How to make hybrid events equitable

Jo Cook reflects on planning hybrid events and urges us to not to let the technology get in the way 

Co-designing and hosting a hybrid conference is a time of anxiety and excitement! My expertise in the virtual classroom ensured an awareness of some of the obvious factors required to make this work; like the need for a chat panel, supporting people with their technology like webcams, as well as good audio-visual connections for both online and in the conference space. 

There are many horror stories of virtual or hybrid events not working – a brief look at Twitter is enough to get a sense of the problems experienced – from getting a live stream working for an event or a Slack network, to people bemoaning events where they couldn’t see or hear the presentations at the conference or event. 

In 2021 I teamed up with Laura Overton to work on a hybrid conference. From the outset our aim was to design an event that avoided the common problems we knew about and would be satisfying for those attending both line and online. 

Brainstorm the big ideas

Laura was to be the host of the live space while I would manage the online. In the tradition of great brainstorming, we started by generating as many ideas about the event as possible. There was no restriction on the number or quirkiness of the ideas that we created – all went into the melting pot. I’m a big believer in idea sparking – that a suggestion might sound crazy, might not work, might not be right for this client or event… but it might spark a different idea for someone else, in which case it’s done its job. 

Rather than trying to force the live online audience to participate directly with the physical audience, each had it’s own methodology for activities

The biggest challenge to overcome was the distance between the two audiences – there’s the obvious geographical distance as people join online from anywhere in the world. There is cultural distance with a wide variety of people attending, from different countries and with different languages and levels of understanding of English. The event itself: the Speexx Exchange was part of Online Educa Berlin and has encouraged diversity in the previous decade of physical conferences. The psychological distance was the key one to tackle: how to make the audience in-person and the online audience made up of individuals in hundreds of different locations feel like they are attending just one event.
We wanted to focus on the human element, to bring people together to discuss, to learn and – as the name implied – to exchange ideas with other learning and HR professionals. As soon as Laura and I got further into the details it was clear we couldn’t get away from the technology elements that enable a hybrid conference to run. 

We had many ideas like every in-person attendee having a laptop and headphones, through to having one laptop per table with multiple headsets plugged in and separate smaller rooms for people to network and meet with online people. We discussed the idea of using some of the software platforms that emulate more closely the conference experience where you click on a chair or a table to join a virtual breakout meeting and so on. 

Technology running away

It soon became clear that we were focusing far too much on the technology and letting that drive the potential experience. Social researcher and writer Julian Stodd said: “Social Learning is facilitated by technology, but it’s not caused by technology: Think first about design, and secondly about which technologies you have or can acquire, to facilitate it.”

We went back to the drawing board, in this case almost literally, sketching ideas in notebooks about how we wanted people to experience the communication exchange and each other. That focus on the human connection led us to move on from the technology-based approach where we were trying to create equality at the cost of humanity, to one where we focused on equity. 

The best hybrid experience no matter the location

Whether you are attending in-person at an event or live online, there is no getting away from those experiences being different. Some people may be ok with the travel and want to get the most from the networking and being in the room. For others the physical and logistical cost of attending is prohibitive and there will be some more introverted personalities who would also appreciate a different approach. 

It was decided that each location should be treated as special in its own right. At the physical location in Berlin there was time to chat over coffee, while the live online attendees had a quieter experience – taking coffee breaks in their own kitchens, allowing for a different type of reflection. 

Rather than trying to force the live online audience to participate directly with the physical audience, each had it’s own methodology for activities. It was simple and obvious that the people around tables in Berlin would speak to each other, and for those live online we would run breakout rooms. This outcome respects the location of the attendees while ensuring that they had the best experience possible. It also means that the technology was nowhere near as expensive and complicated as a laptop on each table and multiple headsets to use, especially in an environment where Covid infections are still a consideration. 

Collaboration and communication

The final pieces of this puzzle were brought together with the use of a third party cloud based solution for recording the outputs from discussion so that in-person and live online audiences all contributed to something that could be seen by those present and attending virtually. 

The last part of bringing the audiences together was the communication on the day between the chair in Berlin and the facilitator live online. Using the large screens in the conference space in Germany regular updates took place. These gave both audiences the summaries of the discussions both live and in the chat panel discussions. Speakers were introduced to ensure that the in-person audience was kept aware of the live online participants and that the virtual audience really did get to participate and not just watch a live stream of an event happening elsewhere. 

You can find out more about how Jo and Laura designed and delivered a hybrid conference by downloading their free case study

Jo Cook is a specialist in live online learning, find out more at Lightbulb Moment Limited 


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