This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Our four children have grown up in Switzerland and the United States, and recently moved to Japan. Do they feel more Swiss or more American? Deeply influenced by both countries, I’d describe them more as “third culture kids.” Neither Swiss nor American, but something different altogether.
A similar development is happening in the business world today in the way we work. Covid-19 seems to have accelerated something like a decade of behavior change into one year. Less than twelve months ago, companies were struggling to persuade seasoned managers to adopt new digital ways of working. Most meetings occurred in-person or over the phone, and no one hesitated to jump on a plane to attend an important face-to-face in London, New York, or Tokyo.
Since the pandemic forced us to suddenly shift much of what normally would have been done in-person to online, we realize that virtual tools often work just fine actually, sometimes better.
With the hope of mass vaccinations on the horizon, as companies anticipate a gradual improvement in safety, how should they strike the right balance between physical and virtual? For those planning the upcoming year of meetings, workshops, and conferences, many are asking the question: should they be in-person or virtual?
Often the right answer is that they should be something new altogether.
Most of us long to be in-person again. Physical proximity tends to foster deeper, more substantial interpersonal connection. It facilitates spontaneous and impromptu interactions and allows for shared experiences like meals and sightseeing. Live physical presentations can carry energy and authenticity. Remember the last concert you went to? A recording is just not the same.
Yet we have begun to discover that virtual formats have their own advantages. The greatest is obviously the ability to scale the number and location of participants at incredibly low cost and minimal carbon footprint. Even in very large events, it’s possible to get more done and at the same time foster more connection using virtual tools and approaches. Less obvious advantages of virtual formats include the ability to customize experiences for subgroups of participants, gather and analyze data in real time, and create together in large groups. If you want to your top 1,000 people across the globe to jointly refresh your company’s mission, values, or purpose, the right virtual design can make that not only possible, but fairly easy.
Things are moving fast and virtual events are likely to evolve significantly even a year from now. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in virtual event platforms, social-interaction limitations are being solved, and new ways of connecting virtually developed.
Those looking ahead are beginning to see something entirely new on the horizon, a reenvisioned hybrid model. “Hybrid meetings have been around for a number of years, but, until Covid-19, that usually meant sticking a camera at the back of the room and livestreaming the event to those stuck at home. Now, with new virtual software tools and a better understanding of how to integrate virtual with in-person, hybrid meetings can connect both of these audiences and get the benefits of both virtual and in-person formats,” says Chris Torella from Pickerel Pie Entertainment, a New York-based event and video production company.
Like the center of a Venn diagram, this model seeks to highlight the experiences that bridge the two environments and capture the best of both. For larger events pulling from many locations, one bridge can be the creation of small pods or groups of people who experience the journey together. They may interact in person with their pod and virtually with others, or vice-versa, depending on the different functions and geographies represented.
Hybrid allows us to focus the design on the advantages of each mode. The conversations and content that benefit the most from nonverbal communication and eye contact can be executed in-person, and the material that benefits most from the scale, transparency, and visibility of virtual interaction can be done via Miro, Trello, Zoom, etc.
Even in a world in which the pandemic is largely defeated and travel resumes, having had a taste of the new and innovative features that technology can provide for real engagement―not to mention what the CFO has to say about all those travel and hotel expenses―we won’t so quickly revert back to in-person standard PowerPoint presentations.
As you think forward into 2021, whether setting up regular leadership meetings, scheduling steering committee sessions, or planning bigger events or workshops, you can’t today know how the year will unfold. But three questions will help you begin to move toward a hybrid approach that maximizes the best of virtual experiences while reclaiming some of the benefits of in-person interaction.
- Why: Why are we gathering? What are we trying to achieve? What is the purpose?
- Who: Who are the participants and what are you trying to achieve with them? Think of this as casting. Your guest list is more dynamic. External parties, facilitators, your own front line, almost anyone can parachute in from anywhere in the world. Technology has opened this up, so ask again with a new set of options.
- What: Which of the many virtual tools tried over the past year could help meet your goals? Where can you benefit from in-person, and where can you benefit from virtual?
- How: How can virtual and in-person intersect, and for which participants? What new possibilities are opening up? Do you have the proper in-house expertise to evaluate the changing landscape of virtual event platforms? If not, seek it out.
Legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg made one of my kids’ favorite movies, 2018’s Ready Player One, about a world in which the boundaries between the physical and virtual world blur. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I don’t think we’ll return to the physical as we knew it prepandemic. Nor will we remain fully virtual. Rather, a third approach will emerge, something new, something in-between.