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Prepare Now for Hybrid Meetings (January 27, 2021 Pooling Perspective)

  

By Ann Gergen, Executive Director

Pools and their members have spent the last year conducting most, if not all, of their operations virtually. As we look ahead, I imagine every pool is looking forward to the return of in-person interaction. 

However, as much as we might wish otherwise, our pre-pandemic professional world is never completely coming back. Pools and public entities will be living with the effects of the COVID-accelerated virtual revolution from here on out.

With that in mind, I’ve been reading a lot lately about hybrid meetings: meetings that blend in-person and virtual participation in a way that creates comparable experiences for all participants.

I’m writing about hybrid meetings this week for two reasons:

  1. You should understand what a hybrid meeting is.

  1. Your pool should be planning for hybrid meetings.

I’m going to address these two points in reverse order. (Especially if your reaction to my second point is “no thanks,” I’ll encourage you to keep reading.) 

2. Start planning now for hybrid meetings.

When I’m reading general interest materials or events industry publications, it’s clear the hybrid meeting trend is real and will be lasting. Hybrid meetings are not merely a coping strategy during pandemic limitations but also an acknowledgment that this is the way the world was already headed. Associations and service entities are planning now for hybrid meetings both large and small – even for after the pandemic.

Yet, when I’m reading emails, questions and comments from member pools, I hear quite a bit of hesitancy around this topic. Here’s a recent chat exchange that took place during a meeting among staff from a few different pools:

We just did our first virtual meeting and took a post-meeting survey. Members almost unanimously preferred a hybrid meeting next year. They liked the virtual platform which allows for more participants.

I know virtual and hybrid is the wave of the future, but I struggle with it. It’s just not the same if we’re not meeting in person.

Agreed, hybrid is challenging. And for me there is truly no substitute for being in-person. I anticipate using a mix of in-person and virtual meetings, but not hybrid.

Is there a platform that will seamlessly facilitate both in-person and virtual participation at the same time? That would be helpful.

This exchange is particularly noteworthy to me because of the flow:

  1. The conversation begins with data about pool members almost unanimously preferring hybrid meetings.

  1. Then a couple people chime in with their personal (antihybrid meeting) preferences.

  1. The conversation ends with wishes for a technology solution that will magically make the whole experience easier.

Though it might not be ideal, personal experiences and preferences are not good reasons to forgo or avoid what members are requesting and what will be the “next normal” for meetings. In fact, near-unanimous preference for hybrid meetings is a consistent finding among all sorts of industries, including pooling. 

Obviously, to effectively conduct a hybrid meeting, you will need to consider the most appropriate technology tools and resources. But deferring hybrid meeting planning as you wait to find the perfect technology or even viewing hybrid meetings as solely a technology project would be a mistake. Hybrid meetings need to be planned and executed based upon member relationship goals with the full support of the technology resources you have, even as you search for additional tech solutions. 

1. Understand hybrid meetings.

Now that we’ve addressed why planning for hybrid meetings is important, let’s talk about how to hold them most effectively.

Having a hybrid meeting does not simply mean streaming an in-person event for online viewing. The goal of a hybrid meeting is to make the experience for those attending in person and those attending virtually as close to the same as possible. 

Let’s say you are having a staff meeting where six people are together in a conference room and four people are participating from their home offices. In a hybrid meeting, you would equalize the experience by setting the meeting up in Zoom (or on your platform of choice) and having all participants, wherever they are, join through their laptops. 

In the conference room, you might use a centralized phone and ask everyone to mute their individual laptop microphones and speakers. But meeting protocols – like using the virtual “raise your hand” button to speak or sharing your screen for documents and slides – will be the same as if you were working with a completely distributed work team.

The folks around the conference table might naturally look at the person in front of them when addressing a direct question rather than at that same person on their screen. But, because everyone still appears together in the gallery and because supporting meeting materials are equally accessible, everyone will still experience the meeting in much the same way regardless of location. 

On a larger scale, a hybrid event like an annual conference or members’ meeting similarly seeks to produce a single event that people anywhere can experience in shared fashion. One easy way to create such a large hybrid experience is to project the keynote on a big screen for in-person attendees and through your online platform for everyone else.  

Concurrent sessions can be a little more tricky. Watching a session streamed online without the ability to ask a real-time question is not the same experience as sitting in a training session and being able to address the presenter directly. 

But, again, there are ways to equalize the experience: Use online materials instead of a projector for presentation slides (in-person attendees can view materials on their laptop or mobile device). While you might stream the session live, ask that all questions be held to the end. For Q&A, project the gallery of online attendees onto the screen in the front of the room, and be sure to train your presenters to take questions from both the online and in-person audiences.  

Lastly, we can all appreciate that “equalizing” the experience for virtual meeting attendees could feel a bit like “lessening” the experience for those attending in person. So it’s important to consider these adaptations as options on a spectrum and find the spot that’s a comfortable fit for your pool (even if it only means moving a notch or two towards increased virtual engagement).

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Whether we like it or not, hybrid meetings are here to stay. By embracing this trend early on and developing plans to meet differing attendee needs, you can find solutions to early problems and ensure your pool’s hybrid meetings meet member expectations.

As pools explore and experiment with hybrid meetings, there will be new ideas about how to facilitate productive engagement for both virtual and in-person participants. If you have insight to share with the community or questions about how to engage your staff and/or membership virtually, contact AGRiP.

FURTHER READING

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Ann Gergen is AGRiP’s executive director and a former pool administrator. She has worked closely with and for pools, public entities, reinsurers and related service providers throughout her career.


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