In the summer of 2021, I had the pleasure of attending a hybrid congress in Berlin: Die Grünen were kicking off their election campaign. The highlight of that day was to see Robert Harbeck speak, only a few meters away, of democracy and freedom for Eastern Europe. The speakers in the room stood to the right of a huge screen, as well as further back at a podium, and alternated with speakers joining the conference online, either in prerecorded videos or live, via teleconferencing software. The messaging by this wide assortment of people was absolutely seamless. It was exciting to actually be there, to see the many hands at work that were making this event possible. Because it really does take a lot of effort to be so professional and yet so accessible.
Making events hybrid has become the new normal since the pandemic. And this is increasingly also moving the goal posts in training. My clients in academia and in company either request or are pleased that our course sessions will allow for presence, online and hybrid formats, often in combination. So how is that working out so far? I’d like to tell you about two recent experiences.
In early September, I had some 20 participants online and 25 more in the room for a two-day course. This was during the early weeks of an international Masters’s course, and many of the participants based in countries not included in the Schengen Agreement were still waiting to receive their visas to enter Germany. Now, we knew in advance that those online would need special support and still not have equal access to the course. So we took some precautions: We handed around a microphone, so that when those in the room spoke, those online could hear them. Unfortunately, the reverse didn’t always work as well: We didn’t always hear the online speakers very well due to a range of technical problems. Another precaution was to take turns addressing the group in the room and those online when asking for their participation. The online attendees worked in breakouts with each other, while their counterparts in the room worked in physical groups.
We conducted surveys in Mentimeter, which an assistant handled with aplomb, a great way to enable the whole class to participate in the plenary on equal footing. My helpmate also monitored the online groups and made sure they were still onboard. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really support the online groups like the ones in the room, and I felt that the online groups were being short-changed. Also, when those online were invited to contribute their group results, they had technical challenges when they shared their screens, often leading to delays and confusion due to a lack of bandwidth. As a result, we couldn’t show our appreciation for their contributions the way they deserved. In sum, the lack of balance between the two groups was quite frustrating. After two days of facing the room and then turning around to face the group online, I was frankly exhausted.
My classic in-company training courses are now set up to permit participants to opt to show up in person or to zoom in, as their schedule permits. In part, their workplaces have become much more flexible, with them having days at home and days n different parts of their campuses. Also, there has been, it seems to me, quite a lot of disruption in staffing; so many of my participants are doing the work of someone who has left and is yet to be replaced, so their workload is keeping them from attending individual sessions.
For these courses, I upload all materials in advance and so don’t depend on any physical materials. Since participation is so fluid, I do find myself needing to redesign activities to accommodate for different group constellations – say, how to have the 2 people who show up in the room and the 4 people online work together. Since some of the individuals can only join us online, I try to integrate them better by having them work with partners in the room. This requires several separate interfaces to the Zoom session I have set up – and separate workspaces for each workgroup to avoid accoustic interference.
At first, all of this felt like a whole new level of brinksmanship. But I’m slowly getting the hang of it.
One thing I am truly sorry to see is that many old activities that depended on everyone being in the room (e.g. playing board games or using Lego Serious Play) have gone out the window for good. We’re replacing them wth activities involving more technology – e.g., having a camera to upload a snapshot or piecing together online resources. And then there are cool new activities like being taken on a tour of a lab by one of the online participants.
Unfortunately, our equipment in the training rooms is usually quite basic. We can sometimes hook up to a large screen or use the conferencing hardware in the room. But in-company courses tend to be bumped down by shifting needs for space, and so we become nomads and change rooms, relying on our trusty mobile devices.
As participants become more comfortable with the hybrid setup and bring their own devices to class (mind you, not everyone has that kind of equipment), I expect that new interaction forms will begin to emerge.
Now I wonder whether our hybrid lessons will ever become a seamless experience like the one I experienced at that Grünen conference last year. I’m always aiming for a great learning experience – that’s what all of this is about, after all – and I’d really like everyone to be able to forget that we are even using this technology. Using the tech should become second nature.