How to run a hybrid event – a guide from Daniel Unsöld

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Hybrid meetings have become more common but integrating even a single online participant can be a challenge.

In this facilitation story from Daniel Unsöld, you'll see how he and his team set up and ran an interactive, 4-day hybrid event with 40 live and 10 online participants.

Daniel takes us behind the scenes, exploring the tech set-up and planning of the conference. He also explores how a large scale hybrid event plays out in practice, what activities he used to bridge live and online participants, and shares some of his learnings too!

For in-house company meetings, great solutions are available from big names like Microsoft or young start-ups like Owl Labs with their amazing self-focusing 360-degree cameras. But for larger meetings in rented venues, a more flexible setup is often needed, especially for less cash-rich organizations. 

We at du Coaching got a contract to provide consultation and facilitation service for a hybrid board meeting for an international climate change/migration/sustainable agriculture project.

The Our food, Our future campaign is focused on mobilizing and educating young adults as multipliers while advocating for systemic and far-reaching change. Our task was to allow discussion and sharing between all 50 board members – forty of them present in a live setting, and around ten logging in online.  

In this blog, we share our experience in setting up and facilitating an interactive hybrid board meeting for 50 participants. Let’s get started!

Hybrid event setup

In this section, we’ll discuss how we set up the hybrid board meeting, covering everything from technical details to how we coordinated the facilitation team. 

We came to the event with a team of two facilitators. One would be the host facilitator of the whole meeting, and one co-facilitator to assist the online group, transport some exercises into the virtual space, and also to visualize content and prepare whiteboards for group and plenary work. 

For the online group, we used a setup of three computers: One fast laptop with an additional screen for the virtual meeting communication and whiteboard visualization, and a second basic laptop for connecting and presenting content to the second projection – both managed by the co-facilitator.

A second person logged in with her own laptop as a troubleshooter for online participant tech trouble from a bit further away, to not disturb the discussion on stage. 

Hybrid event tech set up

From some of our earlier experiences, we gathered that streamlined virtual visualization and communication are key for the integration of online participants. We decided to work with virtual whiteboard (MURAL) and voting tools (Mentimeter/Slido). For the planning, we used the well-known online facilitation planning program SessionLab. (Surprise!) 

We knew we wanted two big projectors as participants were spread through the room and therefore quite far away they should still be able to read. We had one screen dedicated to showing the online participants and what they had to share. The other screen was used to show whiteboards, presentations, and “Mentis” (questions put on the Mentimeter tool).

It became clear that the main challenge, apart from planning, was to get the audio right.

We wanted the audio quality to be good for our 40 live participants, the facilitator, the ten virtual participants, and the presenter without excessive feedback or delay. For this, we hired a skilled team of audio technicians who happened to also know their way with the camera.  

One tech assistant manned the camera and was the mic runner during discussions. Our second assistant manned the sound and video mixing board while also being logged in in ZOOM with two accounts, one for each camera.

We found that mixing boards were necessary to connect the camera input with the audio input from another source. Getting this right was tricky and we wouldn’t have managed without these guys! 

In addition to mixing desks and audio software, our audio setup included two large speakers, two headset wireless mics for the host facilitator and presenter, and two wireless hand microphones for the audience.

The tech team also brought an extra safe and strong internet connection with their own router into the hotel. The hotel wi-fi was not reliable enough and this really helped things run smoothly. 

We asked participants to use their smartphones for Mentimeter polls and individual laptops when a person chose to be a virtual whiteboard documenter in a group work phase.

hybrid event floor plan

How did a hybrid setup influence our session design?

Hybrid affects every aspect of what you do. By having two groups – one live and the other online – it almost feels like planning two events running in tandem. You often have to think “What is the other group’s experience at this moment?” Let me go through this step by step.

Information sharing

We wanted to create a level playing field regarding information for both the online and the live group. Therefore, we decided that all info on the event: agenda, documents, resources, phone numbers, directions, virtual room links, and up-to-date covid-19 regulation info was to be found only via a digital “master” whiteboard using Mural. This became our single source of truth for the event. 

We also ensured all our discussions were documented and continuously updated on this whiteboard. This helped those people who missed a session or came late to catch up easily.

Hybrid event whiteboard
Here you can see the whiteboard with links and resources for each session. 

Hybrid Plenary Discussions

Planning a plenary discussion in a hybrid format felt pretty similar to any other online session, though there were many small things we had to account for in order to make this a success. 

