Many experts recommend that hybrid remote events succeed when we separately handle the needs of colocated individuals and the needs of dispersed individuals.  This may get you through the event, but it introduces long-term problems in the organization.  Any sense of us-vs-them becomes amplified when we take care of the needs of different groups separately.  I try to think of the organization as a community and seek ways to help that community care for the community.  Also, each hybrid-remote event becomes an opportunity to strengthen that community.

This means we should:

  • Appreciate the relationship between a hybrid-remote event and its organization
  • Understand why treating groups differently produces problems
  • Remember that inclusion is key to hybrid-remote
  • Leave the community better than you found it

Relationship between hybrid-remote events and organizations

Hybrid-remote events and the organizations in which they occur have a symbiotic relationship.  The hybrid-remote events reflect the current state of the organization.  Achieving the purpose of the event depends on that organization and the strengths and weaknesses of its culture.

At the same time, hybrid-remote events become opportunities to nudge the culture in certain directions.  They become focusing elements for the community within the organization to tackle key topics and challenges.  I’ve previously shared stories where gatherings of all staff or just gatherings of leadership provide important opportunities for focus and adjusting direction.

Note: This does not apply to conferences unless it is for a very tight-knit community.  I made this mistake at Agile2016 in the first Audacious Salon on Distributed Agile.  While we experimented, it was clear that no real community relationships existed. The remote people were rarely included.  One might say this is typical.  However, my experience (shared in other stories above and later in this article) shows that leveraging and growing those community relationships make a difference in the hybrid remote events and in the organization overall.

Treating groups differently produces problems

Certainly, remote participants and colocated participants have some different needs in meetings (and in working together).  Judy Rees and SessionLab brilliantly describe those different needs for hybrid-remote events.

However, an event represents just one point in the life of that organization.  And each event influences the growth or reduction of that community.

Remote and colocated participants also have shared needs such as belonging, contribution, and recognition.    When belonging, contribution and recognition are only recognized in one group (i.e., the collocated), you have remote individuals that feel left out and on their own.  They may not even feel encouraged to reach out to other remote colleagues.  Some refer to this as the “two-tier workforce problem” of hybrid-remote work. You develop two stronger subcultures instead of one community.  Us-vs-them becomes amplified.

Proximity bias, or the tendency of leaders to show favoritism to those who are physically closer (more at Forbes and SHRM), represents only part of the problem.   If the culture of the organization only supports the colocated staff, your difficult hybrid-remote meetings just become an amplification of what happens every day.

Inclusion and Relationships are Key to Hybrid-Remote

If you design hybrid-remote spaces that are continually inclusive of collocated and remote participants, you build a better community.  Inclusion becomes critical for the hybrid-remote workplace.  If you focus on relationships, you can amplify connections.

Over the years of working in hybrid-remote events and organizations, leveraging a buddy system or co-pilots not only helps when the tech fails.  If you are not familiar with those approaches:

  • Buddy system – having one collocated person pair with a remote person to ensure the remote person can connect with the collocated group.
  • Co-pilots – for clusters of people in different locations, a co-pilot helps co-facilitate their location and also shares sentiments of that location that may not be expressed 

Having those personal connections between locations tends to linger beyond the event.  If everyone feels they have representation in the event, they feel that someone in the organization is looking out for them long-term.

What about the digitally disadvantaged?  The physically challenged?  In each case, you need to adapt the work environment (or meeting environment).  And the buddies and co-pilots become even more important.

Using other familiar patterns to include and share stories helps tremendously.  For instance, using the News Team pattern to allow reporting out to all participants is a model familiar to many people regardless of culture.  A variation is mentioned in Judy’s mini-book. She tells the story of one company that held regular meetings in a Radio Show format.  This gave equal opportunity to the remote staff and collocated staff to share their perspective on what was happening in the organization.

Leave the Hybrid-Remote Organization Better Than You Found It

The one thing I keep in mind in designing any hybrid-remote event: leave the hybrid-remote organization better than you found it.  With that, I have some specific questions to help different participants understand how they can leave the organization better

For consultants

  • Do you seek out employees attending the event that would like to help and learn in the process?  Can they serve as your buddies and copilots to learn how to better connect and support their hybrid-remote community?
  • Do you look for teachable moments during the event for these folks, pull them to the side and share an observation
  • Do you plan before the event and debrief after the event with these folks to share what was amplified or learned that could be leveraged daily?

For leaders

  • You should have a strong purpose and agenda, but can you let your community organize the event?  Can you share ownership of the event with your staff to build their engagement?
  • How can you get feedback during the event and not just after the event?  
  • How and when can the event staff make adjustments in the moment?
  • Are you prepared to support the event staff in any way necessary to help support your organization/community gathering?

For staff

  • What do you hope to learn from the event?
  • Who do you hope to meet that you haven’t met before?
  • Who do you hope to reconnect with?
  • Who do you hope to introduce?
  • If you are more introverted (like me), what interesting concepts do you want to discuss? (the other questions tend to take care of themselves)

For the event planning team (both consultants and internal staff)

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