Through the medium of this blog, I am working aloud on compiling best practices for making Hybrid Workplaces more inclusive and participative especially during events and large meetings. As much as it is a work in progress, it is steeped in firsthand experiences and is right up the alley of Samoa AccLab’s mandate on digital transformation.
COVID-19 has not only changed how we work, but it has also changed how we, as a people, are engaging with each other. The Samoa Accelerator Lab was established one year after COVID-19 spread, and encompasses a core team of three. Through this blog, I am sharing my perspective as the team member working remotely from India and how my colleagues supported me in this journey which not only created a great dynamic, collaborative environment for the three of us, but also upped our skills in digital facilitation that we can offer to our MCO and partners.
A hybrid workplace is a flexible workplace model designed to support a distributed workforce of both in-office and remote workers. Though this working style has been around for quite some time, I never really gave it much thought until the ongoing pandemic thwarted all my travel plans to Samoa and pushed us into an unknown territory where all our meetings and events had both virtual and in-person collaborations.
While across the world organizations are forced to adapt to remote working, Samoa is one of a few places in the world that still remains COVID-free, and my colleagues in Samoa continue to come to the office and meet in-person. However, the increasing number of colleagues (including me) who are currently not in Samoa, need to connect and work remotely. This is even more challenging when our time zones are vastly different.
As AccLab started organizing activities that had both in-person and virtual participants, we went through an interesting and transformative learning experience. This learning experience consisted of realizing the nuances of organizing hybrid events. To begin with, we first had to adapt our team workplace into a hybrid workplace. This also included how we designed our meetings and events. The Samoa AccLab has not only transformed its team dynamics into a hybrid workplace, but we also now conduct hybrid meetings and events as part of the AccLab service delivery. Our first task was to design sessions for the Annual Staff retreat where we also experimented with a mini portfolio sensemaking exercise.
This event was primarily designed as an in-person event with a zoom link for staff working remotely to tune into. While our AccLab team handled the design and facilitation of these events, it did not cross our minds that we were all doing the bare minimum to be digitally inclusive.
As a workshop designer and facilitator, I always emphasize inclusion, and yet I had limited participation in my own design. While we as a team were able to navigate and come to a solution on how we could work together as the AccLab by creating our hybrid workplace, this was not the case for our supposed hybrid events. This experience made us realize that we needed to do something different to create spaces that gives equal opportunities to all participants.
Being designers, facilitators, and participants of an event at the same time is a rare opportunity and AccLab embarked on a journey of designing and facilitating digitally inclusive sessions.
AccLab Facilitating a hybrid brainstorming session with Maria Bernard taking a lead in integrating the good old brainstorming on white board within the hybrid setting.
Since our first facilitation session in March, we have carried out a variety of sessions like the Hackathon, Innovation Day, Experiment Design, Brain-storming and ideating sessions, Mid Term review for different UNDP Units, etc. Based on our experiences, we have created the checklist below with some easy practical tips for organizing and facilitating inclusive hybrid events/ meetings:
1. Define Hybridity to fit your dynamics
- How is the team/office split in between in-person and virtual?
- How should we schedule in-person, virtual or hybrid meetings etc.?
2. Before the event/meeting
- Make digital inclusiveness as a success indicator: We achieve what we intend. In-person participation demands attention and energy of the facilitator and so does virtual participation. But since we are still new to this novel Hybrid Event format, and the majority of our participants are in-person, most of our attention and intention goes towards enhancing the in-person participants experience and unfortunately the virtual participation gets limited to organizing a parallel zoom call. Once we include digital inclusiveness as a key success indicator, we are bound to be more creative and intentional about it.
- Inclusive tech interface: Internet connection, cameras, screens, and microphones are already part of most of the conference rooms/events preparation. We need to focus on how these can be used to ensure the virtual participants can be heard and seen and can have a conversation with the folks present physically at the event/ meeting. Here is a quick checklist on what to arrange for your next hybrid meeting.
