Analysis: meetings with both in-person and online attendees are becoming more common so what's required for a successful event?

By Jennifer Edmond, Edward J Gray, Francesca Morselli and Eliza Papaki, TCD

Cast your mind back to that awful meeting from March or April 2020. You remember the one. It was the organiser's first Zoom meeting and it went wrong, horribly wrong. It was the one where the organisers apologised to everyone the next day for the barking dogs, Zoom bombers, inaudible speakers and the eventual premature end to the session.

By now, more than two years later, most everyone seems to have developed the knack of virtual meetings. But as working from home comes under ever more pressure from the return to the office - and as the summer airport chaos cedes to at least a partial return to business travel as we knew it - we need to ready ourselves for the next new potential frustration in our blended work lives: the hybrid meeting.

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From Harvard Business Review, tips by psychologist Heidi Grant on best practices for interacting when some meeting participants are in the office and some are remote

In theory, hybridity sounds like a great idea. Participants who can safely and efficiently gather face-to-face do so, gaining the benefits of richer interaction, including those serendipitous chats over the coffee break we have all missed. Meanwhile, attendees for whom virtual participation is a better option can stay in their home offices (and slippers), but still be a part of the meeting.

This best of both worlds option makes sense, in theory at least. We are living in a world that will still be dealing with Covid for a while and one that also still must face the ecological costs of commuting and business travel.

But the practice of hybrid meetings may not live up to the promise. Like virtual meetings, hybrid meetings bring with them some very specific requirements to run well, which are not the same as either face-to-face or virtual meetings, but unique to the need to integrate the two. As a group who have engaged in a variety of hybrid exchanges, large and small, we have learned a few lessons about this changing context the hard way. So if you are considering a hybrid format for your next meeting, here are a few things you might want to consider.

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The technology

First, think about your equipment. A laptop is a great way for a single person, sitting face-on to their screen, to participate in a virtual meeting. The same built-in microphone and camera will never pick up the voice (much less facial expression) of that quiet colleague down at the far end of the table, however. Even if you don’t have the budget to completely refit your conference room - or if your organisation doesn’t have a dedicated space - you still have options to improve your hybrid game.

For hybrid teaching in a university setting, where the instructor has different rooms for different classes, we can assemble a surprisingly light ‘go-bag’ containing a USB microphone and a portable PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera, both of which can be plugged into a laptop when you arrive in whatever room you am using. The same approach could be useful for very mobile meeting convenors.

But it pays to do your research. For example, the best microphone for you will depend on the room you use and the kinds of meetings you have. It makes a difference whether you want to optimise for a single speaker (a cardioid mic will help cancel background noise) or a lively debate across the conference table (you may need an omni- or bi-directional mic here).

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Ideally, however, you will have expert technical support available to make sure that sound and vision are as good as they can be for all participants. Remember how remote participants experience the in-room meeting will be dependent on a few narrow channels, so you must put some effort into making those as good as possible. You may also find you need more than one video connection to the room, for example, if a flip chart is being used to gather notes on responses to questions that need to be simultaneously visible from a presentation slide.

The humans

Cool tech will only get you so far and making sure your virtual participants don’t feel like second class citizens will also require some human effort as well. It can be difficult as a square on a screen to break into a lively conversation in the room.

This unintentional relegation of the online participant to observer or disruptor status can be avoided by giving them an empowered in-room representative. This person (ideally not the meeting chair, who has other things to do) can monitor the faces, raised hands (real and virtual) and chat messages and ensure they are recognised and integrated, acting as a bridge between the virtual space and the physical room. They can also make sure that presentations have been shared both online and in room. This can be a very easy aspect of hybridity to neglect, especially when presenters are crossing software packages.

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Don’t forget to give some thought to recreating the affordances of the digital for the people in the room. At a recent hybrid meeting one of us attended, the chair very kindly put useful links into the Zoom chat, forgetting that this now natural gesture was useless to his local colleagues.

Having a messaging app or an openly editable space available to all participants to share notes or links in real time can also foster greater integration. A word of warning, though, that juggling too many channels, without the extra space afforded by that external monitor you have at home, can be a challenge. The norms of extra channel interaction are very different between virtual and physical gatherings.

The priorities

Organisers of hybrid meetings will also need to think carefully about what their priorities are as they plan their meeting and this new format requires making inevitable trade offs to get this. Is the inclusion of and outreach to new participants (potentially in another country or even continent) a requirement for your meeting? In that case a hybrid meeting may be an attractive option. But if the costs of planning and running a good hybrid meeting seem too high compared to what you will gain from it, then an online only or in-person only meeting may be the better choice.

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It is important to be clear-eyed about the limits of participation for hybrid attendees. This is especially so when the event is a working meeting requiring trust between participants and multidirectional exchange, rather than a briefing or other more mono-directional communication.

A particular deciding factor in this context may be the size of the meeting. While a hybrid team meeting or small-size hybrid workshop can be planned with a little additional technical equipment, larger meetings or conferences present a completely different level of challenge and really do require professional support and expertise to juggle between multiple screens and parallel schedules.

The social stuff

Don’t ignore the social stuff. If coffee arrives ‘in room,’ make sure to at least give virtual participants a few minutes to make themselves a cuppa as well. Over a break, you can also set up small group chats between local and hybrid participants, for example by using a platform such as Minglr to promote serendipitous interaction. This kind of chat may seem artificial at first if your group doesn't know each other well, so it may be helpful to give groups a little structure (like a discussion prompt or challenge).

While face-to-face or virtual only meetings are by now familiar to all of us, hybrid is still under construction and needs time, patience, equipment, budget and creativity. Despite the pitfalls, though, hybrid meetings can be an inclusive and effective way of getting your teams together, so long as thet are taken on their own merits and designed within their own limitations.

Dr Jennifer Edmond is President of the Board of Directors of Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH-EU) and Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at TCD. Dr Edward J. Gray is National Coordination Officer at DARIAH-EU at TCD. Francesca Morselli is Integration Officer at DARIAH-EU at TCD and a PhD candidate at the University of Verona. Eliza Papaki is Outreach and Communications officer at DARIAH-EU at TCD.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