Meetings are always a contentious topic in the workplace. There is a reason that the statement ‘that meeting could have been an email’ is an internet joke. The situation only declined during the so-called ‘great working from home experiment’ when a long day on Zoom became our norm. What was previously problematic about meetings in the office was lifted and shifted into our homes, with the added bonus of shouting at people to mute or unmute, plus the potential to spy into our colleagues bedrooms. I have yet to talk to an organisation that has positively shifted their meeting culture during the pandemic – and now we have hybrid meetings to deal with too.
There are problems with hybrid meetings. First of all is something called presence disparity. You might have experienced this even if you haven’t heard the term. It is what occurs when we join a meeting as a remote participant when most of the other participants are together in a room. You can’t see half the attendees or the flip chart, you can’t get your voice heard and if you are really unlucky everyone forgets that you are even there. And you don’t get to enjoy the biscuits.
We tend to be biased towards people we are in close proximity to. We also tend to attribute positive behavioural traits to people we can see working – in a way that might work against those who aren’t as visible as others. This is another potential issue in a hybrid meeting situation.
There are issues about voice and fairness in hybrid meetings – people being able to get heard and put their views across in the same way as those who are co-located can. There is also a critical issue for longer term hybrid working; concerns are rising about how hybrid work might cause other equality issues. For example, people who live with disabilities may find that that hybrid work can open up opportunities for them in the labour market – but if they are always the remote participant in the meeting, how do we ensure they have an equal voice? We also know that there is a greater desire from women to work from home more than their male colleagues – largely because they intend to structure their work around childcare and domestic responsibilities. How might a culture of hybrid meetings therefore further reduce their visibility and all the associated issues this brings?
What else happens in hybrid meetings? People start to chat before the remote meeting opens. The conversation begins over the coffee, or carries on in the corridor after the meeting finishes. Visual aids in the room aren’t accessible to every participant. Side conversations can’t be heard by everyone. Body language, harder to read in an online meeting, is further reduced if remote participants can’t see everyone in the physical room. These issues risk making meetings harder than they were before the pandemic – something none of us want.
Can you have hybrid meetings? Yes. But in my opinion you should only do so if you have a bloody good facilitator who is skilled at ensuring equality in the space and understand the biases and issues that can arise. You should only have a hybrid meeting if you can be sure that everyone who attends can have an equal voice and fully participate. Only have hybrid meetings if you provide training to meeting chairs on how to facilitate a hybrid meeting properly.
Only have a hybrid meeting for the right type of meeting. If the purpose of the meeting is mostly providing information then hybrid can work (although so might not having a meeting at all and using another medium entirely). If you want a deep discussion, need to reach agreement or converge on meaning – it might not be the best solution.
If you can’t get through this gates or guarantee these criteria can be me, defaulting online is better for everyone.
For more practical tips on hybrid meetings take a look at this guidance from the CIPD that they kindly asked me to contribute to.