In addition to our technical setup, here were some other things we did to make these discussions run smoothly in hybrid. 

  • We allotted extra time to account for the micro runner to pass the mic between speakers while also changing the mic cover for Corona! 
  • We were also sure to continuously build consciousness in the group to not talk without a microphone, otherwise, the online group wouldn’t hear and get lost. 
  • We decided to continuously visualize all discussions on a virtual whiteboard for each session. This was accessible to both online groups and in-person via a projector in the room. This made it easier for the online group to follow the discussion, and the visuals help everybody to stay focussed and get inspired.
  • We used sli.do for question management during panel discussions. We asked the live group to log in from their phones or laptops while the online group did the same. This way, the whole group could see and rank the most interesting questions to the panel equitably.  
  • We used Mentimeter for group feedback and queries. We used this for everything from gauging interest or soliciting opinions on a subject, to finding out how a discussion influenced opinions or reflecting on how we worked together on a meta-level.  
  • Mentimeter was also used in active sessions when smaller groups would move around the space to do exercises on hold discussions on the topic of team communication.
  • Between activities, we would run short surveys on how people had perceived communication/collaboration in the project and then talk about it. The movement of groups around the room made it light, and participants were encouraged to use their phones to interact with the survey.
  • Using Mentimeter also meant that when a discussion popped up, we could create a survey or poll with a set of options on the fly and get feedback from the whole group quickly. 
  • Using a suite of digital tools throughout the session was especially helpful in instantly and automatically creating documentation. Everything was visualized!
  • During the breaks, the co-facilitator would organize networking/chatting breakouts with the online group. We didn’t connect the live group with the online group during these breaks as we wanted to make the most of the extraordinary situation of meeting in person for the majority of people who were present.
  • We also feared that it would feel too structured for live participants, who already had a lot of rules and structures to follow due to the hybrid format, the packed agenda, and Covid. I had tried to create more space in the agenda, but the organizers couldn’t let go of their list of items. All that time spent not meeting in person had apparently created quite a backlist of pressing issues that needed solving!
Hybrid event stage

Energizers

When running energizers and teambuilding elements, we used a number of different approaches. When running a hybrid event, the key was always to think ahead: Can the online group join in? Can we find a way to do it together? Can we share together? Does the online group need its own activity?

As it was a long event, we did a lot of different things to energize and engage the group, using activities and games while also ensuring that longer sessions on group dynamics had interactive elements. 

Sometimes, everybody did the same activity regardless of where they were located. This meant the co-facilitator had to make the activity technically possible online, perhaps splitting people into pairs or small groups. When it came to sharing feedback and results, we connected both groups together and again alternated between speaking and listening.  

To name a few activities we used:

  • 1,2,3: Counting up in pairs before exchanging numbers for sounds, movements, words, and more. This worked perfectly! 
  • Do you remember: Sharing a fictive holiday memory in pairs and building a story on the spot together. Awesome. 
  • Movement and freeze in positions: This worked especially well in front of the camera
  • 1-word story: creating a shared story with each person in a group of five sharing one word at a time.  
  • All kinds of topical exercises that included sharing and giving feedback such as Storytelling Flavours. In this exercise, one person shared a holiday experience or a success story from work while the other person asks either for more detail, more emotion or to advance the plot. 
  • I like about myself: a pair work exercise where participants asked and affirmed compliments to and for each other.

Energizers that used visual elements also worked well in this hybrid format. For example, having a group choose an animal/superstar/tv character/plant that represents their mood for the day.

The co-facilitator could run this exercise visually on the online whiteboard, and the experience was effectively the same for everyone. As with any activity, remember that group size is crucial and that some exercises don’t work with groups that are too larger!  

Inevitably, some exercises didn’t work for people attending virtually. For activities that involved movement through the room or doing something physically together, we had the co-facilitator run a different energizer/networking activity from the virtual energizer toolbox.

We did plan to ask the live group to go online and mingle with the virtual group in an energizer to improve interconnection between the two groups. This was discarded on the day as it was not really feasible with our one-room setup, where it was a little noisy and the internet connection was likely to go bad.

To make up for this, we planned group work formats frequently, where online and offline participants could mingle and connect. 

Group work

Designing group work was difficult due to technical limitations. We only had one fully equipped hybrid meeting space. This meant figuring out which discussions we needed to have with both the online and offline participants present in a single group, and which could be split into breakouts. 

