Last week I remotely joined our brilliant Design Club. There were a number of people in the office meeting room and a few joining remotely. I took the opportunity to really think about the experience of this hybrid “meeting” - particularly in terms of how we are adapting to hybrid working and some of the challenges and opportunities.

Quite honestly, I find hybrid meetings difficult. I struggled to hear people in the room, the noise of passing emergency vehicles was very intrusive and it highlighted how difficult it is for in person speakers to be able to visually include everyone. It's a bit like we are in parallel universes!

Some companies like Stack Overflow take all hybrid meetings in a hangout, even if most people are in person. If there is one person remote, then everyone is, no matter where they are - it levels the playing field for everyone.

Like so many other companies coming out of the pandemic, we have taken the opportunity to find a different way to work and made the decision to continue hybrid working. We think it’s an exciting, innovative and importantly, inclusive way to work. It means our people can have the flexibility to make their working and personal lives happier and more productive.

Finding out what our team think about hybrid working

We surveyed Unboxeders to learn about their experiences, needs and desires. How did they want to be working? Some of the needs highlighted by that feedback were:

  • better AV and sound proofing of current meeting rooms
  • more quiet space such as meeting pod
  • collaborative work space

It was also clear that hybrid working can affect our team’s wellbeing and how well we are able to live our values at work.

Adapting to hybrid

While there are lots of opportunities, we are finding hybrid working has its challenges. The shifts the pandemic has enforced on our lives and our wellbeing are casting a long shadow in often quite nuanced ways. So we are revisiting our values, our expected behaviours and the way in which we communicate to try and make sure that we are doing the best we can for our people and our clients. Many of the issues that come up are represented in the “hybrid meeting”. A “meeting” can mean many things; a collaborative workshop with the team and clients, a whole company meeting, a one-to-one reflection session, an interview, a coffee catch up or a planning session. In the hybrid space I think a “meeting” is what we call any time we are communicating with one another. Communication is one of the most important issues.

In a recent blog I talked about how to listen well and the importance of non-verbal communication in that process. How do we best manage not seeing the non-verbal communication with remote members of the team? How do we best set up meetings so it is inclusive of everyone? It can be hard but we really need to think about these issues so we can better support wellbeing at work, do our jobs and thrive at work.

Martyn holding up his laptop showcasing the faces of remote attendees on Zoom to demonstrate the confusion of remote calls.

The Hybrid Meeting

“Hybrid working is a lot like being friends with a vegetarian — you always need to keep them in mind when you’re making dinner plans”

Raffaella opened one of her Design Club sessions on hybrid working with this quote. It’s a great analogy for thinking about how we are most effectively inclusive of everyone, particularly those who are not physically in the room or immediately in our eyesight.

One of the many opportunities of hybrid working means that meetings can be so much more flexible. Time and money can be saved if people don’t have to travel. We can reach and engage with a wider audience and we can fit work around other life commitments.

In a hybrid meeting, whether it’s a one to one or a whole group, we now have to pay more conscious attention to our colleagues and clients in order to overcome the common challenges of communication gaps. It’s much easier to pay attention to the person sitting next to you or the other face on a screen than it is to a split group of in person and remote. Care and attention means we must learn to adapt to and manage these challenges in order to make the most of the hybrid opportunity while always considering how we treat each other with respect and compassion.

“I can’t hear you!’re still on mute….where’s the link?”

By now we are all familiar with the scenario where someone isn’t able to get the tech working or even access the link to the meeting. Some people have cameras on and others are more comfortable with cameras off. Online tools mean work can be shared on screen but not everyone may be comfortable or familiar with using these tools. Extraneous noise can seem much more intrusive. Perhaps the biggest issue is not being able to hear people properly or read their non-verbal communication. Different characteristics mean that more extroverted people may be more dominant while more introverted people can sometimes feel less comfortable with speaking up from a screen. It’s more challenging to get a full picture of meaning and intent and to know if everyone is engaged, listening and comfortable to contribute.

Communication is hugely complex and we miss so much when we can’t see people properly, we can’t read their body language or misunderstand a tone of voice. When someone leaves the call there is no opportunity to follow up on something without another meeting. The nuanced moments when you’re making a coffee or having a quick aside chat in person, are rich opportunities to quickly resolve misunderstandings or expand on something that was unclear.

A view of the Unboxed office featuring open-plan office and brick walls. An employee sits at the kitchen desk on a remote call using her hands to convey body language. Another employee concentrates at her desk.

So what can we do?

So how can we make the hybrid meeting as inclusive, compassionate and productive as possible? Our culture, our values and our expected behaviours should be reflected in everything we do - a hybrid meeting is no different. We are still figuring a lot of this out as we learn by doing, and in thinking about how these challenges make us feel and experience work, we can begin to address the issues and come up with some solutions:

  • Knowing what to expect - has everyone had an agenda or know what to expect beforehand? Turning up to a meeting when you’re not clear of its purpose, or unprepared can compound a sense of meeting fatigue and disengagement and worse, feel like a waste of time. Being open and transparent with purpose ahead of time means everyone can show up knowing what’s expected and prepared. It demonstrates that you’ve paid care and attention to attendees both internal and external, that you are thinking about what others experience is going to be.

