The great pandemic of 2020 has changed the world as we know it forever. After having to work remotely for more than a year, more and more employees now opt for remote first options, while some still prefer the onsite option, putting pressure on organizations to adopt hybrid solutions to remote work.

While until recently many believed that if one person is remote, everyone should be remote, we challenged this at a hybrid Gamestorming Belgium meetup recently.

"Infrastructure is where people really go wrong: just creating presence and participation for the remote participants. How do we hear and see each other? How do we contribute to the conversation through whiteboards or whatever?

But in all honesty, it doesn't take anything super fancy to create presence and participation. Just making it so communication is crystal clear, without being complicated to set up and use."

-- Lisette Sutherland

Intrigued by Lisette Sutherland, author of the book Work Together Anywhere's perspective in an article on hybrid work spaces, we decided to design a hybrid warmer to ensure both the offline and online participants are engaged and included.

Challenges of hybrid environments

Hybrid meetings are challenging for various reasons. Some, more obvious, like the need for good sound in the in-person groups, while others are less obvious.

In our session we identified some challenges. On a video call the participants' names are always on the screen and it's easy to know who is talking and when they are talking with the technology giving visual feedback. In person, however, it is not always easy for video participants to know who's talking and even when people are using name tags, it is too small to read on a video screen (see the below blurred image of our session showing the contrast in size of the video participants vs the in person participants in the left top corner of the zoom screen).

The video participants can easily be displayed on a large screen for everyone to clearly see, however in a larger group it is very hard to see the people in the back.

Another big issue is that in a normal conversation people constantly interrupt each other, while online, this causes a break in the flow of the meeting, often making it uncomfortable and filled with silent gaps waiting for someone to speak or scared you'll interrupt someone.

These were the main obstacles we identified that blocks hybrid meetings from being engaging and inclusive for both parties and our primary focus in the game design.

The design challenge

Can hybrid meetings include both sides equally?

Breaking in two groups, online participants in one group, and in person participants in another group, we had 15 minutes to come up with a meeting warmer that would invite participation from both sides equally.

Our team - the online group - came up with what I call the Speed Buddy Hybrid warmer game. First let me share the game, and then the process of creation and how it developed, followed by some of the reasons why it works.

How to play the Game

Preparation

To ensure an equal distribution, it is suggested that the facilitator counts the online and offline participants to decide on the best distribution of players. In our case, we were 6 online and 8 offline. To avoid ending with 2 people that doesn't have a buddy, pair two people in the in-person, offline group to be one buddy, agreeing on a primary buddy or assigning different roles to fulfill throughout the session.

Game

  1. The facilitator introduces the game and describes the basic format of the buddy system and speed dating.

  2. The in-person participants form a line with the first sitting in front of the camera in the hot seat, temporarily becoming an online participant.

  3. The online participants all switch on their camera's to indicate they are open to pair.

  4. The first in-person participant introduces himself briefly (or give kudo's if it is a group that is familiar with each other) and asks someone with their camera on to become their buddy.

  5. The buddy accepts the request and introduces themselves before the pair decide on a mutual hand-sign in view of all the participants.

  6. Once the hand-sign is agreed upon, the person in the hot seat returns to their seat while the next person in line takes the hot seat and repeats the process.

  7. Throughout the meeting, the buddy pair ensures that their buddy is engaged and participating, and takes action when the hand-sign is used by either alerting the facilitator, or in a private chat via their mobile phone or laptop.

Adaptations

  • In the case of the group familiar with all the participants, the introductions can be replaced by either giving kudo's to someone on-screen, or by using a random conversation starter prompt.

  • If the group is very large, consider making use of breakout rooms to divide the bigger group into smaller groups of 5 - 8 participants.

Inclusive co-creating

As someone who loves designing workshops, this was a rare combination of people all equally contributing to an idea, without any one person trying to have a better idea than the previous.

Usually, it is a battle of the minds with the most creative (or dominating) winning. This time, I was surprised to have an immediate "yes, and..." response to the initial idea, followed by more additions that improved the game, rather than replacements that required starting again, which contributed to the success of the outcome I believe.

