In a work context where working from home and business travel restrictions become commonplace, hybrid setups combining on-site and virtual participation become the new normal. When only a part of the participants are physically present in a room while the rest join virtually, it is crucial to ensure that all participants have equal possibilities of actively participating in the event. This is often complicated by the technical setup and related issues or an insufficient consideration of the barriers that are inherent in such hybrid events as non-verbal communication is often limited, particularly for virtual participants.
Hybrid events have to consider the needs of both on-site as well as virtual participants. Therefore, the following aspects should be taken into consideration regarding the design of the event:
- Participants: In a hybrid event, it is particularly important to know beforehand who will be participating on site and who virtually, to decide how much interaction will be suitable and how it should be organized (for example, see below: breakout sessions). Consider whether the majority of the participants will join virtually or will be present on site. Are the virtual participants all in separate locations or are they also physically together in another space?
- Shorter event duration: Attention span of participants is more limited in a virtual setting, and even more so, if the virtual participants need to follow the discussion in the physical room. A maximum duration of 2.5 hours per session is recommendable, if interaction and group work is limited. If participants are in different time zones, this may also affect the timing and duration of the event.
- Slower pace of discussion and less switching between speakers: While discussions among people in one room can take place smoothly thanks to a combination of verbal and non-verbal communication, hybrid events suffer from obstacles to fluid discussion due to delays in connection or bad audio or video quality. Therefore, participants should take the floor one by one, with longer individual speaking times and fewer changes between speakers. Although this may reduce the dynamism of the discussion, it helps to ensure that all participants can follow the discussion.
- Managing breakout sessions: One option is to avoid breakout sessions in hybrid events and work in the plenary instead. However, if breakout sessions are deemed helpful in the context of the event, it might be appropriate to divide groups into on-site and virtual groups, and thus avoid the hybrid aspect during the breakout sessions. Alternatively, one mixed group can be created with the device that is used for enabling virtual participation throughout the event, or, as a more complex option, virtual participants can join different groups through different devices that are managed by one of the on-site participants of each breakout session. This last option calls for an additional technical preparation effort, as well as the willingness and competence of several on-site participants to ensure the virtual participation of their peers in the breakout session.
- Breaks: catering may be organized during break times for on-site participants, while in the virtual room music could be played while displaying a slide saying “We are having a break now until XX h”.
- Translation / Interpretation: It gets complicated when an event is carried out in multiple locations and multiple languages. If everyone connects via a videoconferencing tool, then translation / interpretation can be organized through the tool. However, if the setup is an on-site workshop with some participants joining online or multiple on-site meetings that are brought together online, then translation on site (for each meeting room) is the preferred option. Generally, it is advisable to keep the complexity of the event as low as possible.
For the moderation the following aspects can be highlighted:
- Moderator team: It is beneficial to work with a team of two moderators on site for hybrid events, so that one moderator can ensure the smooth participation of people joining virtually and resolve any technical issues, if need be.
- Visualization of results: Depending on the specific situation of the event, it needs to be evaluated whether a visualization on a pin board in the physical conference room makes more sense, or whether an online whiteboard or similar digital tool should be used. The first option might be more suitable, if the participants on site are expected to provide most of the input, and /or when two cameras are available, so the pin board or flip chart can also be shared with the virtual participants. A digital tool, on the other hand, facilitates the involvement of the virtual participants but may slow down the discussion in the physical meeting room.
- Frequent repetitions and summaries: To ensure a slower pace of discussion and the possibility for everyone to follow what is being said, the moderator(s) should take the time to summarize what is said and allocate additional time for further inquiries. Especially if questions are asked in the meeting room to someone who is participating virtually, a reformulation of the question by the moderator can help to focus the discussion and avoid misunderstandings or uncertainties.
Tools and technical aspects
The technical setup is key to ensuring that virtual participants can play an active role in the event. Therefore, the internet connection, sound and video need to be checked beforehand. Ideally, the event location provides broadband internet, a conference speaker or microphones for the on-site participants, a screen, where the virtual participants are always visible, and a camera with a wide angle and zoom function, so it can show all participants in the room, as well as zoom in on the speaker, if necessary. At least one device – ideally a laptop – is needed to connect the physical and the virtual meeting rooms. For hybrid meetings with a small group assembled in front of one laptop, it might be sufficient to connect a conference microphone to the laptop.
For the visualization, a virtual whiteboard or similar tool may be the most suitable option to enable the active participation of everyone involved and keep the results visible for everyone at all times.
Caution should be taken to avoid interference by several electronic devices in the physical meeting room. It is common that echo and feedback loops cause audio-disturbances if several devices in the same room are connected to the same virtual meeting room. Similarly, the use of portable microphones in the physical meeting room may affect the sound in the virtual room.
Additional information regarding sophisticated hybrid events can be found here (in German only):
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