Last year, we wrote about the five stages of thriving in virtual spaces. First, we grieved the loss of our in-person connections. Second, we resigned ourselves to the Zoom calls. Then things began to change. We got a little curious. We started to play in the digital sandbox and found more creative and inspiring ways to have online meetings. In the last year, many of us stepped fully into a stage of discovery and settling in— stage four. We found that virtual meetings are not a last resort, but instead have a unique role to play.
Meeting virtually allowed activists around the world to find new ways of protesting and organizing under lockdown, for example. It empowered fundraisers to cultivate high-net-worth donor relationships in new ways. We even saw power dynamics change as virtual convenings boosted civil society participation at international meetings. We reconnected with our humanity, as kids, pets and other loved ones bounced in and out of our screens.
The pandemic was an invitation to step into work as the multidimensional people we are. How can we bring these learnings to our in-person meetings, too? In view ahead of us now is the fifth stage: a hybrid model in which the best of both worlds is possible. There’s no substitute for the magic that happens when we humans are together in the same room. It activates our senses and feelings in special ways (our sense of smell, for instance, is linked to our creativity and research shows it can lead to better brainstorming). We can’t count that out.
What is a hybrid meeting model?
When we talk about hybrid meeting models, we're talking about two things: the actual meetings and a way of thinking about how we meet. First, the actual meeting, a subset of the people attends from the same location. Other participants join the meeting via video or teleconference. Many organizations and companies are already working with this model, whether by connecting different offices or meeting regularly with remote workers.
The second thing to think about is the process that happens over time in which organizations decide what conversations need to happen online or in person ... or both! This is connected to broader conversations happening around the world about the future of work itself — do we need to be in our offices everyday or should we go remote first, or find a balance of both that suits individual and group needs?
Tech giant Microsoft recently outlined its vision of a “hybrid work” future: Large screens connect people in board rooms with life-sized virtual versions of their colleagues. Cameras at eye level improve eye contact. Audio innovations that make it sound like a remote colleague is in the room, and more. (See video above)
But the truth is, you don’t need Microsoft’s technology to have a great hybrid meeting model for your organization. There is a wealth of digital collaboration experience coming out of the grassroots level in the Global South, using platforms such as WhatsApp and other tools. You just need to match the tools, facilitation techniques and modes of connecting with the purpose of your meetings. It also means thinking about digital right from the get go, designing it into your process (such as for accessibility needs), and not leaving it as an afterthought.
This all begs the question: when is each type of meeting (hybrid, in person or online) the best option?
Choosing the right model for facilitating social justice conversations
Hybrid meetings make sense when a lot of people are already in the same location or when it’s easier to connect from one device (e.g., when you’re in the same office or when bandwidth is an issue) but you want to include others who can’t be in that same location. This allows for flexibility, cutting down on carbon-intensive business travel and supporting workers who don’t have reliable internet service at home or who need an office for other reasons.
Of course, it’s not all rosy. Hybrid meetings can pose challenges for managing power dynamics. It tends to be easier for groups who are together physically to communicate with others who are in the same room, as opposed to those online, for example. This means that the in-person can dominate the conversation. At the same time, hybrid meetings can help address this by allowing comments in chats or direct messaging tools (such a Zoom or Slack) to be highlighted, a great tool for inclusion ... but only if everybody sees the comments. As a facilitator, you’ll have more to manage, from nonverbal cues of groups and individuals to manage the chat (check out some great hybrid facilitation tips here).
Be intentional. Make your meetings match your purpose. Online and in-person meetings allow you to excel at different things. Make sure the format and technology you choose, along with the facilitation techniques, will help your group have the conversations that will get you where you want to go. If you’re tackling deep or difficult issues (such as strategic visioning or decolonization work), that might be a time you want to splurge and meet in person. Do your homework as a facilitator. How you set things up sets the tone, online or offline.
We need meeting equity between the Global South and North
We also can’t ignore equity. So much of the conversation about the coming move to hybrid models is concentrated on the Global North — not surprising perhaps, as vaccine inequality has allowed these countries to begin recovering from the pandemic sooner. It’s important that Southern voices and data not be left out of the conversation.
One survey including civil society advocates in the Global South found that many people struggle with data affordability, connectivity, access to technology, maintaining a work-life balance, managing online burnout and more. On the plus side, connecting digitally has allowed people in different locations to save costs while still organizing participatory processes including folks from marginalized communities or remote areas.
Still, when organizing internationally, inclusion remains an issue. Inequalities that exist in the real world are reproduced online. Many meetings, for instance, are held at Eurocentric times with the agenda being set by the Global North. The future of meetings has to address equity beyond the digital divide, too. A greater focus on co-ownership is important in all contexts.
Bad meetings and relationships contribute to a feeling of depletion and scarcity. Great ones move us toward feelings of compassion and abundance. Reimagining meetings has everything to do with how we use technology, understand systemic issues, and connect with each other. It’s social. It’s cultural. It’s political. And it’s strategic.