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.
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.
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.
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:
- Conversations in various configurations between people about things they care about
- Dancing in the space between knowing and not knowing
- High value for precious time
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.
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
Good food, drinks and snacks
That extra touch
Welcoming, hosting approach
Time and attention to online participants even in in-between moments
Designing for initiative
Sharing in leadership tasks
A sense of belonging
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)
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.