Recovering from online

Opportunities for meeting face to face – for people in Europe and North America – are slowly opening up. Although we’ve been forced into more online encounters, it has been an opportunity for many people to discover new possibilities for interacting. Kids popping up and partners strolling across the scene behind us have breathed fresh life in how our clients or work colleagues know us. Hairdos floating weirdly across scenic zoom backgrounds will have our grandkids chuckling in disbelief when they look at the iconic images of today.

Going hybrid

I think this experience will make hybrid events fashionable. Hybrid events are those where some people are in-person and some are participating online. Media companies like Zoom, are scrambling to capture the market with meeting tools adapted for these kinds of events. 

We have been running our BEtreats as hybrid events since 2011. Back then, we saw it as the future. We thought it was crucial to develop the practice of meeting this way. I’ve reflected on what we do and what practices have worked for us in several blogposts – like this one in 2014, this one in 2016, and this one in 2020.

Meaningful connection

I also think that this hybrid trend us going to make people more demanding about the quality of all modes of interacting. If you are going to travel somewhere, it’s going to have to be for a good reason and what happens face-to-face had better take full advantage of physical presence. If you are going to participate online, you’re not going to sit through endless presentations – even those with an “interactive” veneer. The fine art of hybrid events will be to find the sweet spot where online participants are not second-class citizens, but where the tech isn’t too intrusive for in-person participants.

Three principles

Here are some of the strategies we’ve developed and how we hope to put them into practice in our new Social Learning Lab here in Sesimbra, Portugal.

First, we have three overarching design principles that drive our whole approach. That is, design for:

  1. Conversations in various configurations between people about things they care about
  2. Dancing in the space between knowing and not knowing
  3. High value for precious time

Some heuristics

And then there are other heuristics for hybrid meetings that we are incorporating into our social learning lab. They include both physical and tech considerations.

Design elements

Physical

Technology and tech practices

A feeling of space and openness

Large windows, wide horizons, high ceilings, indoor-outdoor movement, big sky

Minimal agenda with lots of white space

In-person seating so that online participants can see different angles of the in-person spaces

Pre-event guidelines for online participants about where and how to sit and move around while participating online

A map and photos of the venue so you have a sense of the geography when in-person participants move around

Small group conversations

A diversity of attractive and comfortable places for conversations in pairs, as well as small, medium, and large groups

Contact information of all participants (face-to-face and online) so it is easy to bring someone in on different devices or applications

Breakout rooms in different formations (online with in-person, online with online)

Multiple devices and apps to bring online participants into the room (e.g., iPad sitting on table for a small group conversation)

Down time for reflection, alone or with someone else

(Quiet) places to sit and work or do nothing

Respect for own time

Frequent short pauses for people to collect their thoughts before starting a conversation

Silent time in agenda for joint written reflections in a google doc shared by both online and face-to-face participants

A shared memory

Visuals, posters, photos, videos

A tool such as Mural or Miro with spaces for brainstorming, taking shared notes, displaying stuff, a photo album, google docs for keeping agenda, shared notes etc.

Hospitality

Good food, drinks and snacks

That extra touch

Welcoming, hosting approach

Time and attention to online participants even in in-between moments

Distributed leadership

Designing for initiative

Sharing in leadership tasks

Making sure that online people take the lead on some activities, either on their own or with someone in the room

A sense of belonging

Playfulness

Safe to make mistakes or a fool of yourself

Multiple places for having online participants to have their say, e.g., in the chat, on the mural, in a google doc. all of which are woven into the overall conversation,

Buddy system between online and face-to-face participants to make sure online people are fully included and to immediately address something that isn’t working, e.g., someone is blocking the camera

Seeing each other (literally)

Attention to what online participants are seeing, e.g., faces of in-person people

Visual clues for clarity over who is talking

Online presence, with good light and no bright window behind

Lifelike representation in the room, for instance, with a screen at a space at the table

Visual cues for online participants to draw attention

Together through sound

Make people aware of what sounds “in the room” give a poor experience to online folk

Point out the places where sound quality will be better for online participants

Strongly advise good quality sound

Practice mute button

In-person participants take turns in taking notes in real time to help online participants (e.g., on the chat)

Shared responsibility of use of technology
Face-to-face participants familiar with the technology in use

Encourage use of multiple devices and to have plan B, C, and D for when things go wrong

Insist on a tech check with online participants prior to event

While these heuristics generally map onto in-person and online participation, we would emphasize that many tech design elements apply even to a totally in-person event and physical design elements apply to totally online events. Both sides can challenge and enrich the other.