Hybrid Meetings: When Remote Meets Collocated

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Audacious Salon on Distributed Agile at the Agile 2016 conference in Atlanta. The best part, I didn’t have to take a plane there all the way from London. The worst part, I didn’t collect any business cards and so all contacts with people became ephemeral. Here are some thoughts on the experience. You can also listen to the special 21st Century Work Life podcast here. 

The session, an audacious experiment indeed, was designed by Mark Kilby and Michael Herman. They created an open forum where people sitting at round tables could interact with virtual attendees who were present through the Kubi (an iPad which can rotate and move up and down, allowing you to look around you as well as below and above you) and Sococo (a tool which allows teams and groups to have their very own workspace online, with doors that open and close and a customised office layout).

The aim of the session was to come up with relevant (and provocative) questions around distributed agile that could shape best practice in that space. I am no agile expert, but I understand that the Agile Manifesto insists that you have to meet face to face.

Seeing the way in which we communicate has changed quite a bit since 2001, we should now be able to work out how the core of agile can be adapted to suit a virtual way of working. (Of course, the meaning of “face to face” is changing and you could get around that point by having video meetings…)

Back to our Audacious Salon

The conversation started on a Slack team set up for this experiment. There I found out that there was a Kubi up for grabs. So I hopped on it (all you have to do is follow the link) and found myself at a table with a few people I’d never met before. Using the cursor keys on my keyboard, I looked around the table and found that I was “sitting” next to ten other people! They introduced themselves, I introduced myself, we did some small talk, they took some pictures of me in the Kubi and then… The session started - phew, I’m not very good at small talk…

Meanwhile, a few other people from Virtual Team Talk were gathered in Sococo. By following the chat in the online room, I gathered that there were problems with the sound, there was a lot of background noise (around 45 people in the room) and it was difficult to hear the conversations around them clearly. Looks like I’d done the right thing by hopping on the Kubi, as I could hear those around me perfectly.
The first activity started. Each person had to write their provocative question on a post-it note, and these post-its where then stuck on a flip chart. Following that, we would vote on the questions and then we’d move to another table.

Or at least, that’s what I thought was happening. I was so busy figuring out what was going on in Sococo and moving my Kubi around so I could find the speaker, that I have to admit, I’m not sure I understood the instructions correctly. But for now, a friendly chap (who was also from London!) told me what was going on at the table and asked whether he should write down my questions for me.

I came up with my first “provocative” question (“What’s the point of going distributed?”) but then my mind went blank. When I’m working with others in this way, when I get stuck, I look at what other people have written down to break my “thinkers block” and send me off in some direction, any direction will do. Ah. But I couldn’t read the other post-its.

My buddy (Basil, I think was his name) was kind enough to read the post-its to me and then I was able to fire off a couple more questions.

Voting on the questions that had been stuck to the flip chart was a bit trickier. Even though Basil picked me up (he said it just felt wrong but I gave him persmission) and took me to the flipchart, I still wasn’t able to comfortably read the post-its and so I gave up on voting. That was ok.

The signal came to move onto the next table and activity.

People left my table and for a while, I thought I was on my own. So I popped into Sococo to talk to my other “remote friends”. Mark, overhearing that I had been left with no friends, signaled me to move my Kubi and turn almost right behind me.

Ah, there they were.

Facing them didn’t make much of a difference, because I was completely ignored. In fact, someone was actually right in front of me, masking someone else. I think I just sat there (stood there? beamed in there?) listening for about five minutes before someone actually said, “Hey, you’re here, what do you think?” at which point, not wanting to admit that I hadn’t been listening for the last two minutes and was chatting to my pals in Sococo, I made some generalised comment about the disadvantages of travelling across the world to be together and left it at that.

After that, I was more integrated into the conversation, mainly used as an example of the technology that could solve most of the problems of being dispersed. We talked about the need to have a good broadband connection and decent equipment. And interestingly, one of the group shared:

“I’m struggling with my team, because some are based in remote areas (really ‘remote’, not just connected by tech) and our meetings are quite painful. On the other hand, the CEO and pals have access to the most amazing technology so, for them, getting together is a breeze. They don’t understand what we struggle with.”

By the time we were asked to move on to the third stage of the activity – and to move tables – I’d had enough of being on the Kubi. The background noise of a room buzzing with conversation was too much. Just as I was about to hop off, somebody came an asked me how my gadget worked (when I say ‘my” I mean Revolve Robotic’s) and how I was operating it. He also said he’d seen me in Sococo and was wondering how I managed to be in two places at once. That was nice – a bit of small talk with someone, just like you would expect when attending a conference.

In Summary…

This was a very interesting and valuable experiment. Even though the setting was quite particular, a facilitated discussion with around 45 people, involving quite a bit of idea sharing and moving around the room, it brought up some very common challenges faced by hybrid teams – the most challenging type of team, where some team members are located together in the office while others aren’t.

As particular as this situation might be, it’s not unique and some organisations face the challenge of, “How can we hold a meeting when half of us are in the room and half of the people are participating via some form of tech”? (Indeed, this was a question posed by Patrick in the Virtual Team Talk community.)

Each situation is different so, in the spirit of the Audacious Salon, here are some questions for you – and, ok, some guidelines to help you move towards some sort of answer...

Will we need to capture ideas and if so, how will we do it?

Going back to my post-it experience, having a physical place in the room to capture ideas will leave remote participants feeling isolated. Look for an online post-it tool like Linoit or even Trello. If you’re looking for a whiteboard, try Sketchtogether (whose founders are part of Virtual Team Talk), it’s got room for six little heads to pop up on video too.

Make sure everyone who needs a url has the link to hand before the brainstorming activities start. If you’re facilitating these sessions, don’t be afraid of doing a bit of hand-holding during when you first start to run the activities – just make sure that if you continue running them, the group/team doesn’t rely on you to keep them going.

 

How will we take turns to speak during discussions?

As with most virtual team practice, you might lose some of the spontaneity that makes collaboration fun (for some!). Look for simple rules that will allow people to contribute equally to a conversation. This is good practice in a team anyway – you might just need to keep your eye out more on the quieter participants, which of course, might not just be those looking at you from a screen…

 

How will we make sure we can all hear and see each other?

Here is where you will need more preparation than if you were just meeting with collocated team members. Depending on the room, where will be the best spots to place remote participants? If you have one camera for your whole room, where will you place it? How will you make sure everyone can hear each other?

Again, questions you should be asking yourselves at any team meeting, but the answers might just require a bit more planning in this case.

Finally, and this question goes beyond this one event,

How will we continue collaborating when we can’t all meet together?

This, for me, is the 1,000 dollar question. (Although I’m sure it’s worth much more.)

Collaboration does not mean real-time discussion. Collaboration means coming together to achieve an aim or work towards one goal, and this does not always have to happen synchronously.

So find those tasks you can do separately and decide how you will build on each other’s work. Work out those activities that you can only do when you’re meeting in real time and find substitutes for those tasks that you can contribute to asynchronously. Allocate areas of responsibility, find out what you need to make decisions on your own or in small groups that don’t require you meeting up with the whole group.

Working in a collocated team is difficult enough. Working in a virtual team has some specific challenges. And working in a hybrid team… well, that can result in an “us vs them” mentality that will make our difficulties and challenges even greater.

But there are ways – they will require time, thought, energy and even resources to make them work, but just think of what you will be able to achieve.

Had enough? Thanks for reading! Fancy some more? Listen to this special episode of the 21st Century Work Life podcast, which Pilar recorded straight after the experiment and which includes other thoughts.