Before planning a hybrid course, consider these factors.
Hybrid is an increasingly popular word as companies adapt to changing workplace dynamics where some team members are in the office and others are working remotely. The concept is also popular as many workforces hold synchronous hybrid meetings. How can facilitators and trainers leverage hybrid formats in workshops, interactive sessions, and skill-building activities? Most facilitators who have run hybrid workshops will testify that while hybrid formats have potential, they are complex and rife with challenges. The good news: We can ask specific questions to determine whether hybrid is the right choice as well as take steps that can lead to successful hybrid workshops.
Whether to go hybrid
Running interactive hybrid workshops is not simply turning on a video stream or videoconference call while some participants are in a physical room together. Technically, that setup is hybrid, yet having passive viewers does not help them build skills. Some managers may request allowing virtual attendees to join in that less-than-ideal format, so be ready to have a conversation about workshop interactions and expected outcomes.
First, consider the option of having two separate workshops—one for in-person participants and the other for virtual ones. At first, that may seem more time-consuming. And in terms of facilitator hours spent in sessions, it is. However, the facilitator's time in the session is not the priority—the participants' engagement and satisfaction are key.
Anyone who has attended a hybrid workshop or even a hybrid meeting has likely experienced annoyances common to hybrid sessions. Virtual communication takes more time. In-person attendees repeatedly wait for virtual ones to speak up, unmute, connect to apps, and complete breakout activities. The virtual joiners may feel less involved if they don't receive as much attention due to proximity or technical issues. They also may feel burdened by the more-extensive tech setups and activity instructions needed to participate.
Second, consider the costs of time and resources using a hybrid format. A hybrid session will likely require just as much (if not more) prep time as two separate workshops. It will require creating different sets of instructions, arranging tech and app solutions, and testing activities. Ideal hybrid workshops include a producer or co-facilitator, which is another cost that single-format workshops may not need.
Technology costs money. Although it's true that virtual sessions need technology, interactive hybrid activities sometimes require solutions such as conference-style microphones or third-party apps.
You must be upfront and honest with yourself, managers, and clients about those costs. That is especially true if the participants need similar opportunities to engage and learn and not be onlookers.
Tech in the training room
Speaking of costs, the available technology will greatly affect how you run hybrid activities. Some trainers may be lucky enough to have access to dedicated smartrooms equipped with ready-to-go hybrid technology. Such rooms reduce setup time and extra tech costs. In addition, participants may be familiar with using the room technology during previous hybrid events and meetings.
Most likely, however, any facilitators diving into the world of hybrid need to arrange their own training rooms to fit their specific hybrid needs. Let's review some go-to considerations for technology in training rooms.
Microphones and speakers. It's well known that everyone needs to be able to clearly hear others, because poor-quality audio makes others uncomfortable. In reality, hybrid sessions risk having virtual participants unable to hear physical participants clearly (or at all). Likewise, virtual attendees, even when using dedicated microphones or headsets, may sound crisp in the trainer's ear or to people sitting near a speaker, but what about to in-person attendees sitting across the room? Some audio solutions include conference-style speakerphones placed around the room.
Another audio issue is ensuring all learners hear the facilitator's voice clearly. If physical and virtual participants can all hear the facilitator's spoken word, that's great. But if physical participants can hear the facilitator's spoken word in the same room and again one second later through the speaker system, that's awful.
In addition to physical devices, the facilitator will need to arrange participant mute, unmute, and volume procedures to avoid audio loops. Even more complex, imagine mixed breakout groups (both in-person and virtual attendees) in a single room. Are Group A's microphones picking up Group B's audio? Or even worse, is Group C's audio being broadcast on a speaker system, and can microphones from Groups A and B pick up the sound? If that happens unexpectedly during a live hybrid session, it can be debilitating, ruin an activity, or delay the workshop schedule while the facilitator makes new arrangements.
Visuals and displays. Displaying slides and content for everyone requires testing. Will a webcam adequately capture a projector screen or TV? Has the facilitator tested both morning and afternoon lighting conditions?
