Global Leader Organization Strategy Consulting
This Week in Leadership (July 19 - July 25)
What the Delta variant means for office returns. Solving the labor shortage with returnships. Plus, tips for how to be a great board director.
The meeting hadn’t even started yet, but it clearly wasn’t going to go well. The dozen executives assembled around the conference table were joking with each other and reconnecting after having been apart for a year, while the 20 colleagues assembled like Hollywood Squares on the wall who Zoomed in for the meeting looked in on all the fun and camaraderie. As for the people who dialed in, all they could hear were the sounds of spoons clanking against coffee cups.
When the meeting did start, it got even worse. Cameras weren’t set up properly, so remote participants couldn’t see half the people in the room—most could barely make out the writing on the whiteboard. The facilitator neglected to check the screen and forgot to unmute the spider-like speaker in the middle of the conference room table, quickly losing the attention of those who dialed in and on Zoom. Assignments and activities in breakout sessions centered on in-person interaction, making those attending remotely feel excluded.
Welcome to the hybrid meeting, a seemingly transitory new reality of the post-pandemic remote-work world that actually has enormous business implications. After all, these meetings are where firms will need to perform the fundamentals of effective business—from composing strategy to assembling a project team to brainstorming innovations for markets moving at the speed of the internet. So far, many have just led to poor collaborations, disengagement, and a serious drop in productivity. “Hybrid meetings can quickly go from annoying people to making them feel isolated and not valued,” says Bryan Ackermann, a managing partner in Korn Ferry’s Leadership and Professional Development group.
That’s a problem for leaders who are already dealing with an employee base that feels burned out, overworked, and underappreciated. More than 40% of people responding to a recent Microsoft survey say they plan to quit their jobs this year. Numerous other studies link remote work to increased anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues. Against that backdrop, hybrid meetings pose a real engagement challenge for leaders, says Laura Manson-Smith, global leader of organization strategy consulting for Korn Ferry: “The impact of not feeling included, particularly for remote workers, can be outsized.”
Part of the issue, she says, is that while organizations have fundamentally changed pretty much everything about their businesses because of COVID-19, they still run meetings the same way. They haven’t been as deliberate in redesigning the agenda, protocol, and execution of meetings as they have the other aspects of their businesses. But experts say they should, since hybrid meetings are here to stay.
With more companies around the world moving to a flexible work environment and the need for travel to meet face-to-face less urgent, the composition of many meetings will be a random mix of in-person, on-video, and dialed-in participants. And that is going to make it more difficult for leaders to “figure out how to manage dynamics, keep the conversation going, and make it inclusive,” says Albertina Vaughn, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Leadership and Professional Development group.
Over the last year, our experts have observed and participated in hundreds of hybrid meetings with senior leaders. In the process, they believe several key steps can make a critical difference.
Don’t go in cold.
Hybrid meetings require more preplanning on the part of leaders and facilitators, from drawing up an inclusive agenda for all participants to making sure the technology is functioning properly. Dennis Baltzley, global solution leader of leadership development at Korn Ferry, cautions that the risk of losing control of the crowd is exponentially greater in a hybrid meeting. “Without good preparation, these meetings can quickly get disorienting, inefficient, and isolating,” he says. When the purpose and rules of the road aren’t clear or when the facilitator comes in cold is when things go bad. For instance, facilitators should know the breakdown of participants’ locations and time zones and establish some simple contracting for how the meeting will be run and how to develop rapport across the whole group.
Balance the ratio.
Since most people are still meeting virtually, the temptation is to expand the guest list as much as possible since they’ll be on video anyway. While that may seem more inclusive, it actually isn’t. The more uneven the distribution of participants, the more difficult it is to facilitate an effective meeting, says Vaughn. “More attendees lessens interaction and makes it easier to lose people,” she says. She advises asking potential guests to commit in advance to remote or in-person attendance and culling invites to get representation as even as possible. “What you are trying to avoid is an imbalanced distribution of participants, because that will sway the meeting in one direction,” says Vaughn.
Get everyone involved.
One big issue with hybrid meetings is making remote participants feel included, says Baltzley. “Momentum and energy will naturally lean toward those in the room,” he says. That means facilitators have to be cognizant that those on the phone or Zoom want to feel like they are in the room. He suggests methods that require interaction from remote participants (e.g., polls, votes) or specific tasks to keep them engaged. He also recommends some simple structural procedures such as going to a remote participant for every other question or keeping them on the main camera instead of sending them to separate virtual rooms for breakout sessions.
Double up facilitation.
Another way to ensure inclusion is to have two facilitators: one focused on those in the room and one dedicated to those who are remote. The remote facilitator can act as a sort of air-traffic controller, alerting the in-room leader to questions from remote participants and connecting them to in-person colleagues during assignments and activities. “The lead facilitator has a lot on their plate,” says Manson-Smith. “Having a coleader with the explicit role of getting remote participants involved can make the meeting more seamless.”
Purposeful breakout sessions.
Breakout sessions—splitting participants into small groups to work on a problem or assignment—are the foundation of any project work, innovation generation, or detailed planning. But in a hybrid environment, their dynamics are infinitely more complicated. It’s easy, for instance, for a remote participant to check out or an in-person participant to dominate the discussion. Included among the considerations are if the groups should be randomized or preselected, all in-person versus all-virtual or a mix of both, how large the group should be, and how long the session should last. Most important is how information will be presented. Manson-Smith advises using virtual whiteboards and other digital collaboration tools where possible. “Physical whiteboards and flipcharts don’t work in a hybrid environment,” she says.
Running effective hybrid meetings will be the key to business performance in the foreseeable future. Applying some simple approaches to the discipline, preparation, and inclusiveness of your meetings can accelerate your effectiveness.