Leadership That Fosters Successful Hybrid Meetings

In other blog posts, we’ve been talking about hybrid meetings: how to lead them successfully, how to practice good participation behaviors, and even how to dress and set up your space to look professional on Zoom. This led us to think about what an organization’s leaders can do to ensure an efficient, effective, and equitable hybrid work model—including meetings.

Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed.com, said on NPR’s Marketplace that he believes innovation might actually benefit from hybrid working and that “we’ll end up having more than one type of business culture and set of interactions that can open up because of [multimodal workplaces, including hybrid].” While the idea of multiple types of business culture is exciting and has a lot of room for opportunity, there’s even more room for error—costly, brand-destroying error.

At the start of the pandemic, management went into emergency mode. Work got done, but at the expense of employees’ physical and mental health and sometimes even their careers. We expect that as the world settles down, potential clients and partners will look at companies not only based on their business success but also on how well their hybrid culture is working, using it as a barometer for efficiency, successful collaboration, and cultural health.

Hybrid work model in the foreseeable future

Clearly, leaders need to be as aware and proactive as Hyams in order to develop and integrate these multiple types of business cultures. It’s vital that they start now while there is time to plan, predict, and collaborate to create something that can grow in a controlled, consistent way. The hybrid workplace is already causing cultural shifts within companies, and the long-tail effects have yet to be fully defined. As a leader—whether manager or C-suite—one of your jobs is to ensure that your workplace’s adaptations to a hybrid system are deliberate and beneficial to employees, clients and partners, and the bottom line. Otherwise, the consequences may be dire, including lost revenue, low employee satisfaction, and damaged reputations. We have some suggestions about how to start working toward those adaptations today by thinking about the most basic of work units: the meeting.

Enact policies designed to promote equity in remote meetings

If you’re planning to set a specific schedule of at-home days for employees, you’ll want to think more deeply about both the physical and interpersonal conditions that promote equity and ensure an even playing field. When an employee is on-site in their workspace, they are in the same context as everyone else, so ideally, they are judged by their work and demeanor. When they’re at home, a lot more variables are going to come into play. I’m going to steal our example from another blog post:

Let’s say Bert and Ernie are colleagues with the same title and level of seniority. Bert’s spouse makes a significant salary, and Bert lives in a large house with his own high-tech study. Ernie is a single parent with student loan debts to pay off. He lives in an apartment near a firehouse and does his remote work in his kitchen. 

Bert and Ernie are equally valuable employees with a lot to contribute. On in-office days, they are looked at the same way, but once their teammates see into their homes, those teammates may form opinions from “Bert doesn’t even need this job” to “Aw, Ernie, that poor schlep.” Neither of those impressions is fair, but they’ll stick if you’re not careful. You can imagine the drag on team cohesion, productivity, and employee satisfaction metrics if these wild-card variables start to affect how people view each other.

Here’s another scenario:

Mary is a relatively new hire at the start of her career. She’s scheduled to work remotely on Mondays and Thursdays. Thursdays are also when her department’s all-hands meeting happens, and often the meeting is used as an idea-generation session. The meeting leader hasn’t been trained to facilitate hybrid meetings. Mary feels ignored but worries that if she breaks in too aggressively, she’ll be seen as an attention hog. She just had her 90-day review and was told her productivity and output are stellar, but her bosses are dismayed by her lack of input and participation. 

Mary doesn’t have any power as far as influencing how meetings are conducted. You do; so let’s talk about some policy changes to get you started:

  • Consider training in hybrid meeting best practices. Not only does this make meetings more efficient for everyone, but it sends a clear signal that leadership understands the impact of these changes and is willing to invest in making them go as smoothly as possible.
  • Offer branded virtual backgrounds appropriate for internal and external meetings. These could project your company logo, a conference room, or a worksite that remote employees can use during meetings. That way, an individual’s surroundings are not an issue, and you can ensure a level of professionalism and polish equal to that at the office. Of course, you may need to help by supplying green screens (or even just poster board in an appropriate shade of green) to ensure clarity.
  • Make published meeting agendas mandatory. This may go against the freewheeling in-person meetings some people miss from “the Before Times,” but it will help ensure that remote meeting participants get a chance to speak and participate. If the agenda is created and circulated in advance, those who will be joining remotely get the opportunity to add their input—and their name—to the agenda where relevant. They can’t be ignored or talked over if they’re already part of the plan.
  • Build consideration of hybrid and remote employees into your company’s DEI values. Remember, employees are engaged in an experiment with uncertain outcomes—and their careers are on the line. In addition, hybrid work provides new challenges for those employees traditionally included in DEI initiatives. If Mary (in my example above) were a person of color or a nonnative English speaker or had a disability, her dilemma about speaking up would come with even more questions and challenges.

Influence Cultural Change for the Better

Model the behaviors you want to see. Think about how your own meetings go and whether they accommodate successful hybrid interaction. Even if all your meetings happen in person, that’s a luxury your employees won’t have, so rethink your company’s culture around meetings and make useful changes.

  • Encourage people to stop thinking about meetings as a default and start thinking in terms of communication events. Yeah, that sounds jargony, but the point is that not every conversation has to happen around a conference table—or the virtual equivalent. If managers and team leaders start to focus on the communication goal, they might discover that it is met more effectively by a recorded presentation, an online discussion board or Slack channel, a shared whiteboard on Miro or Jamboard, or even an email. These alternatives allow all employees to participate equitably from wherever they’re working.
  • Encourage new meeting practices that require all voices to be heard. Assign your L&D professionals to source best practices. Here are just a few ideas:
    • For frequent, recurring meetings, rotate meeting leadership among the whole team, making a different individual responsible for setting the agenda and managing group interaction each time.
    • Use breakout rooms that combine in-person and remote employees for small idea-generation or discussion sessions during meetings. When the big meeting reconvenes, each team will have their collective ideas represented—regardless of who’s in the room.
    • Do a round-robin on particular questions or issues so that each person has to speak and build on what’s already been said.

The corporate cultural change we were all forced into in the spring of 2020 made every day feel like an exercise in emergency management. Now that things are settling down, it’s your job as a leader to take the long view. If remote employees start to feel left out or are viewed as less productive because you don’t consider how hybrid meetings are conducted, the resulting cultural wound—in profit, reputation, and employee happiness—will be hard to heal. Better to ensure it never opens in the first place.

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About the Author: Dale Ludwig

Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission of providing the best presentation and facilitation skills training available. Since then, he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, Dale is our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. He holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s VP, Greg Owen-Boger.

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