Facilitating “Hybrid” Online Groups
Hybrid online groups include some people connecting to an online meeting as individuals and some people connecting as a group (or groups) together in person. Hybrid spaces offer the benefits of in-person connection for those together and incorporate some advantages of online, like increasing access across geography, class, health, ability, caretaker status, incarceration, etc.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR HYBRID GROUPS
Hybrid facilitation is more complex for both facilitators and participants than meeting exclusively in person or online. Consider the following for more successful hybrid spaces:
Same experience or different? Envision your hybrid gathering from the perspective of both in-person and online participants. Do you want online and in-person participants to have a comparable experience? The same level of input? Meet the same objectives? If you’re planning for different “tiers” of experience, communicate expectations clearly to participants.
Imbalances that impact hybrid groups: Small factors can make a big impact on the group experience, i.e. how the facilitator is connected, whether participants share out loud or via chat, who has access to the mouse or keyboard, who’s close to the camera or microphone. This means particular attention needs to be given to the tech set up. To balance access, you’ll need new forms of engagement.
Power and group dynamics: Group dynamics and power imbalances can shift unexpectedly or become more extreme when your group is divided between those in rooms together and those on their own. Consider: How many people are connecting individually versus in groups? How many different groups are connected? Do any of the groups connecting together already have some rank or power, i.e. managers connecting as a group in person with organizers/staff connecting individually, online?
Mental load: Online facilitation already brings a higher mental load vs. in person. Online, you read the chat, share slides, track people toggling video and audio…all as you focus on your goals! With hybrid facilitation, this load is even bigger; you have to track both individual and group nonverbal communication, and manage more complex participation, overall.
Give time for planning, tech setup and making adjustments: Having a successful hybrid meeting or training will take more time (and often more money) than exclusively in-person or online. Your tech set-up can make or break your gathering, so make time in advance to set up and test cameras, microphones, speakers, etc. where people will gather together. Test the setup from the perspective of all the participants: can those online hear and see those in person and vice versa? Plan for time at the beginning of your session to ensure everything is working and leave some buffer in your agenda for adjustments along the way.
Asynchronous strategies: Get the most out of your hybrid group time by doing as much work as you can asynchronously. For example, gather input through polls and surveys before or after a gathering, or take advantage of videos and transcripts to share information. This allows people to process at their best time and pace, as well. Prioritize using your live connection time for networking and engagement rather than information sharing.
Tip 1: Support participants across formats to experience each other
Before your meeting or training even begins, take steps to help participants see, hear, and experience each other as much as possible. For example:
Set up cameras so more people can be seen: For in-person groups, set up their camera and the seating in the room so that as many people are seen as large as possible. Place the camera below the screen where online participants are seen, so that it will be as close as possible to eye contact when they look at the online participants. For larger groups (and if bandwidth allows) you may want to have more than one device connected for multiple views of the group or pass around a device with a camera to whoever is speaking in addition to one camera taking in the full room. Some cameras automatically move to focus on whoever is talking (note that this can make some people sick). DIAGRAM: Example Room Setup for Hybrid Meeting.
Set up microphones so more people can be heard: For a room with a group of people in it, make sure the device you are using for the microphone allows everyone to be heard (ideally at a similar volume to the online participants). If the group is too large for a stationary microphone to cover everyone, try using a microphone that you can pass around, like a bluetooth microphone or a phone connected to the web conference for audio only. Test your set-up. You may have to use multiple devices and watch which ones are muted or unmuted, etc. to make sure everyone can be heard and there is no painful audio feedback.
Rename groups on screen: In the web conferencing software, rename each “participant” that is actually a group of participants so that it includes the names of all the people in that group, in the order they are sitting in their room.
Write names in the room: If the names of the people connecting individually are too small to see on screen for those connecting as a group, have someone write the names of the people connecting individually up on a whiteboard or chart paper in their room. You can also use something as an “avatar” for remote participants. For example, 350.org used stuffed animals sitting in chairs in the in-person meeting space at a hybrid retreat. Each stuffed animal wore a name tag with the name of a remote participant and represented them in the space.
Use the “Circle Up” tool to put all participants around one big virtual circle. Ask participants to draw this circle on their own paper while you screen share a slide version. For in-person groups, put them near each other on the circle, sitting in the same order they are sitting in their room on camera. Throughout the session, both you and participants can use this as a reminder of who is “in the room”. See below for more ways to use this.
Example of a “Circle Up” slide. In this example, the red labeled people joined as a group, the blue labeled people joined as a group, and gray labeled people joined on their own.
Tip 2: Track participation
Keeping a record of who’s participating and how often helps you notice group dynamics or power imbalances, track learning and engagement, and make sure that any decision-making represents the whole group. One way to do this is to create your own “Circle Up” drawing of the group on paper in front of you, and mark a little check next to someone whenever they speak.