In those situations with hybrid breakouts, we had a small group sit closer to the screen, making it easier to work together with their online counterparts.

For the other groups, we enabled participation by using two laptops. One with an external camera that faced the live group to make it possible for everyone to see each other, and another one manned by a co-facilitator to facilitate the online group and document/visualize discussions. 

We also decided to use a flipchart to have more power visualizing on the spot, as we couldn’t project the digital whiteboard in these lobby situations. We would then position a laptop camera so any physical flipcharts were visible and regularly copy and paste photos of content onto the digital whiteboard.

Conference style mingling

One of the best parts of a conference is after the official program is over and more spontaneous connections and networking can begin. Here were some of the things we did to mix the group up at various stages and enable those chance connections during our hybrid event.  

  • We had phone call walks together in longer breaks, chatting on the phone in pairs with a mix of live and online participants.
  • For the city tour of Bologna, we had one person take the role of a reporter who streamed the city tour online with a live commentary. 
  • On one evening, we played charades in a hybrid group. 

We chose not to plan hybrid activities for every break or evening. Online participants needed a break from their screens and this was supported in a survey we ran, as well as many conversations we had throughout the session. It’s hard to maintain focus when working online for long stretches and having time away from our screens was good for everyone. 

Hybrid event co-facilitator

What was the experience of facilitating a hybrid event? 

Planning and running a hybrid event was full of surprises and challenges. Here’s a breakdown of some of my main takeaways from the hybrid conference experience. 

Preparation

Honestly, the preparation and planning process for this hybrid event was stressful and demanding. It took some convincing on the part of the project owner to fulfill our resource needs for the team. Sourcing the right hardware, software, and space meant finding a lot of extra funds!

Some of the limitations in how we could work together were frustrating because some things would just not work in a hybrid setup. The venue was sadly not great for group work as we had no extra rooms, just several lobby-like spaces which were neither undisturbed nor adequately equipped.

Planning for this hybrid session felt like double the work of a regular workshop.

Needing to always consider two separate groups and experiences while thinking of what is needed regarding group dynamics, methodology, facilitators, laptops, spaces, documentation, software… the list goes on!

For the event, we had also created a small co-team consisting of the project lead and several experienced representatives from member organizations. Every evening, and during some breaks, we would discuss the process and see if the agenda needed adaption. This was quite demanding, as we talked through dinners, city tours, and (smoking) breaks. 

We ultimately felt that the main focus of the event was to keep the live group productively working and connecting while including the online group was priority number two. This admittedly took some of the focus away from completely solving the challenge of hybrid but it did mean we could solve the most important tasks at hand.

Technical setup

We were lucky to bring in a skilled tech team for this hybrid event that was flexible and willing to learn as we went. They had never done anything like this – other hybrid events they’d worked on were actually just static streams with a question here and there – no people moving in the room, splitting into groups, running energizers, sharing, working with multiple projectors, etc. 

The main challenge with the hybrid set-up was people logging into Zoom with poor audio quality and weak connections. While this might have been okay in a regular Zoom call, these participants were sometimes hard to understand over the large speakers in a large room.

Our advice here would be to make sure people know they have to log in with above standard quality audio and impeccable internet connection where possible! 

The tech team also faced more of an athletic challenge. The facilitator and audience moved around a lot during more interactive activities. This meant having to adjust the camera while also running, changing, disinfecting, and passing microphones between participants. The tech team sure ran several miles per day! 

At the beginning of the event, the tech team felt overwhelmed by the set-up, technical problems, and the sheer number of tasks.

There was a bottleneck of stress on the first day, but we moved through this phase together by relaxing and laughing in the inevitability of failure, change, and learning. And it got better every day!

Facilitating a hybrid event

It was really awesome to work with a live group for the first time. We had already worked together for a year and a half online and nobody had met in person yet! It felt like magic when we connected with the virtual group in the first plenary session and communication flowed. It was a bit like landing on the moon: “Hello, hello, can you hear us?”

When we first started, it took discipline and patience for the participants to only speak with a mic and having to wait for it to arrive. After two days, it was quite natural.

It also became clear that we hadn’t thought through how some moments would work for the virtual group. Similarly, we didn’t entirely account for how impromptu changes created stress for the co-facilitator, who sometimes had to improvise activities for the virtual group on the spot. 