It started with a simple idea inspired by Scuba diving - a team sport like no other.

Photo by Anurag Harishchandrakar on Unsplash

Scuba diving is a recreational and relaxing, yet dangerous water sport. Although most dives are in a contained, safe environment, divers rely on man-made equipment that can fail to breathe underwater, and mother nature is not predictable and can not be controlled. It takes one strong current or one careless diver to touch a poisonous or sharp object underwater to create a crisis that results in the entire group having to abort the dive.

The first and most important rule in Scuba diving is that you always have to dive with a dive buddy. Before each and every dive, no matter how many dives you've done, buddies are assigned and everyone goes over the universal hand signals. The dive buddy pair stay within arm's reach of each other and ensure that their buddy doesn't accidentally stray off (which is very easy in a vast ocean filled with the most spectacular sea life and a very limiting face mask that limits your vision).

For practical reasons, it is not possible for a Dive Master to always keep the entire dive group in visual range to make sure nothing goes wrong. The buddy-concept solves this problem graciously. The buddy is the first person to assist when something goes wrong and the one who will alert the dive master if it is serious.

"If you have an inclusive environment, if you have that psychologically safe environment, and everyone feels as though they can participate, and they do, you're going to have really good hybrid meetings.

But that's the key challenge. It's harder, because as a meeting leader, and as an attendee, you have to pay attention to the people in the room and on the screen, and not lose anybody. It is harder, but it's doable."

-- Dr Joseph Allen, meeting scientist at the University of Utah.

Hybrid meetings have a similar problem. It is hard for a single facilitator to keep an eye on all the digital participants, let alone a combination of digital and in-person participants.

This simple, yet effective approach of introducing a buddy system formed the basis of the game. Each online participant has a dedicated in-person buddy that will ensure that any issue is picked up and addressed immediately to limit disengagement. In the event of either needing assistance, clarification or anything else, they use a personalized hand-sign to alert their buddy who can then help them to the best of their ability, before alerting the facilitator.

However, this was not yet enough to be a game, and we fleshed out the mechanics in a yes, and... approach, each participant adding onto the idea.

In response to the problem of what to do with the rest of the participants while buddy's are selected, we decided on a speed dating format where you have one person sitting in front of the remote audience introducing themselves and picking a buddy. Once a buddy is picked a hand sign is agreed upon and the online participant switches off his camera before the next online participants takes the hot seat and repeats the process.

Benefits explained

After play testing the concept we agreed on a number of reasons why this game worked.

  1. The in person participants are briefly introduced in full view of everyone, leveling out the playground and allowing each participant to be introduced to the group.

  2. Forming a line and sitting in front of the camera requires the participants to physically move, which in itself is engaging and allows more interaction between them.

  3. Being able to choose a buddy means there is a level of autonomy, and thus an increase in engagement.

  4. The responsibility of being the caretaker of someone else in the meeting inherently increases the level of participation and ownership.

  5. The connecting of online and offline individuals forms a psychological bridge.

  6. The speed of the exercise relieves any anxiety or pressure of being the spotlight for those introverts that shy away from speaking in meetings.

  7. The hand sign is selected by the pair, thus again increasing autonomy, while it is useful as something that can be used throughout the meeting, which makes it more engaging than one of the light games that is never again used.

  8. There is no preparation needed for this game other than counting and trying to balance the ratio of online vs offline participants, making it accessible and easy to use for anyone in any situation.

  9. The facilitator can focus on the meeting, while the engagement is distributed to the participants, putting less pressure on the facilitator and increasing autonomy of participants.

Conclusion

Remote work isn't going anywhere soon. It is up to organizations to create hybrid environments that engages both, or risk losing talent to places who are willing to embrace hybrid formats.

The Hybrid Speed Buddy game is a short, easy warmer that aims to connect online and offline participants. A pair consisting of both an online and offline participants, is assigned as buddies with a personal hand sign that can be used throughout the session to draw attention to them.

It's a simple, engaging and fun game that can be easily adapted to keep it interesting.