The bigger (and more expensive) the meeting, the more thought required in terms of how it’s structured. My thoughts below are in regard to an offsite or quarterly planning or some other reason why the team would come together to spend a chunk of time working together, but it could apply to any meeting.
When given the choice, in-person is always best for bringing a group together. I’m not talking about “hanging around the hoop”, I’m talking about everyone in the conference room or other group space doing collaborative work. There are so many verbal and non-verbal cues that you get in-person they don’t translate remotely. There’s also the psychological reinforcement of closeness when you can be in the same room as your colleagues (assuming everyone feels safe). Another big advantage of in-person meetings is the potential to break bread together. The value of sharing a meal can’t be underestimated for bonding potential.
But circumstances taught everyone in the last two years that a lot more was possible remote than we thought. After fully in-person, fully remote is the next best alternative because everyone is equal. When everyone is remote, everyone has to sign in, make zoom work, find a quiet places to work, show of their office/living room/dog, etc. All the things that come with being remote are shared. No one is an island. During Covid, we’ve adapted some ways of working better than others, personally, I like collaborative whiteboards like Mural and Miro as an alternative to a lot of sticky notes, which have their place, but feels wasteful at the end when you recycle them all. Remote meetings are also easier to coordinate with fewer logistics, a tiny carbon footprint by comparison and without the same burdens on families. But there are other reasons why in-person can be hard for some people, even without Covid. Could be health reasons, difficulty traveling or physical challenges sitting for long periods or any other reason that makes an in-person long day difficult.
One of my colleagues in the company I was working with today has a medical condition that causes fatigue and sometimes makes sitting or even typing impossible. He’s brilliant and a founder and he should definitely be included, but he definitely has limitations that make remote a better option. It means he will probably always be remote. Making an offsite inclusive for him is more work, and it’s worth it. Our choices are to all be remote or if we want to do in person meetings, to take a hybrid approach.
When only one person is remote and the rest of the team is in person, the best practice is to have a proxy for that person in the room. That person has no role in the meeting other than to represent a person who isn’t there physically, and they do that by having a direct line of communication to the person who is remote. Any backchannel will work, slack, text, speech to text, it’s best to let the person remote choose which communication channel is easiest. The proxy can interject and speak up for the person who’s remoting in so that they also get a chance to speak. They can also repeat things that the person who is remote might not hear or suggest context that they might not be picking up by not being in the room. You can call it a proxy, or you can call it an advocate. I did it once when I was working at Techstars. I had to be abroad for a family emergency and it meant missing a very important meeting. One of my colleagues volunteered to be my proxy, and it was nice to know that I had a direct line into the room. I suggest if you have a proxy, that they are fast typers and don’t mind interrupting the conversation.
That’s the preferred order for team based meetings: in-person is best, if not possible, then all remote, if not possible then create a proxy for the person who can’t be in person, if more than one remote, then full hybrid. Such is the case with my meeting tomorrow. For a variety of reasons, there will be five people in the room, and three people on the call remote. It’s very challenging to help the people not in the room feel like they’re on equal footing and part of the team. I’ll suggest tomorrow is that for our hybrid meeting, each remote person has a buddy in the room. It’s like a proxy, but a buddy will play not only their own part in the meeting as a participant but also advocate when helpful for their assigned remote buddy. It’s not as idea because the role is split, but it’s better than being an island. If the remote buddy has a question or they didn’t hear something or they need to find a way into the conversation, they can get help from their in-the-room buddy.
The kind of meetings you have say a lot about your culture. People remember how you make them feel. Did you go out of your way to make them feel safe? Did you go out of your way to make them feel included? Did you go out of your way to help people feel heard, seen and understood? Did you change the colors of your sticky notes on your digital whiteboard so that people who are colorblind can see them? Did you implement Covid testing before gathering in-person for those who feel sensitive to being in a room with people outside their household? These are subtle cues to tell people in the organization a lot about how safe they are and how cared for they are, which Google showed us that is a precursor to high performance as a team. It’s worth it to make the extra effort to be more thoughtful if you’re returning to work scenarios where there’s a mix of people in the room and people calling in. I wish us all luck as we return to a very mixed state of affairs.