Videoconference screen shares and virtual background apps are great solutions for virtual attendees. Will the physical participants need to see them as well? Will the trainer use two computers to change slides for two types of participants? Does that mean double duty for the facilitator, clicking two devices or remotes, or will it require an attentive assistant? Will there be a physical display for the videoconferencing platform to see virtual attendees? Will in-person attendees have their own devices to access the videoconferencing platform? If they have videoconferencing devices, why isn't the workshop a virtual one?
Displaying shared apps and screens is another concern. It's easy for in-person participants to see physical whiteboards and for virtual participants to see virtual whiteboards, but for true togetherness, hybrid workshops will likely need visuals that everyone can access. For whiteboards, would a physical whiteboard with a dedicated webcam pointed at it suffice? Who will add the virtual attendees' ideas on it? Would a virtual canvas app be better? It may be if physical participants have smart devices to access the app.
Webcams. It's beneficial for everyone if physical participants see the virtual participants and vice versa. Is a second in-room display (TV or projector screen) needed for in-person attendees to see virtual attendees, and will that require a second facilitator computer? Will displays be large enough to show people in virtual video boxes? Will virtual participants clearly see the in-person participants through the videoconferencing platform? Could second, third, or fourth webcams be set up to capture fewer people in frame? If so, how will those webcams link to the videoconference platform? To get really pedantic, will multiple webcam wires obstruct the walking area or activity space? Properly testing displays, visuals, and videos will take time and assistance from others.
In ideal hybrid workshops, facilitators treat participants equally regardless of their location. That takes a special level of awareness and practice. Look out for attention biases. Does the facilitator engage with in-person participants out of habit or physical proximity? If so, how can they balance giving virtual participants opportunities to engage?
One solution is a checklist of who has contributed or, even simpler, a tally sheet with here and away to balance location input. Facilitators could post a sign on the back wall reading "Go Virtual" to remind themselves that virtual attendees are eagerly waiting and, in many cases, actively typing in the chat box or on virtual whiteboards.
In lieu of using a producer, assign roles to physical attendees to help cue virtual input. They can watch for emojis, chats, or raised hands on the videoconference platform. After recent years of virtual engagement, some trainers may default attention to virtual learners. If so, awareness and solutions to bring attention to physical groups will be needed.
During whole-group discussions, facilitators may need to use whiteboards, chat boxes, and other apps to record input. As such, participants may need guidance—in the form of rules or codes of conduct—on how to interact. Rules for using mute and unmute sound easy, but when someone forgets to hit the mute button, the audio loop doesn't just affect their personal earphones anymore; it can affect everyone's audio. Prompting physical attendees to allow more silence for virtual attendees to speak could be more challenging than expected in talkative groups. Those quick moments of silence have a tendency to add up, and it's easy to be short on time in the second half of a session.
One of the beauties of hybrid sessions is bridging physical and virtual participants to create truly collaborative interactions. It is also one of the most complex facilitator abilities.
It is sometimes preferable not to mix in-person and virtual participants in small-group activities. In-person groups don't always need technology to speak, write, and complete exercises. And virtual participants can interact with each other via the virtual platform, their existing headsets, and virtual breakout rooms, just like they would in a virtual-only session.
Keep in mind that an activity may have the same elements and goals, such as presenting a sales pitch to group members and receiving feedback, but the instructions and logistics may greatly differ between group types. For example, physical papers work for in-person groups, and PDFs work for virtual participants. How will they access PDFs? Those logistics make big differences in timing and activity success rate.
When collecting results or debriefing activities, the facilitator could collect answers from each group (regardless of location) through an all-inclusive discussion. Alternatively, how groups submit answers could differ, again requiring separate sets of instructions and logistics plus the extended time it takes to deliver those instructions.
It becomes even more complex to form small groups of both physical and virtual attendees. Unless a virtual participant can walk across the building into the training room, in-person participants will need to access some level of virtual tech tools to interact with virtual group members. Could they leave the training room and hop on their desk computers? If not, did the facilitator instruct them to bring their own laptop or smart device to the session, and did learners remember to bring it?
