Ishbel Smith examines communications for the hybrid meeting age
No-one talks of getting back to normal. In fact, we rarely even say that we’re trying to find the new normal. Now our vocabulary includes talk of ‘blended’ or even ‘hybrid’ work practices. But what do we mean by that and how do we model good communication skills for those we work with as the momentum builds for return to at least some place based working?
Knowing something and then actually doing something about it is not always the same thing. Remember those meetings from the bad/good old pre-lockdown days where someone patched into a meeting on a conference call? It was rare on such occasions for the person at the end of the speaker to be able to hear, participate and contribute as well as they would have had they been in the room where it was happening. Even though we knew that, still people struggled to hear everyone (because people forgot to address their words into the speaker); worried about not getting the true vibe of the room (because they couldn’t see everyone’s body language) or even found their opinions ignored if those with louder voices or views in the room chose to talk over them.
When such meetings worked at all it was because the team made a conscious effort to adapt what they did and how they did it to include those participating remotely. I have a fond memory of the ‘talking teddy bear’ that one former boss used for conference calls – a pink fluffy stuffed toy that sat right beside the squawk box as a reminder that there was a real person on the line. It may not have been ideal but it was at least an active visual reminder of the presence of everyone taking part – and the need to include them and their insight in what was being discussed. But as much as it may cause folk to smile, a cuddly toy isn’t going to be the most effective solutions as we start working out how to manage ‘hybrid’ meetings. Some more careful planning will be required.
We have meetings so that ideas can be shared, opinions aired, decisions communicated and people included. If you are planning to have some of your team patching in by teams or zoom while others are in a face-to-face room, think about these points as you proceed:
· Ask, don’t assume, what the person at the ‘other end’ needs by way of inclusive practice. Could you agree to have a quick phone call with those patching in before the meeting to ask if they have anything pressing they want to raise at the meeting (the equivalent of the ‘chat in the corridor on the way to the meeting room’ conversation)?
· Practice the set up in the room before the meeting starts to maximise everyone’s ability to see and hear each other. Otherwise your meeting time may be eaten up by technical difficulties, making those dialling in feel even more awkward.
· Consider introducing ‘pauses’ during the meeting. Even a minute of silent reflection can help everyone catch up with their thoughts about what has just been discussed. You can then maybe ask the remote colleagues to be the first to contribute when a new idea, concept or challenge arises.
· Carve out time after these meetings for everyone to reflect what they liked – and didn’t like – about the set-up, focusing particularly on whether people had sufficient time and opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas to the matters at hand.
In our experience, people often find it difficult to talk about talking, particularly if they feel that they were excluded from a conversation. Yet the teams that work the most effectively are the ones who take the time to reflect on how inclusive their practice is and take steps to train themselves to listen to each other in a way that works best for all. We think communication should be easy. But even after countless millennia of human face to face conversation, we still get it wrong, so surely we can excuse ourselves if we don’t quite crack hybrid meetings in the first few attempts. We all like to be in the room where it happens – but if these times mean we can’t be physically present, lets ensure that we do our best to be present for each other in a way that works for all.
Ishbel Smith is founder of Heart In Mouth, which works alongside individuals and teams to help them to find the stories that matter - and share them confidently and effectively