- Technology Introduction: There has been a marked increase in tech skills and tech adaptation among the workforce. But assuming that everyone will be up-to-date or aware of the tech we would be using during our meeting could limit our colleague's ability to participate. Sharing a list of collaboration tools/tech to be used during the session ahead of the scheduled meeting/event can give our colleagues a chance to familiarize themselves with the tech and be more prepared for the meeting/event.
- Digital Inclusivity In-Charge: Almost always, events do have a tech support team/person who ensures a tech-glitch free event. This person or someone else can be empowered and put in charge to ensure virtual participants are heard and engaged in real time. He/she/they can also support the facilitator in ensuring all voices are heard.
- Inclusive event/ session design: There is a significant improvement in tools that can enhance virtual collaboration. While designing event activities, be mindful to create a virtual collaborative space as well where virtual participants can bring forth their ideas. During group discussions, ensure these ideas are also discussed.
3. During the event/meetings:
- A quick virtual tour of the room – Even virtual participants need some settling into the venue in Hybrid Events. A virtual tour, maybe by just using a phone camera, can help virtual participants understand the space and dynamics, thereby increasing participation. Usually remote participants are left wondering – Am I visible to in-person participants? If yes, how big is the screen? Can they hear me? Etc. It also makes participants unsure of how to engage – should I wave? Should I say something? Understanding the room, how participants are visible, can ease the tension especially when events are more formal in nature.
- Structured time for meeting and greeting with the virtual participants – We have evolved to meet in-person. It comes naturally to us but by meeting virtually, we are hacking into our evolutional journey. This needs special attention. So, while it is easier to meet those present in-person, by design, we need to create time for meeting and greeting with the virtual participants.
- Adept use of remote collaborating tools for all - This has been a game changer. In our hybrid sessions we have moved from sticky notes on walls to virtual boards like Mural and Miro for all the participants. This unintentionally solved another problem we often face during in-person meetings – How to contain the more outspoken ones so that the quiet ones can be heard or break the hierarchy in communication. These virtual collaboration boards give an equal opportunity to both in-person and virtual participants to contribute and collaborate.
- Space to take questions/ suggestions from the virtual audience: Just remember to do this. It is empowering to know that one is heard, and we get to include wisdom of more people. Take help from the Inclusivity In-Charge and demonstrate that awesome teamwork!
- Making sessions personal – It is always those special little things that can increase the wow quotient. Gestures like including virtual participants in the photographs, chatting with them during coffee – networking sessions, sharing a virtual background template resembling event venue, having a common dress code, etc. can create a sense of belonging and joy of connection.
- Record the session – After all, this is the biggest luxury of the digital world and share with the participants. This could be tremendously helpful for those who are in different time zones or faced tech issues during the session.
4. After the event:
- Post Event/ Meeting Feedback: Feedback is essential for growth. Remember to take feedback from the virtual participants as well. Share recorded sessions with all the participants
- Post event connections: Especially post events, encourage and ease participants to connect on professional platforms like LinkedIn and continue the conversation/ connection.
These are some simple tips. By incorporating these, we at AccLab, have been able to move forward with our digital transformation mandate, making our workplace more inclusive.
Though we are hopeful that we will leave the current pandemic behind soon, our experience has made two things clear: First, the world will become more remote and distributed forever, and second, this new world will continue needing high-quality virtual experiences to keep us connected.
This has made us more open to possibilities and opportunities for how a hybrid-style of working can be unleashed especially in the context of geographically remote countries like Samoa.
This period has presented us with an opportunity to improve our meetings design, facilitation, and participation skills so that we can leverage this and connect more profoundly with our colleagues and the people we serve in the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau, and our partners globally.
We are proud of our success so far as we continue to grow. This blog started with one heads-up – it is work in progress with thinking aloud. If you have ideas on making Hybrid Workplaces digitally inclusive, do let us know. We would love to learn from you.