A year ago, most of us with office jobs were all virtual, all the time. And as much as that may have felt disconnected, tiring, or unsatisfying, at least we were all in the same boat.
Well, that ship has sailed for many of us. As our workplaces return to the next normal, we need to tackle working in hybrid teams and groups. A recent Global Workforce Survey predicts that a staggering 98% of meetings will include at least one remote participant. This makes facilitating meetings more challenging. When everyone’s in the same room or everyone’s remote, facilitating a meeting can be more inclusive and straightforward. But when you’re facilitating a hybrid meeting where you have some remote participants while others are physically present together, you need additional strategies to keep everyone engaged and the meeting on track.
One key strategy is to anticipate and check the biases that can derail a hybrid meeting. (Think you’re not biased? You’re probably deluded by what Yale psychologist David Armor calls the “illusion of objectivity” where we think we are more objective, more even-handed, more insightful, and less biased than we really are.)
Biases impact how we see people and situations; how we behave toward, and react to, those people and situations; what we pay attention to and what we ignore; and much more. In hybrid meetings, these biases can make some people feel more or less included, make some topics feel more or less important than they deserve to be, and can set the tone for how well or poorly this new world of work will roll out.
Here are five biases to check in yourself before your next internal or external hybrid meeting, and what to do about them:
This is where we demonstrate a preference for those who are physically close to you. In a hybrid meeting, this can mean that, if you’re attending live in-person, you may unconsciously favor those who are in-person just like you, as opposed to those who are participating over video. You might call on them more frequently, or answer their questions more quickly, or engage in other unconscious behaviors that make your group feel like the “in group”, while the other is the “out group.”
How to mitigate this: While you may not be able to change your unconscious preference for those who are physically closer, you can bring more people into that group by actively seeking out other similarities with them. So, rather than thinking of your colleagues meeting participants as “in the room” or “virtual,” focus on the goals, values, experiences, and preferences that you share with the out group. As social psychologist Heidi Grant and neuroscientist David Rock write, “this causes the brain to recategorize these individuals and thus create a more level playing field.” You should also remind yourself—and the group—that everyone has something meaningful to contribute, regardless of location.
We often have a preference for quick decisions and actions, rather than taking the time to get more clarity and understanding. In a hybrid meeting, this can mean that you make decisions based on the perspectives of those who can communicate more quickly and easily (which may be the people in the room, rather than those who are trying to raise their hands or interrupt virtually.) Expedience bias will also emerge when people are in a hurry or feeling cognitively depleted—two hallmarks of many meetings.
How to mitigate this: If there are critical factors to consider before an important decision is made, leverage asynchronous work time before the meeting. Send materials in advance of the meeting, and let participants know that they will need to set aside time to review it, so that their input can be considered. Positively reinforce this by not taking time to cover that material in the meeting—it sends the message that it should have been handled in advance.
In the meeting, if something requires careful consideration, give participants, for example, 10 minutes to write down their thoughts and questions before you will open up the discussion. This slows down the process for everyone, and levels the contribution playing field. Finally, take a break in your meeting to mitigate cognitive overload.
Have you ever been in a meeting and thought to yourself, “I can predict what Avi is going to say. We’ve worked together for a decade!” Then you know this bias already. We tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our communication when we’re engaging with someone we feel we know. We assume that people who are close to us will easily know what we mean; whereas, we explain or listen more precisely when communicating with strangers.
For a hybrid meeting, this can mean that we often assume a shared perspective from those we are physically and/or emotionally close to. As a result, we don’t listen to them as much, and we don’t ask deeper and more clarifying questions because we “already know” what they think.
How to mitigate this: Commit to really listening, especially to colleagues whose answers and opinions you believe you can predict. Practice the skill of “looping” to confirm that you are truly understanding the other person, rather than assuming their message. It can sound like this: “Avi, it sounds like you’re saying we should do some more stakeholder interviews before moving ahead, is that right?” And then be attentive to Avi’s response.
It’s not just helpful to Avi to feel heard and validated, it’s helpful to your relationship to show Avi you care enough to listen and learn something new about him. It’s also helpful to the rest of the group to mitigate the out-group bias people might experience since you and Avi have known each other for so long.
This is the tendency of groups and teams to give a disproportionate amount of attention to trivial issues (such as “what color should we paint the bike shed?”) rather than on challenging, complex, and important issues (such as “how are we going to get people to start riding their bikes to work to reduce carbon emissions?”). Because hybrid meetings can be challenging to lead and participate in, our efforts to be inclusive can lead us to invite more opinions than we need to or should on simple topics, and postpone or avoid those that require meaningful and complex debate. It’s a type of procrastination, which can make hybrid meetings less productive and more frustrating.
How to mitigate this: Create a bike-shedding-resistant agenda. The agenda for your meeting should include the specific topics for discussion, the questions that need resolving, the decisions that need to be made—and the amount of time allotted for each section. This agenda should be circulated in advance of the meeting, and you should request that any changes be suggested in advance of the meeting. (That will also mitigate bike-shedding about the agenda during the meeting, which can take away precious time and energy needed to do the work of the meeting.)
If, during the meeting, the discussion moves to something not on the agenda, put it in either a “short-term parking lot” (meaning, you’ll get back to it in today’s meeting, or soon thereafter), or a “long-term parking lot” (where you’ll revisit the topic down the road or in a subsequent meeting).
Hybrid meeting stink, right? If you agree, you’re not alone—and you might have just activated your confirmation bias. This is our tendency to search for, interpret, and prefer information that confirms or supports what we already believe. In a hybrid meeting, this can show up if we believe, for example, that “virtual participants are less engaged.”
Once we have that belief, we will seek out evidence that confirms it, such as seeing someone with their video off. This can then lead to the “Golem Effect,” where our low expectations of participation or performance actually leads to low participation or performance. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How to mitigate this: Prove yourself wrong. Actively seek out information that is counterintuitive, contradictory, or outside of your comfort zone, and be willing to consider new evidence. And you don’t have to do this alone. Invite others to join you. For example, hold a group discussion on this topic: “Virtual participants can be more engaged than those in the room. How so?” See what answers emerge, and run an experiment where you look for evidence to confirm that these perspectives can be true, also.