We all became experts at virtual meetings during lockdown. Regardless of the platform, we found our own ways to make it work. Whether it was balancing on a stool in the one corner of the kitchen that wasn’t a complete mess, or perfectly lined up in our fit-for-purpose home office with the best microphone, speaker and camera Amazon had to offer, we each had our own approach. Now, however, remote meetings are no longer a symptom of the pandemic. As businesses have woken up to the value of flexibility in working practice, and with the broad adoption of hybrid working, more and more frequently we are finding ourselves in meetings, workshops, and presentations where some of the attendees are together in an office setting, and others are ‘dialling in’ from remote locations. The old rules can’t apply for these new style meetings and the right tools need to be in place for hybrid meetings to be an effective and productive use of people’s time.
Before we even start to look to Teams for solutions to improving our hybrid meetings, we need to start with how we show up for meetings. Whether attending remotely or in person each attendee needs to give the meeting the same level of attention, their fellow attendees the same level of respect, and the subject at hand the same level of focus. If this is already a challenge in your business then you need to address that, first and foremost, before you even start to think about technology and tools. There’s no reason for anyone to come to a meeting without the agenda or relevant documents as Viva promotes to attendees what it believes is the most relevant content for your meeting. So – whether you’re attending virtually or in person – you can ‘walk in’ feeling completely prepared.
Every meeting needs to have a chair, or leader – usually the host or the person who has called the meeting. This person has traditionally guided the all-important agenda, moderated the discussion, ensured the debate is balanced, and drawn the meeting to a close. In a hybrid meeting this role becomes even more vital. Unfortunately, hybrid meetings can create an inequity or disconnect between those who are able to participate face-to-face and those who are logging in. Although those accessing remotely can hear and participate in the meeting discussion, they can be at a disadvantage because they cannot connect with the in-person attendees in the same way. This is where we need to change the meeting experience as much as possible to redress the balance and, using Teams functions, the host can help. In large meetings, rather than overtalking to ‘jump in’ with a point, remote attendees can use functions like chat or hand raising to raise questions or add to a discussion. The host needs to watch out for all attendees, ensure the agenda is followed, and take responsibility for guarding against ‘presence disparity’, by making sure that remote attendees have a chance to speak, and everyone has a consistent experience. If those in person follow a similar etiquette, the host can ensure that attendees are called on in turn and everyone has a chance to be heard.
Every business is different, so it is worth having a general set of rules or guidelines for hybrid meetings to support that equality of experience. You may agree, for example, that all virtual attendees must have their cameras switched on (Teams meetings has plenty of backgrounds to choose from if they wish to disguise their location or protect the anonymity of passers-by) or you may decide that all virtual attendees should be on mute unless they are speaking, to stop disturbances from environmental sounds. In fact, in Teams you can set all these basic guidelines in advance, including auto mute. However you agree to run your meetings, you can share the guidelines using Chat within the Teams meeting.
To manage the rise of hybrid meetings, Microsoft also is developing a new Outlook RSVP feature that allows attendees to reply specifying whether they will be attending in-person or remotely. They are also redesigning the Working Hours feature so that users can opt to put their work-schedule details in their calendars. This will let others know when and – most relevantly – where they’ll be working so that meeting hosts will have a better idea in advance of how mixed the attendee style of their meeting might be. These new features are slated to begin rolling out in early 2022, say Microsoft.
Often meetings are called to fuel creativity and generate ideas. In Teams meetings you can deploy Whiteboard which is integrated for creative collaboration and, in a hybrid meeting, will be displayed to the in-person attendees on the attendee screen. As this can ‘push’ virtual attendees out of view, consider getting a second screen for your Teams whiteboard sessions to maintain that all important equality. Collaboration doesn’t have to stop there. If you want to bring people outside of your organisation into a Teams meeting, simply schedule the session in Teams or Outlook and include the full email address of your external guests.
Virtual attendees often have an advantage when it comes to sharing content within a meeting as, with just a click, they can share their screen to show something or even start working in collaboration with other virtual attendees. And if an attendee can’t make the meeting, either in person or remotely, you can share the meeting itself. You can easily record your Teams meeting and publish the transcript. Participants can search the transcript and jump to the relevant part of the session.
If you are using Chat in your Teams meeting to run parallel or complementary discussion, consider how the in-person attendees will be accessing it. To participate individually they will each need to be logged on, so – if you are using an in-room camera and video conference facilities – perhaps you will choose for all in-person attendees to also join on their laptops with cameras off so they can run chat, and view and participate with whiteboard and document sharing. If not, remember that you can access and continue Chat conversations after the meeting. Simply find the chat with the same title as the meeting in the chat list.
Equally, consider what attendees using mobile will be able to see and do as their experience will, again, be different and you are looking to create equality where you can. It might be worth considering that whiteboard-centric hybrid meetings with several in-person and remote attendees are not ideal to join on mobile. Maybe these hybrid meetings can use Teams breakout rooms to create smaller closed groups for brainstorming and creative thinking.
Microsoft has introduced meeting room solutions which can be used to support this. Teams Rooms make sure everyone can be seen and heard by using a simple set of hardware. There is a content camera to share the Teams whiteboard experience between virtual and in-room attendees, a wide angled person camera to ensure everyone in the room can be seen at once, and an intelligent speaker so everyone knows who said what.
For larger meetings, Teams Rooms uses a remote tracking camera to zoom in on in-room participants who are talking, more sophisticated microphones to pick up chat from every corner to relay to remote participants, and speakers set under the large participants screen to project their voices from their ‘location’ in the room.
Sometimes you know that the subject matter for review or the mix of attendees is going to be too challenging for a hybrid meeting to work. Before setting a meeting remember that there is always the option to run it as all-virtual. This can work when the audience is large, from a broad range of locations, or not in the same place.
And, dare we say it, sometimes everyone meeting in-person is best. Nothing yet can equal the human experience, the genuine connection you get when sitting down face-to-face. When you want to get the creative juices flowing, where you need to bring energy into a room and get people inspired and working together, sometimes you just can beat an old-fashioned real-life meeting.
For help improving your hybrid meetings, get in touch.