As previously mentioned, how will multiple groups converse in the same room without distracting other group members? Will they all have headsets so speaker systems aren't broadcasting sound? Will they have access to separate rooms to conduct activities with virtual participants? If so, how long will the tech setup take in multiple locations? Who is in charge of setting up technology correctly? If it's the physical participants themselves, that will take time and carefully constructed procedures. What will the virtual participants be doing during the physical room tech transition time? The facilitator would be wise to not lose them to multitasking or unannounced breaks.
Know what you're getting into
All those questions are not meant to confuse. There is not enough space in this article to expand on the dozens of possible answers, and even if there was, each facilitator would need to pick the best path forward for their team and based on the available tech tools.
I present the questions to showcase the full extent of how much effort, time, and testing are needed to run successful hybrid sessions. In hybrid sessions, if technology fails, it affects different groups in different ways. It increases the chance of virtual participants being left behind or delayed. It also increases the chance of physical participants becoming annoyed or frustrated. Cue outside devices, unauthorized breaks, and even disappearing acts as attendees find something else to do.
Compared to in-person or virtual formats, hybrid workshops are more susceptible to unexpected obstacles, tech troubles, and logistical missteps. Despite those hurdles, hybrid sessions bring separated employees and groups together as cohesive units to achieve collaborative goals.
When facilitators can orchestrate hybrid training successfully, they shine and increase their educational capital and capabilities, which (hopefully) lead to more opportunities, recognition, and rewards. To create successful hybrid encounters, the key facilitator skill is awareness—awareness for choosing hybrid (or not), awareness of tech capabilities and limitations, and awareness of all participants' equality and engagement. After awareness comes hybrid practice over time and practice for each hybrid workshop's tech arrangements and activity processes.
Equal Attention Takes Energy
The facilitator, Milena, divides the training room in half with eight participants sitting on the left and an equal number sitting on the right. In the middle are two laptops. One is connected to a TV for displaying slides. The other, for the videoconference platform, is connected to one webcam for the facilitator; another webcam for the physical training room, microphone, and speaker; and another physical display connection to broadcast virtual participants' images. The tech doesn't obstruct any participant's view.
Milena starts to give activity instructions and addresses virtual participants first because their activities take slightly longer. Attention shifts between the webcam, video boxes, and the chat box. Virtual attendees receive breakout room instructions and a PDF via the chat box. After answering questions, Milena opens the virtual breakout rooms.
Next, she turns to the in-person participants. She balances attention between looking at the left and right sides of the room. She delivers similar activity instructions because the activity concepts are the same but logistics are different. There are physical documents instead of a website. Milena arranges small groups by names and assigns them to different corners of the room.
When the activity concludes, she asks each group for their experiences and results. Now Milena balances her attention from the left side to some in-person groups, to the center for virtual groups, and to the right for the other in-person groups. All the while, participants are writing answers on a virtual whiteboard using their personal devices.
That's not so easy.
Audio Arrangements May Greatly Help or Hinder
When learners share videoconference devices, it can obstruct audio quality, participant video quality, and guided facilitation. Imagine two participants joined using the same laptop. Because headsets are designed for one person, the two individuals rely on the laptop's built-in mic and speakers. Their voices sound muffled to people who are listening through the videoconference platform because they are sitting away from the microphone. There may be a slight echo effect from their audio traveling from the laptop speakers back into the mic.
There are audio solutions, such as a dedicated microphone, headphone splitters, or a shared set of Bluetooth earbuds (each person gets audio in one ear). Arranging those solutions is just one more step for the facilitator to check on the long audio checklist.
If the two participants are connecting virtually, when one of them speaks, the facilitator can't tell who is sharing ideas. The individuals are sitting away from the shared webcam, and the virtual video box isn't large enough for others to see faces clearly. The facilitator has to ask who just spoke. The participants are reminded to state their name when they start to speak, but it would be much easier for the facilitator to have each person on their own connection. Later, when put into breakout groups, the two participants must always be in the same group. When they are on mute, the facilitator notices they have side conversations off audio and asks them multiple times if they want to chime in.