Simple Strategies for Your Blended Meetings: When We are Apart, We Can Still Be Together
Well before COVID-19, there were occasions when we all hosted meetings or offered workshops and inevitably there would be at least one person who could not physically attend but wanted to be included. Unfortunately, in many cases the default would be to send along notes or to patch the person in with a conferencing link but without supporting them to participate fully.
As we face an uncertain future related to when, and how, in-person gatherings will return, we thought we would share some strategies we regularly use at the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA) to hold meetings that include both face-to-face and virtual participants. This minimizes anyone feeling left behind, thus supporting a more equitable workplace.
Below we share three types of situations that call for a blended model of engagement and examples of each situation. For each, we offer several simple strategies to keep the meeting or workshop engaging, inclusive, and accessible to all participants.
1) An in-person event with one or a few remote participants
Example: Months of planning went into the National Science Foundation Advisory meeting for the ACRES project. Hotel rooms were booked, meals ordered, and a full and varied agenda was crafted. A few days before the meeting, one advisor broke her ankle and announced she could not attend. The team pivoted immediately and revised our meeting to become a blended experience, with the advisor able to meaningfully engage in all of the large- and small-group aspects of the meeting.
- Give the remote participant a brief virtual tour of the in-person workspace so they get a sense of the space and can put it in context for the other participants.
- If possible, assign an in-person contact for the remote participant. Over the course of the meeting, they can use the private chat feature to make sure the remote participant can hear proceedings and has opportunities to participate in the discussion.
- Focus the camera so that the remote participant can see both the key content being shared and the speaker(s) sharing the content. To increase visibility, consider screen sharing from the presenting computer. Using a table microphone gives the remote person a physical presence in conversations and allows them to hear better.
- Avoid side conversations because they create extra noise for the remote participant who has no stereo cues to separate out conversations in different parts of the room.
- Carry a dedicated laptop or tablet to different locations during breakout groups. This allows the remote person to take part in all discussions, particularly if the device can be placed at eye level with in-person participants.
- Announce a speaking order so that the remote participant knows when they will be able to participate. Avoid having the remote participant always speak last, so they do not feel that their contribution is an afterthought.
2) Meetings where many or most people are offsite
Example: Whether there are 2 or 25 people working offsite, our MMSA staff meetings look and feel basically the same. Remote colleagues are engaged in the agenda because they are collaborating and sharing resources and feedback, having side conversations via chat, and making eye contact with the people speaking. This happens because as soon as one person is remote, all of the staff will join a Zoom meeting and continue along as if everyone is remote.
- Give remote participants the opportunity to make personal eye contact. A wide panoramic view of a room with people around a table makes it hard for remote participants to figure out who is speaking. It is more effective for everyone to join the video conference as individuals, even those in the conference room. You will need to turn off the sound from individual computers to ensure there is no feedback and then identify one person near the center of the room to plug in a table-top microphone to allow everyone to hear the remote participants. We use an inexpensive Jabra Speak USB microphone that has a built-in speaker system.
- Encourage everyone to connect in gallery mode which gives all participants equal status and ensures that nobody is invisible. Swap to speaker mode only if a presenter is physically holding up something that others want to see more closely.
- If two or three participants are sharing a single laptop or phone, use a universal clip-on fish-eye lens (shown in pink) to let everyone be seen easily without having to crush together. These cost only a few dollars and all of our staff carry one with them.
- Encourage participants to rename themselves with their first names and gender identities (e.g. Perrin, she/her) to allow others to easily and respectfully refer to them and their comments during the conversation.
- Encourage everyone to use the chat feature and not just for whole group chats. Occasional private comments make people feel connected and keep them engaged, particularly if they are offsite.
- If you are using breakout rooms, ensure that people in the same physical space are in the same breakout room, and put virtual people in a virtual breakout room. This simplifies audio issues.
- For easy documentation, use a shared document or slide to collect and encourage group members to record discussion points as they go. If each group has their own slide, information will be easy to find, edit, and access.
3) Large events involving groups of people at remote satellite sites
Example: The Maine Curriculum Leaders Association approached MMSA in the fall of 2019 with a conundrum. A large event was scheduled to occur in Portland, Maine, and there were educators in other parts of the state who wanted to attend but distance prevented this from being economical and practical. The in-person event was reimagined to include two remote sites. Over the course of the six-hour professional development session, there were presentations on content, opportunities to do small group work, networking over lunch, and hands-on activities.
- Plan to have at least one point person at each site to facilitate discussion, hand out materials, and troubleshoot tech issues.
- Share cell phone numbers between point people. This ensures efficient communication for troubleshooting without interrupting the meeting since Zoom chats do not support small-group messaging.
- Design activities that can be done in parallel and share images after the activity or use a platform like Google Jamboard to showcase work at different sites.
- Send materials well ahead of time.
- Plan breaks and meals to occur at similar times.
- Consider using a high-tech video device, such as an Owl or Swivl, which follows the speaker and has a microphone built into the 360-degree camera.
- Change your video background to something with your company’s logo to help participants identify, at a glance, who the presenter and the tech support people are. You can rename someone “Tech support - Anna” for extra clarity.
We all look forward to the day that we will be able to gather in-person for regular meetings and workshops again. Even so, it seems unlikely that workplaces will ever be fully in-person or fully virtual in a post-pandemic world. Anticipating and planning for the various virtual and in-person combinations we may encounter, will help us all to structure engaging and accessible events that encourage all participants to contribute in meaningful and equitable ways.
For additional strategies, opportunities to experience meetings like these, and coaching or consultation on how to incorporate these strategies in your work, please reach out to MMSA.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713134. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.