), while remote participants appear in scattered blocks on the screen. Hence, the images of those in the room are smaller and without name tags, making it challenging to ensure an equal experience for everyone. Also, these two types of participants use chat and voting features differently. Finally, nonprofits successful with the group method often have more advanced audiovisual capabilities, substantial internal or outsourced support. For example, the Lincoln Center’s board meetings average 40 attendees, 25-30 via Zoom, employing an external company for technical support and hybrid hardware/software rental.

In the individual method, each attendee uses a separate screen, typically a computer or tablet. On-site attendees mute their microphones and turn off speakers. For small meetings, audio transmission might go through the host’s computer, but more often through centrally placed speakers (often with extension mics), desktop mics, or built-in room phone conference mics and speakers. More complex setups involve additional cameras focusing on presenters, whiteboards, and/or projected presentation materials. A major advantage of the individual method is that all attendees look the same on screen. Each appears in their own personal box (with a name tag), greatly enhancing the equality of experience and the ability to identify speakers. This is usually the most cost-effective method.

Although this requires everyone to have their own screen, organizations can purchase inexpensive tablets for office use. Despite concerns from some experts that on-site attendees would resist having screens in front of them, many who have tried this method found attendees prefer it over the group method. The Zetema Project, a nonprofit focused on improving healthcare which I chair, recently used the individual method in a meeting, with evaluations showing 86% of respondents found it effective, 82% felt fully involved in discussions, and 86% could hear clearly. Most importantly, over two-thirds preferred our future meetings to be conducted this way, rather than requiring in-person attendance.

Regardless of the technology method chosen, the key is careful planning, investment in necessary skills, software, and equipment, and ensuring those operating the technology can focus on it. Fortunately, for nonprofits, some cost-effective options are viable.

  1. Project Design

Effective hybrid meetings require careful design. Jim Heeger, currently serving on multiple nonprofit boards, points out, “A Zoom meeting is not a Zoom call.” Unlike a one-on-one phone call, organizations must consider multiple participants in advance. Berelowitz recommends arranging the agenda so both on-site and off-site participants serve as speakers, emphasizing the importance of remote attendees. If key speakers are mainly on-site, designate remote attendees to respond to the speakers in advance. In fact, to increase overall participation, some board chairs invite members they know will be off-site (who might not participate if not remote) to speak or prepare brief responses.

For hybrid meetings using the individual method, it’s a good idea to heavily utilize the chat box at specific times during the meeting. For example, pose predetermined questions to the group during presentations and discussions. Zoom polls relevant to the content are another effective way to engage attendees. Before a contentious meeting, leaders can anonymously poll attendees on the issue at hand. For instance, a homeless shelter leader might ask, “Should we advocate for needle exchange programs?” or a mentoring program’s board chair might survey participants on a related issue (e.g., “How long does it take for most of our target demographic to access broadband?”) before an expert talks about technology access for vulnerable youth, asking the speaker to refer to these responses. While chat and voting are still useful in meetings using the group method, remember that the experience will differ for on-site and remote attendees, as those in the room can’t participate directly without more complex app-based programs.

Undoubtedly, building relationships with those not in the office is more challenging. Therefore, in hybrid meetings, it’s worth allocating time for social connection, even at the expense of board work time, as better relationships often lead to more efficient work. I recently attended a hybrid board meeting of the Zetema Project, using the individual method. All attendees introduced themselves, mentioned their top professional priority, and identified areas where they needed help; members responded in the chat box. Additionally, graduating fellows commented on their work experience and sought career advice from the group members, who then volunteered comments verbally and in the chat box.

  1. Coordination

Beyond using best practices for virtual meetings, facilitators should strive to coordinate the differing experiences of on-site and remote participants by:

  • Inviting as many participants as possible to comment, including proactively inviting those who don’t volunteer to speak.
  • Alternating invitations between on-site and remote participants, with a slight bias towards the latter.
  • Ensuring on-site participants face the camera and speak clearly into the microphone so everyone can hear.
  • Avoiding in-room jokes that can alienate remote participants.
  • Starting all meetings on time to avoid making remote participants wait.
  • Establishing and enforcing etiquette for questions, such as raising hands, to ensure on-site participants don’t dominate or shout out questions.

Hybrid meetings often use whiteboards or Tipcharts in the on-site meeting room, providing remote participants with a shared online document. Staff or volunteers can help bridge these two. Additionally, the meeting facilitator shouldn’t have other responsibilities. Assign a tech expert or another person to closely monitor and input questions into the chat box, clear the waiting room when necessary, and handle on-site tasks. Managing hybrid meetings should be a team effort, and savvy leaders view it as an opportunity to engage multiple participants.

03-Looking Forward

Many boards that switched from on-site to remote meetings realize their members don’t want to return fully to on-site meetings. Some plan to alternate between remote and on-site meetings, others favor more frequent, shorter remote meetings with an annual on-site retreat. Most recognize that even on-site meetings need a hybrid format to maximize engagement.

Fortunately, when organizations meticulously plan and execute technology, planning, and coordination, hybrid meetings can be effective and inclusive. In fact, well-run hybrid meetings can attract more participants while making on-site attendees feel more connected than purely virtual meetings. The trend towards hybrid meetings can benefit most nonprofits, provided leaders execute effectively. Poorly designed meetings may disappoint volunteers and waste energy, while well-planned meetings can yield unprecedented levels of engagement and inclusivity. Leaders seeking optimal results from their boards and teams should invest now in mastering hybrid meeting skills.

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