While we put a lot of effort into the first few days of our five-day agenda, the later days received much less attention to detail. A classic failure! In the end, this turned out to be okay as the agenda changed quite radically as the group asked for less structure and began to take more ownership over the process.  

We also found that virtual energizers and moments of personal sharing online became less crucial as we went on. While they were important to start, the online group felt it was too much after a few days, and they more often preferred to do their own work or go offline.

I also sensed there was some sadness for not being there in person, and perhaps it felt more painful when doing games and sharing personally in this setting.

Of course, there was also a crisis moment during the event where we got lost and needed to find our way out together. We managed, and I feel this is often a part of every group process, even in a hybrid meeting! 

In my experience as a facilitator, I felt it was hard to speak to the far-away camera positioned in the audience when addressing the online participants. I often ended up talking to the screen with my back to the camera that was filming me. Maybe it would have been good to speak to the audience cam, though it was not focussed on me but the whole room and had nobody left to direct it. On reflection, another camera person may have been needed!

Looking back, I admit that I didn’t have a real “feel” for the online group. Especially when the discussion in the room became very lively, it was a challenge not to forget the online group and keep the co-facilitator in view.

One solution could be to include a second screen of the online group in or behind the audience in the room to enable me as a facilitator to constantly have them in view. With this setup, I would have been able to react to them in real-time, stay engaged, and call on online participants up by name. 

It was also distracting to hear the online co-facilitator talk with the online group and the co-facilitator didn’t always have an easy time getting my attention. This is absolutely something we can do better in the future. 

Our co-facilitator Henna-Elise Selkälä was really important for the success of this meeting. Her facilitation skills and ability to multitask and use various online tools at speed were amazing. 

Think of switching between listening and following the room discussion and facilitating/explaining sessions to the online group while also visualizing discussions, projecting presentations, setting up breakouts and questionnaires, and communicating with the facilitator and the tech team when you want to speak up or let the online group be heard! When replacing her for a day we needed three people to do the same job! 

Working together with Henna-Elise for a long time and having a good mutual understanding was an important part of making this work, and I’d be sure to take this into account when finding a co-facilitator for your hybrid events!

In conclusion

Reflecting on the whole picture, I would still say it was a great event. We managed to have a reasonably interactive, collaborative, visual, and effective hybrid meeting. People were happy with the process and especially the facilitation. Connecting with the online group felt special and valuable.

We managed to discuss and share together, with parallel group work/breakouts working on a virtual whiteboard(s) consistently. Through the online visualization and communication, online participants stayed onboard and felt included. One massive advantage of running the meeting in this format was that we ended up with the best documentation ever because everything needed to be visual in an instant! 

As I mentioned previously, we concluded that it makes sense to think of hybrid sessions as two events rather than one when designing and planning. Some questions you might ask when starting to design a hybrid process might be:

  • What venue will best support your needs?
  • What kind of tech team will support us best?
  • How many fully hybrid equipped, undisturbed spaces do we need to enable fluid (group) work? 
  • How can we make sure that the facilitator and the participants both have the online group in view all the time?
  • How can we involve members of the online group early in the preparation, so they can take ownership of their experience too? Be sure to plan time and space to include them in process reflection during the event.
  • How can you balance and communicate the extra work/focus needed for the people present in the room when including the people online? This can create some resentment so perhaps you need to consistently raise awareness while incorporating a lot of movement and off-screen activity for the people in the room.
  • Is each exercise really a worthwhile activity for an online group? What else could they do in this time? How far can the attention of the online group go? What are their needs for off-screen time? 
  • Sometimes you need to drop the expectation that the whole program can and needs to be transported to the virtual. What is more important: networking online and presence group or fast content work?  Maybe have a few focussed on-screen networking moments rather than trying to make everything connected all the time. Choose methods accordingly. 
  • How can we simultaneously make content and visuals accessible to all participants with whiteboards, Q&A tools, and surveys?  

My final advice to anyone running a hybrid event is to start planning early! But never forget that sensing and updating an event in real-time according to the real needs of the virtual and the online group is key. 😉 

I am very much looking forward to your feedback and comments, all the best from Berlin, 

Daniel

About Daniel Unsöld

Daniel Unsöld facilitates events and workshops on-/offline, and coaches and trains facilitators in Germany and Europe since 2009.

Having a background in environmental advocacy, systemic coaching, and acting, Daniel works mainly for civil society organisations, social and green businesses, and research bodies with the goal to support social and ecological change.

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