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Managing Alliance Meetings in a Hybrid Environment

Hybrid Board Meeting

As summer turns to fall, many people were hoping to return to their offices and meet with their alliance teams and partners, holding governance meetings in-person. Some are and some aren’t. Some companies aren’t allowing travel until at least 2022. A recent McKinsey survey found that “90% of organizations will adopt a combination of remote and on-site work as they emerge from Covid restrictions.”[1] The upshot is that alliance professionals will find themselves having to design, organize, and facilitate important meetings that may be in-person (likely with face masks), completely remote, or somewhere in between—a hybrid. Each requires something a little different to be successful, with the hybrid meeting the most challenging to get right. Fortunately, there have been a lot of learnings over the past 18 months on how to have effective remote meetings. We need to apply those learnings to what we know about having productive alliance meetings and create a new template to drive success in a hybrid environment.

Hybrid meetings are not new—remember the Polycom on the conference room table with someone on the other end, frequently overlooked? What is new for meeting facilitators is managing the transition from everyone being in the room or everyone remotely connecting from individual devices to having some people together—perhaps in multiple small groups, others online, and the regular use of collaboration technologies instead of teleconferences. People are finding that to make a hybrid meeting work well, it should be an online meeting, with everyone, even people in the same room, communicating through their devices and using online tools to display content and capture discussion.

Challenges and Benefits of Hybrid Alliance Meetings

Hybrid meetings emphasize the challenges present in any meeting format including:

  • Power imbalances – It is still easy for people physically together to dominate the meeting, although technology can come to the aid of the facilitator
  • Logistical/technical complications – Even large companies are finding their meeting room technology isn’t as good as it needs to be and the technology is not as intuitive as it seems
  • Cost of emotional labor – “Zoom fatigue” is real. It requires more focus and attention to participate and keep track of an online meeting. If you are the facilitator, the difficulty and complexity of the moving parts you must manage is exponentially greater than an in-person meeting and a magnitude above that of a fully remote meeting

At the same time, hybrid meetings provide a number of benefits, including:

  • Inclusiveness – Without the time and expense of travel, it is easier to ensure relevant colleagues are included, although managing global time zones often mean someone is participating very early or very late in their day
  • Richness of media – The addition of video, the use of online collaborative tools including breakout rooms, automated whiteboards, documents multiple people can access in real time, just to mention a few, creates a much more engaging experience than a conference call with a shared slide deck
  • The end of multitasking – Well, maybe not. We thought people wouldn’t multitask if you could see them doing so. We’re finding out that for some people the video does keep them focused; others are ignoring requests for “cameras on” and dividing their attention

Contrasting the characteristics of in-person with hybrid meetings highlights a number of key differences:In person / hybrid meeting comparison chart

While there are key differences between in-person and hybrid meeting, traditional good meeting practices still apply and, in fact, are more important than ever. This means properly designing and preparing the meeting; timely circulating collaboratively prepared agendas and prereads, and importantly, being familiar with and checking the technologies you will use. Check the technology from the perspective of each way participants will engage. In a recent workshop, an alliance professional told us how happy she was with the way the technology in the room she was in was working—only to get a barrage of complaints from remote participants who couldn’t see the faces of anyone in the room or make out who was speaking!

During the meeting there are many tasks for the facilitator to execute. First, ensure all participants have the opportunity to engage. Also, keep in mind the important role in-person alliance meetings have in building relationships. Open the room and encourage people to come early for some small talk and non-business catchup. It is also not a bad idea to have a scheduled ice-breaker virtual hallway chat, coffee-over-breakfast networking, or even a Zoom cocktail hour to help build relationships, especially if you have new members on your governance committee or your alliance is new during the pandemic.

Also, be certain to start and end on time. [2] Most executives are tightly scheduled—even more so than they were before COVID. Afterall, no one has to walk from building-to-building for their next meeting!

Practices to Help Your Hybrid Meeting be a Success

In addition to basic good meeting practices, there are a number of practices that are essential in a hybrid meeting. Here are but a few of the most impactful.

  • Team agreement – Similar to a charter, it is essential that everyone in a regularly scheduled alliance meeting, be it a project team, internal alignment, or a governance meeting, agree to a series of simple, obvious, but critical protocols to help the meeting be successful in a hybrid environment. One of the most important protocols is that the participants give the alliance professionals permission to discretely call out behavior that is distracting to the rest of the meeting participants or interfering with achieving a successful outcome
  • Cameras on – The lens keeps people in the meeting and provides some limited visual clues. Train people in speaking to the camera, not the screen. This is harder to do than one might think, but the only way to mimic in-person eye contact
  • Leverage the technology – Learn to use chat, polling, breakout rooms, virtual whiteboards, and other collaborative tools to have people physically doing things, creating a richer experience, and keeping them engaged
  • High-quality audio – Can you hear me now? As important as video is, clear audio is essential. Prioritize any tech investment in audio first
  • Display remote participants – If you have some people gathered and some people remote, have a big screen with the remote participants displayed in a way that everyone in the room can see them
  • Equalize engagement – Bring remote participants into the conversation first; use a “seating chart” to keep track of who speaks and call on those who don’t. For the facilitator, having a visual of who is where is especially helpful if there are multiple locations with more than one participant. Just remember the arrangement of the video boxes will change as people engage
  • Minimize slide use – Slide share is important to guide the discussion, but can force people off the screen. Share a few slides then stop sharing during discussions so that people can have the gallery full-screen. Don’t assume people have multiple screens
  • Keep it short – COVID has made many meetings shorter. Don’t fall into default calendar settings. Think a 50-minute hour and 25-minute half-hour. While some governance meetings have kept to the traditional quarterly, half-to-full-day meetings, many of our clients are finding they are better off scheduling more frequent, but shorter meetings, especially in times of high activity
  • Have a tech buddy – It is essential to have a “producer” who keeps an eye on the technology and participants’ engagement so that the facilitator can focus on the meeting. Have a private chat backchannel open with your tech buddy to handle the inevitable issues

You’re Not Alone

You have always worked closely with your alliance management counterpart to manage governance meetings. Perhaps you discussed how you would work together to manage governance during the startup process. Maybe you touched upon it as everything went remote. Now that the near future seems more and more likely to be hybrid, work with your counterpart to establish specific hybrid meeting protocols for your alliance (the team agreement) and be very specific as to how you will work together to manage these types of meetings. There is more to it than one person presenting and managing the agenda and the other developing the minutes! Together, you have the opportunity to realize the benefits of hybrid meetings to create a more effective and efficient alliance, while adopting practices to manage the challenges of hybrid meetings.

[1] Andrea Alexander, Rich Cracknell, Aaron De Smet, Meredith Langstaff, Mihir Mysore and Dan Ravid, “What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work”, McKinsey & Company, May 2021.
[2] Meetings that start late are 10% to 50% worse than those that start on time. Allen, Lehmann-Willenbrock, and Rogelberg, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2018

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