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Eight ways to ensure equity of participation in hybrid workshops

Hybrid workshops and learning events are an increasingly integral part of our life as monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) practitioners. But it can be challenging to facilitate hybrid events that are both engaging and inclusive for all participants. Here we offer some ideas to maximise success.

This blog draws from our experience of facilitating a hybrid workshop focused on the complex and highly political issue of climate change ‘Loss and Damage’.

The event was organised by a group of leading philanthropies. Its purpose was to inform how civil society and philanthropy can work together to progress the Loss and Damage agenda.

We wanted to ensure the event captured the full range of perspectives on this sensitive issue from all 60 event participants. And we wanted to host a hybrid event where virtual participants weren’t just passive watchers as in-person participants engaged in discussion.

Hybrid events that aim for equity of participation are difficult and resource intensive to organize. We have a lot to learn about how best to run these spaces in a way that is truly inclusive and subsequently building a culture around this.

We know that we are not alone in thinking deeply about these issues (see resources that others have shared at the end of this blog post). We do not claim to have all the answers but we are keen to learn and share knowledge with others. We hope that our suggestions and reflections prove helpful to those running similar events.

A women watches a presentation on her laptop
Hybrid workshops and learning events are an increasingly integral part of our life as MEL practitioners.

Adopt a ‘virtual first’ approach to the event design

This means considering the experience of virtual participants from the outset in the design of the agenda, not as an afterthought. When designing our event, we aimed to minimize inequality of experience between virtual participants and those participating in person.

The event taught us that it is essential to carve out time to make sure everyone is onboarded to the hybrid approach, establishing ground rules and introducing the tools and technology involved, not just those joining remotely.

Put virtual participants front and centre of proceedings

Before and during the event, we emphasized to participants that this would be our approach, regularly emphasizing that ‘we are all in a hybrid meeting’. We reinforced this with a hybrid panel early on in the event with participant numbers weighted towards the virtual participants. This literally put the virtual participant front and centre of the room, making them visible to the in-person participants from the start of the event. In plenary discussions and report backs, we usually invited virtual participants to contribute first.

Have both in-person and virtual facilitators.

Having two lead facilitators was crucial. The in-person facilitator ran the activities in the room and managed the integration of the virtual and face to face spaces; they also led the overall facilitation. The online facilitator communicated comments and questions of virtual participants and kept the virtual participants informed with start times and questions being asked by in-person participants etc. It was also useful to type in-person comments and questions directly into the chat for virtual participants.

Put the right technology in place and know how to use it (or know someone who does)

Having the right technology and a dedicated tech support team was crucial to ensuring the event could run in a virtual first way. We had lots of technology and it was tricky to navigate.

We had two big screens at the front of our in-person event room, one to bring virtual participants into view when they were speaking, the other to display presentations. We had microphones on every table to ensure people speaking in the room could be heard online; and multiple cameras in the room, one focused on facilitators and presenters, the other on contributions from participant that focused on the person speaking.

Keep it simple by running virtual and in-person breakouts as parallel processes

After some consideration, we decided to run separate break-out rooms for virtual and in-person participants. We considered running hybrid sessions but decided clarity of communication in the groups would be compromised. We also lacked the physical space to run hybrid groups, as each group would require a separate room.

Although the parallel model worked well, the tradeoff was that it did not enable connections across in-person and virtual spaces (see point 8 below) which would be problematic if stakeholders were represented unequally in either space, such as if funders were in-person and civil society organisation representatives were joining virtually. This was not the case for our workshop where stakeholders were split relatively evenly between spaces.

Consider documenting discussion virtually

We took a risky decision to document both face-to-face and virtual breakout discussions using a virtual whiteboard rather than using flip charts for in-person discussions.  This enabled virtual participants to easily see what was being discussed in other groups and to add their ideas directly to the board. However, capturing discussions virtually was uncomfortable for some in-person groups, one group reverted to flip charts and Post-it Notes while a dedicated scribe translated discussion onto the board.

In-person participants sometimes struggled to read content on the boards when it appeared on screens in plenary and break out rooms. This could certainly have worked better with a little more time to onboard those unfamiliar with the whiteboard platform and our use of it, and with more scheduled time and activities for people to engage with content added to the board – but it was a good step in the right direction toward ensuring virtual participants were fully able to participate.

Carefully manage transitions from one session to the next

We considered how to manage the challenges of moving from one session to the next but didn’t always get it right. In-person participants were subject to many distractions while moving from session to session (e.g. coffee, chats, loo breaks). While a couple of minutes chatting at the beginning of a session might feel quick to those chatting, it can feel endless to someone watching on a screen waiting for a session to start.

We navigated this by aiming to stick to schedule as best we could but communicating any delays to virtual participants, and by allowing discussion in virtual break out rooms to continue for longer than in-person rooms, to allow in-person participants to come back into the space.

It was also helpful to not turn on mics in the main room until all in-person participants were seated and ready to start, encouraging virtual participants to use the chat function in the interim.  

One challenge we hadn’t anticipated was that many of our breakout group facilitators were at the event in-person and had to move to quieter spaces to run the sessions, leaving breakout groups waiting for a facilitator to join them. Perhaps a better way to do this would be for virtual group facilitators to also join the workshop in the virtual space, however their presence in person had the advantage of allowing better feedback to the lead facilitators between sessions.

Enable networking opportunities within and across virtual and in-person spaces

We started the workshop with a two-minute introductions session. This involved either in-person introductions or breakout groups of three people online. This didn’t allow for connections to be made between in-person and virtual participants. With the benefit of hindsight, this is something we would like to do better next time. For example by trialing hybrid introductions and breakout groups.

As we moved through the conference we improved on communication between online and offline worlds. But we found that in-person participants worried about missing out on the online chat and online participants worried about missing out on the networking and socialising in the room.

In response, we brought the chat onto the big screen at the front so in-person participants could follow the chat themselves. But still more thought needs to be given to how best to encourage networking opportunities and activities that also take into account the need for online participants to have adequate screen breaks.

Related resources

Tips for hosting a hybrid online and in-person meeting, blog post from Knowledge SUCCESS.

Making the most of hybrid meetings, two-page note by International Livestock Research Institute on hybrid meetings, helping meeting organisers think through the pros and cons of hybrid.

Hybrid Live Guide, e-book by Robert Kienzle with extensive advice and resources.

Catherine Fisher is an independent consultant focused on facilitating learning and strategy processes. Claire Stott is a Senior Consultant at Itad specialising in Climate Change.