The Future is Hybrid: How to Effectively Connect With Everyone, Everywhere

Hybrid work is here to stay — and that’s not just anecdotal watercooler conversation. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, a study of over 30,000 people in 31 countries, found that 73% of respondents desire remote work options. Similarly, when McKinsey surveyed 100 executives, the firm found that 9 out of 10 organizations will combine remote and on-site working in the post-pandemic world.

As it becomes clear that many organizations will never go back to 100% in-person work, we must shift from being functional in hybrid environments to being exceptional in them. If teams fail to master hybrid work, they risk eroding culture, negatively impacting productivity and well-being, and increasing turnover, among other damaging outcomes.

If you want your organization to raise the bar for the virtual interactions that the hybrid workplace demands, your teams must learn how to craft stories their audiences care about, build interaction into their meetings, and engage everyone — whether they’re in-person or remote.

Use storytelling to engage your team

Whether you’re reading a bedtime story, sitting around a campfire, or enjoying a meal with friends, storytelling is something we all do every day — and we’ve done it for thousands of years. We use stories to develop trust, build community, and create connections. Unfortunately, when we communicate at work, we often overload our audience with facts and data, ultimately missing an opportunity to create engaging stories that drive business forward.

The ROI of storytelling in a hybrid workplace

Studies show that storytelling is critical in business:

Structuring stories your audience cares about

If you want to engage a hybrid audience, a well-prepared narrative is a must. Every meaningful story should include the following five elements:

  • Setting – to provide context (often backed by data) and build focus for the audience
  • Characters – to add an emotional element and help the audience feel and connect with the story
  • Conflict – to give your audience a reason to care and allow you to illuminate a current problem they’re facing
  • Big idea – the essential point you want your audience to take away with them that clearly addresses the primary conflict you introduced
  • Resolution – the last element of your story, where you unveil a new
    opportunity or idea

When you use a clear story structure while designing a presentation or meeting, you’re also arming yourself with a road map. This helps prevent falling victim to tangents or losing focus when speaking in front of a group of people. But more than just keeping your presentation on track, having a compelling story structure compels your audience to lean in and truly engage. It’s a capability that’s even more important now, as so many speakers need to present to virtual or hybrid audiences, where distractions abound and listeners have little patience for a poorly delivered presentation.

The best stories — whether delivered in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid environment — are never about the speaker; they’re about the audience. A great storyteller always considers the challenges their audience is currently facing and what they care about most.

Build interaction into your meetings

Since virtual meetings lack the level of body language that occurs in person, your audience — especially those joining virtually — need to know how and when you want them to interact with you. If you don’t prescribe this interaction in your hybrid meetings, it’s unlikely to happen.

How to infuse interaction in hybrid meetings and presentations

 

  1. Check in with remote participants first

When you pause for discussion, ask if your colleagues have questions or comments, starting with your virtual audience to ensure their voices are heard.

  1. Use interactive placeholders every three to five minutes

For example, include a slide that reads, “Q&A: Raise Your Hand to Unmute or Chat: [Insert Question]. These serve as visual pauses and signal to your audience that you want them to engage.

  1. Leverage interactive tools

Use built-in features (like polls and chat) and external tools like virtual whiteboards (Miro or Mural) or Slido Ideas to capture open-ended feedback from all audience members.

Co-hosting meetings to improve interaction

To ensure your interactions go smoothly, consider co-hosting hybrid events with a colleague. In the online environment, a co-pilot can help manage technical issues, remind folks to mute or unmute, post useful links in the chat, and moderate Q&A. In a physical space, a co-host can remind participants to speak loudly or position themselves in view of the camera so virtual attendees can see and hear them.

PRO TIP!

Should my co-host be in-person or virtual?

Consider this: If the meeting leader is in-person, it’s helpful to have a co-pilot attending virtually so both environments — virtual and face-to-face — have a lifeline. The reverse is also true. A virtual meeting leader can benefit from having a co-pilot in the physical meeting space.

Subvert proximity bias by engaging with remote colleagues first

According to Harvard Business Review, “Remote members of a hybrid team will often wonder whether they fare differently than collocated workers.” This gets at the concept of proximity bias, or the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and leaders will be fare differently than collocated workers perceived as better workers. To minimize the likelihood of proximity bias, presenters can intentionally engage with everyone present, whether they’re physically in the room or attending remotely. But start by recognizing your remote audience members first.

Welcome online colleagues at the top of your meeting, by name if possible. If you have a large team, offer a general greeting to your remote folks, like: Hi to the London folks. How are you doing there?”

The dangers of proximity bias and how to avoid it

Proximity bias is a significant concern as workplaces become increasingly decentralized. Gallup goes so far as saying that proximity bias “is reckless behavior in the hybrid world of work.” To subvert proximity bias, in addition to engaging all attendees during virtual or hybrid meetings, managers can:

  • Pay attention to everyone’s engagement preferences — understanding, for example, that some individuals may prefer to contribute via the chat function or with their camera off. Be aware, too, that proximity bias disproportionately affects women.
  • Be aware of the pitfall of unintentionally developing a culture that considers home-workers second-class citizens, [which] risks squandering all the hard-won competitive differentiators that remote working brings.”
  • When you pause for Q&A or a discussion, check in first with your online colleagues. For example, you might say, For those online … Alex, Maria, Tony, and Miguel, let’s hear from you first. What questions are coming up?”

The bottom line? Great storytelling supports the hybrid work model.

With the future of work being hybrid, it’s now everyone’s responsibility to manage relationships with colleagues and clients in a virtual space. What this means in practice is that employees are now under increased pressure to communicate and present information in a way that’s engaging, effective, and equitable. It’s not easy to do, but there are easily learnable strategies to make it easier. By building prescribed interaction into your hybrid meetings, you can encourage meaningful engagement, and by prioritizing substantive interactions with remote colleagues, you can subvert proximity bias.

But perhaps the most powerful tool for creating an exceptional hybrid experience is through storytelling. Stories not only hold your audience’s attention. They help your audience to authentically care about the topics being discussed and encourage them to participate in meaningful ways. You have the power to transform your team’s remote work experience — all you have to do is tell a meaningful story.

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