Hybrid meetings and the eye of the beholder


Have you ever been in the sort of meeting where most of the attendees are in a conference room, but a few are on a speaker phone? Have you noticed that the remote people seldom participate and that there always seem to be audio problems that make it tough to engage them in the discussion?

You might think that the technology is the problem here, but it isn’t. The real problem often rests in your (and everyone else’s) eyes.

The three biggest complaints about these “hybrid meetings” are: 1) a lack of participation from remote attendees; 2) the remote people can’t hear what’s going on in the meeting; and 3) remote attendees don’t feel “part of the meeting”

The solution to at least some of these is to ignore what your eyes tell you. Here’s what I mean.

It’s hard to focus when you can’t hear well Human beings are primarily visual creatures. We get most of our information with our eyes. If we aren’t looking at the same thing as everyone else, our attention wanders. That’s one reason it’s so tempting to answer email instead of maintain focus on conference calls…

If what we hear is a lot of incoherent mumbling and laughter, and we’re not really sure what’s going on, our brains tell us to go find something else to do. And there’s ALWAYS something else to do

In the meeting room, we do a lot with our eyes As a meeting leader, you look around the table and get a lot of visual cues. Sally is smiling and nodding. Rajesh looks confused and might have a question. When Allan is speaking, Beth is shaking her head. You give Tony a little nod to know he’s the next speaker.

Our natural instinct is to react immediately to those visual cues, which helps make the meeting in the room dynamic. The problem is that the remote attendees are largely excluded, which means they have to make a bigger effort to be included. After a while, it can feel like more trouble than it’s worth

Out of sight, out of mind Let’s be honest, one of the biggest problems with having people on the phone is we forget they’re even there unless they speak up. While it’s fine to say “they need to be proactive,” when you’ve been trying to jump in, or you’re rarely acknowledged you begin to feel like you don’t matter as much as the people in the room, and act accordingly

Here are some simple solutions to overcoming the problems a lack of eye contact can exacerbate:

Ensure everyone sees the same thing If you can, use a meeting platform like WebEx or Microsoft Lync to project visuals in the meeting, rather than go “audio only”. That way, not only is everyone looking at the same thing, but if remote participants want to contribute, you can leverage the technology by having them raise their hands (there’s a button for that) or writing in the chat where it can be seen by everyone.

Even if you have your back to the screen, someone in the audience can assist you by calling out contributions from the field. Also, if you’re using your platform, let the remote folks use their webcams so everyone can see them.

Repeat and rephrase questions and comments It’s hard to really contribute to a meeting if you can’t hear half of what’s going on. A speaker phone in the middle of the conference table is practical, but not always effective since some participants will be farther away from the box than others. You or someone sitting right next to the box should summarize key points and repeat questions for the benefit of the remote attendees. This falls under the category of “you know this, but do you do it?”

Start questions and comments with the field first. The most effective way to include remote attendees and overcome our tendency to “follow our eyes” is to develop the discipline to start the conversation with the remote people before taking comments from the room.

If you do have to take a question from the room first, acknowledge what you’re doing and let the remote folks know that “they’re next.” This also reminds the attendees in the room they should be mindful of their colleagues. It’s a small thing, but the consequence for your remote people is a greater sense of connection to the proceedings and less the sense of being second-class citizens.

By being aware of how our natural instincts can get in the way of creating good communication, we can address small problems that create big problems over time. How are you dealing with your meeting challenges?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.