The hybrid work guide

The first rule of hybrid meetings: make the conference room off-limits

Ganda Suthivarakom

Oct 10, 2023

With many people returning to the office, it can be tempting to pile into the conference room, catch up over coffee and snacks, and crowd around one laptop or camera for a Zoom call with the remote members of your team. But when you have a meeting with a hybrid team, the fairest thing you can do is to ask everyone to join individually via video.

Yes, even if half the people participating are in the office together, you should still make the conference room off-limits and have everyone join online, through their own devices. To understand why, you need to take the perspectives of everyone attending into account.

It may feel counterintuitive to gather in the office and retreat to your individual screens when you have a meeting, but if the goal is for everyone on the team to have equal understanding and attention, moving out of the conference room can make a big difference. This one small gesture can help every attendee feel like they are valued equally and sharing the same experience, leading to more participation from everyone. In this article, we’ll explain what we mean by hybrid meetings, what the challenges are, and what the best solutions are for helping the team feel connected and understood.

What is a hybrid meeting?

A hybrid meeting blends groups that are in-person and online, either because some people are working from home or groups are working in different offices. They were already a staple before the pandemic thanks to distributed teams who worked across multiple offices. Today they are quite common at businesses with people who can accomplish work from their laptops, even among those that have returned to the office.

The challenges of running a hybrid meeting

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and renowned facilitator, notes that a hybrid gathering is really “three separate, simultaneous events in one; an in-person gathering, an online gathering, and the moments when the two are connected.” The challenge with this is that the facilitator needs to be prepared for all three experiences of the meeting and may not be able to lead both the in-person group and the online group simultaneously.

One of the biggest issues with hybrid meetings is that people in the same room will naturally empower each other, which can make the people on video feel like an afterthought. Those who are physically together have the advantage of reading body language and the ability to physically get attention from a meeting leader.

As author David Burkus says in Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, “Mixing a few people in the room together and a few others as talking heads on a digital screen gives too much power to those in the room and can potentially shut down vital contributions from those who feel they’re second-class meeting citizens.”

Standard conference rooms also don’t always offer the best experience for the connection between the two groups. Audio and video from speaker phones that can pick up the whole room are a luxury not every conference room offers. Even when they work well, the speaker in the room often needs to make sure they are near the microphone. And cameras only work as well as the lighting in the room allows. Cameras trained on the whole room make it hard to pick out individual faces, while face-tracking technology can be dizzying and distracting.

On the remote side, inserting your voice into a conversation can be a challenge when nobody can see that you have something to contribute, or when the in-office group talks amongst themselves, leaving few pauses for interjections.

Why avoiding the conference room improves hybrid meetings

Everyone feels more included. When you work at a hybrid workplace, especially one with a central office, it’s easy to feel less heard than those with proximity to management. This feeling is especially acute when some people literally have a seat at the table while others are boxed into a grid far away from the action. By asking everyone to join via video, the meeting leader won’t inadvertently prioritize the people in the room. Asking every participant to attend on video gives everyone in the audience the ability to see the speaker’s face and hear the speaker’s voice clearly. Video gatherings also give those who feel less comfortable speaking up a chance to use technology to raise their hand virtually or type a question into chat without having to compete with the loudest voices in the room.

It’s a better viewer experience. Watching a video of a meeting is as exciting as watching paint dry. But it doesn’t feel like that when you’re in the room. The difference? Your attention. When you are in the room for a meeting, you can focus on the speaker’s face, or you can move your gaze to the screen projection. To gauge the room’s reaction, your eyes can move around to individual participants. It’s impossible to do that dynamic observation when several people in a conference room are now squished into a single postage stamp on a grid. Asking everyone to join on video individually gives every participant—not just those in the room—the ability to move their attention around the group.

You don’t need to triple the preparation. Priya Parker put it best when she said that planning for a hybrid gathering means planning for three meetings—in-person, virtual, and where the two converge. We think this can work for special occasions, but most people don’t have the bandwidth to do that kind of planning for standard weekly or even monthly gatherings. Doing hybrid meetings over video means you can put your energy into preparing thoughtfully for one kind of meeting instead of three.

Fewer tech issues. Video quality and especially sound quality tend to suffer in a big conference room, especially one that isn’t well-equipped. And forget about having two laptop webcams going—the dance of muting and unmuting can cause feedback from competing microphones and speakers at inopportune moments. When you have one speaker per webcam, every participant can be seen and heard without concerns over feedback, lighting, and camera positioning. (Make sure each person is isolated in their own area in order to avoid feedback issues and echoes.)

What to do for large hybrid work meetings with more than 20 attendees

When you have a meeting with a large group, chances are that many of your attendees are observing, not participating. If your audience will only be joining the meeting as watchers, consider making a recorded video instead and distributing it to the whole group. With recordings, you don’t have to find a meeting time that works for everyone; you can perfect your presentations without the pressure of performing live; and your audience will be able to watch at a time that suits them best.

If your concern is keeping sensitive information private, use mmhmm’s privacy settings to ensure that only the intended people have access, and you can see who has watched.

Save the conference room for in-person

We may be a video company, but that doesn’t mean we are anti-IRL. In fact, we have built mmhmm to facilitate the work and communication that can happen over video so that you can get more out of the interactions you have when you’re together. Save the conference rooms for celebrations and gatherings that only involve people who are present.

And if you have sway over office layout, ask your facilities manager for more individual soundproof booths. Your video audience won’t be subjected to hearing conversations happening nearby, and officemates who are concentrating on quiet work will thank you.

Make your videos more engaging with less effort: Our free mmhmm-ready PowerPoint and Keynote templates help put you and your content on the same screen, elegantly. Download the free mmhmm-ready presentation templates.