Tip 3: Connect people across formats
One of the biggest challenges we hear from hybrid facilitators is engagement across connection formats. There are a variety of ways to bridge the divide:
Continually draw the group’s attention to each other: For example, if you’re facilitating from an in-person room with participants online, direct your body toward the camera/screen regularly when asking questions, make regular eye contact with those connecting remotely, call on people by name, and verbalize the non-verbal signals you see remote participants make on camera. Similarly, if you’re connected on your own device and there is a group connected, engage different members of that group by name and verbalize what you are seeing happening in that group.
Offer different ways to get your voice in: Different methods (sharing in chat, speaking out loud, raising hand to be recognized, etc.) will work better based on each person’s needs, communication style, and whether they are connected individually or with a group. Throughout your session, make sure everyone knows how they can get their voice into the room.
Share chat out loud: If only people connecting individually are using the chat box, they can end up in side conversations or have their voices lost in the full group. It helps participants hear and be heard by each other to have the facilitator or a representative for the online folks lift up out loud what is being shared in the chat box.
Go around: Once you have used the “Circle Up” tool (above) to place all participants around a circle, use the circle as an order to have everyone share during the session, i.e. for intros, to make a decision, or to take a quick poll.
Choose who is next: With this format, you ask a question and invite one person to volunteer to go first, then they choose who goes next to share. After the second person answers, they choose who goes next and so on until everyone has shared. This is a great way to get people listening to and tracking who has shared, even if they are not in the same room. Using this early and often helps set the expectation of communicating across connection methods. If participants are struggling with the names of other people in the group, encourage them to use the “Circle Up” tool, the names on screen, or names posted up in their room (see “Help participants see each other”).
Polling: Making sure silence isn’t assumed to mean agreement is especially important in hybrid groups. There are various polling tools you can use to get a quick read of the group. In a hybrid group, different people might respond in different ways, for example using chat or raising their hands or a number of fingers on camera. If you can’t see clearly the hand-raise responses from a group connecting together, ask one person in that group to tell you the count in their room.
Invite people to share out loud: It’s common in hybrid spaces that some participants connected from their own device share only in the chat box. If this happens, read out a chat message from a participant, and invite them to come off mute to answer a follow-up question. You can also switch to a go-around where you ask each person to share out loud. Once someone’s voice is heard in the full room they are more likely to share out loud later on. Some hybrid groups set a norm of “online first” where those connecting online have the first opportunity to answer (in chat or out loud).
Share visuals in the online space: Sharing visuals or lists with an online platform equalizes access. For example, if the group brainstorms a list together, create the list on a slide or shared online document and screen share. Both participants connecting individually and as a group will see it on screen.
Include solo time, breaks, and small groups: Use journaling, guided visualizations, body breaks, and breakout groups to give time away from the full-group space. The easiest way to do breakouts is for in-person groups to form small groups with one another. To blend breakout groups across formats, people can call each other on the phone, or connect to the conference software and breakout with a personal device. Hybrid breakouts bring complexity – be sure to plan ahead around breakout format, devices needed, meeting spaces, etc.
Tip 4: Line up support roles
As much as possible, when facilitating a hybrid group, get others to help you out. Here are some roles and tasks you could ask for help with:
Tech support: It’s very helpful, when you have a large group in-person, to have someone dedicated to making sure people online and in person can see each other. They should do sound and visual checks at the beginning of your session, notice participation, and troubleshoot along the way.
In-room advocate for online folks: When the facilitator is in the room with a group of people, it’s especially helpful to have someone else in-person whose role it is to support online participants. This person should sign on with their own device to the web conferencing software (not the same computer being used for the microphone, web camera, or projection). This advocate monitors the chat to communicate with online participants. They help lift up needs or questions from the online participants to the in-person group/facilitator, like, “we are having problems hearing the people in the back of the room.” They also narrate to online participants, like, “everyone is coming back from break in a few minutes” or “everyone in the room is nodding in agreement.”
In-room assistant facilitator: When the facilitator is connecting from their own device and there is a large group in one room together, it’s helpful to have someone with the in-person group to assist the facilitator. This person should log in on their own device and keep their attention on the chat box. Much like the in-room advocate role above, this point person lets the facilitator know what’s going on in the room. They also help the facilitator get people in and out of breakout rooms and breaks, support tech adjustments, and track less visible participants to make sure they can get their voice in.
Vibes watcher: A participant or co-facilitator can help you track participation using the circle up tool or another method. They can alert you if participation is unbalanced, if there’s someone you haven’t heard from, or with other dynamics they notice.
By Jeanne Rewa, 2023