In early September, our team scheduled and organized our first in person meetup in Lisbon, Portugal. The initial plan was to gather in person and spend a week together, getting to know each other better and invest time into strengthening our team. However, due to a mix of reasons, from family leave to health, only half of our team was able to attend in person.
I am the Engineering Manager for the Core Foundations team at Buffer, and we build and maintain the core elements for accessing, scheduling, and publishing to your social channels for our web application. Love being able to schedule Instagram Reels? We built that! Getting on board with our new TikTok channel? That’s also on us. Happy that your account is secure from imposters? We do that! We are a team of eight, including five engineers (Arek, Dace, Heather, José, Mick), Product Manager (Amanda), and our Designer (Sofia), and we are located across Europe and the USA. Over half of our team joined since we had to pause our annual retreats in 2020, which means that most of us had never met in person. While we firmly believe that we can do our jobs well remotely, we understand that there is still so much to be gained from meeting in person and naturally forming stronger bonds.
Amanda (our PM) and I were responsible for organizing and facilitating the meetup. Taking into account travel time, we were left with three days of team time. We dedicated one day to sightseeing and two days to have hybrid team sessions which involved everyone’s attendance. I have significant experience designing and facilitating workshops for teams as an Agile coach, which I leaned upon when planning this one. The main difference is that all of my prior workshops have been either fully in person or fully remote. I’ve also worked with globally distributed teams in an organization that had a co-located company HQ office and smaller satellite offices or remote workers. Here I learned about the experiences that people based outside of HQ had in meetings with those co-located — they typically felt excluded. As someone who cares passionately about inclusivity, I took this feedback seriously and did my best to make all environments that I have influence over as inclusive as possible. In the past, I mandated in person workshops and dismissed hybrid options as being too hard. Since that isn’t an option anymore, I have had to learn!
Why hybrid meetups?
Hybrid (a combination of remote and co-located) workplaces have become the new norm as companies transform from the necessary remote working conditions of the pandemic. With over 85% of employees stating that it is their preferred way of working and no productivity reduction, it seems unlikely that this will change. This flexibility has led to employees working from anywhere, which leads to timezone differences. Additionally, business travel has remained less than in pre-pandemic times, with companies wanting to continue to capitalize on the environmental and financial benefits realized during the pandemic and rise of remote collaboration tools, and people’s personal travel preferences changing. Meetings and workshops are still valuable forums for timely collaboration, and so now we must consider how we can make them effective when we can’t have everyone present in person — we have to think, how do we do this hybrid?
What I’ve learned about hybrid facilitation
1. Design the agenda and set up for whoever will find collaboration the most difficult.
When you have co-located and remote people participating in a meeting or workshop, it is hardest for anyone who is remote. Even our team, who are used to working remotely, naturally defaulted to focusing and talking to the people who were present in the room. Therefore, it’s critical to be intentional about designing workshops to be inclusive and to communicate the importance of that to everyone participating.
Some measures that I took were:
- Highlight the situation and stress the importance of ensuring that our remote team member would feel included and able to be heard.
- Create a sense of psychological safety by establishing ground rules at the beginning, including:
- Have a ‘safe word’ to call out if you feel like discussions are going off-track — ours was pineapple.
- Anyone can take a break without having to ask for permission.
- Ask everyone to be fully present (no phones or Slack open) or be upfront with other commitments that would require them to be otherwise.
- As the facilitator, keep track of how often remote joiners are speaking and regularly ask them directly for input - it is also a good idea to make this intention clear from the beginning so that everyone is aware of the situation and also isn’t caught unaware.
- Using the first day to do activities that helped us get to know each other’s personalities better, as we couldn’t rely on social dinners etc., to do that.
- Everyone individually joins the Zoom calls rather than having our co-located group join one.
- Use online tools — more coming on this later!
2. Recording sessions/conversations allowed anyone not attending to still contribute asynchronously.
We had five people in person in Lisbon, two in New York, and one in Ireland — that meant catering for three people joining remotely, and we were spread across two different timezones with a five-hour difference.
We wanted to be respectful of everyone’s working hours i.e., not force everyone in NY to start at 5 am or everyone in Europe to stay until 10 pm. So we broke up the days into two blocks - 10 am-1 pm CEST and 2 pm-6 pm CEST/9 am-1 pm CEST. This fit well around standard meal times and allowed our US teammates to dial in for a full second session. To enable them to participate in content that we discussed in the first session, we recorded them via Zoom and asked them to participate later by watching it and recording their own response, which we could watch later. Because they were in the same timezone, I asked them to do the activities together, which made it a more collaborative half-asynchronous/half-synchronous session.
3. Lean into your online tools
We use Zoom as our standard video conferencing tool and Loom for short messages. Using a digital whiteboard makes collaboration and note-taking simple — we use Miro to do all of our digital brainstorming, and I absolutely love it for its templates, ease of use, and the broad range of features.
While using physical stickies and whiteboards is a lot easier in the moment for those there in person, this was much easier because a) everyone could contribute easily independently (no having to write things down for remote contributors) and b) there was no need to take photos and later digitize them!
Pre-preparing everything in the Miro board (plus a few extra options) made it easier for Amanda and me to collaborate, and I felt more confident about how to facilitate everything on the day
4. Using our own devices set meetings on even ground
Everyone used their own laptops and cameras and joined the Zoom call; even those meeting in person made it feel less ‘me and them’ for anyone joining remotely. The way that we did it was to have one person leave their laptop microphone and speakers on while everyone else muted. Session facilitators shared their screen via Zoom for presentations and discussions, and during activities, everyone worked on the Miro board through their own browsers.
Although the people in the room tended to still face each other when speaking, one remote teammate (Mick) also mentioned that it made it easier to understand conversations when the audio was unclear!
It is easier for people who are present in person to contribute to verbal conversations - directly asking remote joiners for their opinion ensures they get the opportunity.
The mics on our laptops are good at picking up sound but not great — next time, I will bring a conference microphone and speaker! Also, our laptop’s mic/speakers/video weren’t in sync, which wasn’t awful but did make conversations feel disjointed sometimes.
Over to you
Hybrid facilitation is harder than in person, or even fully remote, facilitation, but not impossible! With some intention and clear communication with everyone involved, you can still have effective team workshops and meetings. However, it won’t be the same as a fully in person meetup, and it’s not fair for organizers or the team to claim otherwise. There will still be some elements missing for anyone joining remotely for a meetup like ours — we can’t record every interaction, and conversation that happens and so they miss out on those natural conversations.
Also, any learnings that you get from seeing people in person and their body language that Zoom calls just don’t provide. The main thing to remember is that there is still value in including everyone, and with some consideration, it can bring a lot of value to your team.