In a workshop I led this week, the conversation turned to the challenge of hybrid interactions, when you have some people in person and some virtual, or some on-camera and others audio only.
It’s worth repeating that we understand each other best in person. Communication is easiest and most efficient when the people talking are in the same physical place.
Once we start moving to virtual communication, complexity mounts. And when different people are using different modes in the same conversation, the chance that miscommunication will happen is extremely high.
Let’s imagine a meeting that’s being held via Zoom or WebEx. The team that regularly meets at this time is used to meeting with cameras on, so that’s what they do. The boss’s boss, who is dropping in, does not turn his camera on. He kicks off the meeting by asking for an update on an important project.
The team leader can see her colleagues, but she can’t see her boss. As the team diligently updates the boss, she is preoccupied by the fact that she doesn’t know whether he wants to speak. At one point, he comes off mute and she pauses, thinking he’ll respond, only to hear the sound of his keyboard clacking away. Her team members hear it too, and one person rolls her eyes.
Now the leader remembers that, even though the boss’s camera is off, he can still see them, and she’s worried that he caught the eye roll. She quickly asks her boss if he’d like to chime in. After a moment, he asks a question that makes it clear that he wasn’t listening to the update.
If you’re a member of this team, you may be thinking at this point that the boss’s boss isn’t really that invested in how this project is going, and you probably don’t feel supported. The hybrid model of this meeting bears a lot of the blame for this. If everyone were on camera, or everyone was on the phone, there would be a common understanding and protocol for who speaks, how they identify themselves, and how turn-taking works. Everyone in the meeting would be on the same footing. Multitasking would be limited since more people could feel invested.
Our brains work best when they can concentrate on one thing at a time. Hybrid meetings give us more variables to consider, and this makes it tough to communicate clearly. The subconscious monitoring of the room we would be doing easily if we were in person is now a dashboard of lights, sounds, and signals we must make decisions about in real time. It’s no wonder that we’re tired after a day of meetings!
So what can you do? First, of course, do what you can to get everyone interacting in the same way. If you can’t do that, take a few moments to state how you’ll run the meeting, taking everyone’s preferences into account. For example, you could ask that people who aren’t turning their cameras on use the “raise hand” emoji to indicate that they’d like to speak, or to put their thoughts in the chat.
Establishing the structure of your interaction up front will allow you to focus on how you communicate and connect, and leave less to chance.