  • Access to call and tools - can everyone access the call link, tools and materials? It may seem like we are all used to this by now. But we have all had difficulties with joining calls or finding the link, no matter how experienced we are. And this can be frustrating! But acknowledging that things go wrong is ok. Checking in with participants beforehand, making sure there is enough time to sort out any niggling issues first, could mitigate problems of accessibility before the meeting starts. Not everyone will have experience or be comfortable using online tools and this can be really stressful. Checking in with people and acknowledging a shared experience demonstrates support and compassion and contributes to maintaining good relationships.

  • AV and sound set up - is the AV and sound best set up for hybrid? There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to hear people, either in the room or on the screen. Outside noises are intrusive and make it difficult to concentrate and engage with what is going on, particularly if you are remote. Where you place the people dialling in makes a difference too. If you feel like a fly on the wall and you’re unable to make eye contact it’s hard to engage properly or feel like you’re included. Organise the set up before you start. We know our office isn’t best set up for hybrid work yet, so we are looking at AV solutions, soundproofing and a quiet pod to provide a better experience.

  • Agree the etiquette - what’s the protocol for the meeting? We’ve all been in meetings where some people have their cameras off and speakers on mute, often for good reasons. Reducing background noise like dogs barking, or a poor connection can mean you have to do this. But not being able to see someone at all on the screen is quite a disconcerting experience. There is no hope of reading any form of facial gestures or body language. All these things are additional stressors to a meeting so having an honest and open conversation, agreeing the etiquette of a meeting before it starts is a good way of making sure everyone understands where everyone else is at and why.

  • Attend on time - what’s the etiquette if someone can’t attend or they are going to be late? If a meeting is in the diary, whether remote or in person, it should be there for a reason and as we would in person, be there on time. Psychologically it may feel easier to be a bit late or not turn up to an online meeting, but as you wouldn’t leave a room full of people waiting without contacting them, nor should we do so for an online meeting. It has a detrimental effect on people in terms of their engagement and their time. So letting people know you’re running late or why you can’t make a meeting keeps relationships healthy and shows care and attention.

  • The facilitator - is someone running the meeting? Having someone take a facilitating role in a hybrid meeting can make a real difference to the smooth running, engagement and inclusion of the session. The facilitator can take responsibility for making sure that everyone has a space to talk and is heard. Misunderstandings and frustrations can thrive in this space if people feel they haven’t been able to contribute in a meaningful way and then leave the call. More introverted joiners may find it difficult to speak in a big meeting, particularly if they are remote, so having someone who is able to compassionately pull them in and make sure there is space for them to talk should they want to, will ease the stress for that person. Equally there may be someone who is more dominant and therefore a facilitator can provide the stops and space for others to contribute.

  • The check in - do you check in at the start of each meeting? A quick check in with all participants, no matter what size, can give everyone the opportunity to say how they are feeling at that moment. The Holacracy approach suggests that checking in can help to focus people, gives others some context to your current state and sets the tone for the meeting. If someone arrives at the meeting having just had a big disagreement for example, they may appear distracted, frustrated and emotional. This will inevitably affect how they interact. Knowing a bit about the context means they can speak it out and everyone else understands where they are coming from.

  • The absent team member - how does the team member who couldn’t be there catch up? There are always occasions when a member of the team or the meeting can’t make it. If that person is also working more remotely how do they catch up on what’s been discussed or decided as an aside. So many useful pieces of information are gathered when you’re on a coffee break in a meeting. The office or project ‘gossip’ gets casually mentioned but the remote person isn’t party to this. These are small slippages in communication that can create isolation and miscommunication, so having someone take responsibility for making sure the remote person is kept in the loop can go a long way to mitigating this and being inclusive.

  • Onboarding new team members - does someone new to the company or team know what to expect? What we’ve learnt from remote working in the pandemic is that it’s difficult for new employees to join a company when it’s not all face to face. Making sure that people who are new to the organisation know what to expect and what is expected of them in specific environments like meetings is really important for helping people to feel comfortable and able to contribute .

There are no doubt many more ideas that people and organisations are coming up with to manage some of these challenges. These are just some things we’re thinking about to be as inclusive, effective and compassionate as we can. And for managing a meeting, whether all in person, or all remote, but especially in a hybrid set up.

In short, we need to be more consciously mindful of the effect we can have on others if we aren’t able to see or hear some in the same way. It is never going to be perfect, as it never was when we were all face to face five days a week in the office. We need to keep everyone in mind and ensure as best we can that we facilitate and communicate with care and sometimes challenge, in a compassionate way. At Unboxed we embrace change! It’s often really difficult but it means that we can quickly adapt, whether it’s on a project that suddenly pivots or about how we are working with each other and our clients; it’s about continuous improvement and learning by doing with behaviours that are supportive and considerate.