© Helvetas / Andy Brunner

Crafting Engaging Hybrid Events: 9 Lessons from 9 Years

BY: Antonia Does, Cesar Robles - 17. August 2023
© Helvetas / Andy Brunner

Have you ever found yourself attending a “hybrid” event that ended up just being a livestream of a face-to-face gathering? Have you ever planned an in-person event and, at the last moment, you were asked to just “go hybrid” because some participants asked for a way to join online? These situations are quite common, and we can relate to them with our own experience as organizers, facilitators and participants of hybrid events.

Hybrid events, which are gatherings that purposefully include both people online and people in a room, are no longer a new occurrence. Perhaps this is a by-product of COVID-19: people and organizations gained experience using online meeting tools, and now, in a post-pandemic world, hybrid events are part of daily business.

But this practice is not new at Helvetas. We have held purposeful hybrid events since 2014, when we had our first “Share Day,” a hybrid meeting with staff from 30 countries. For us, a hybrid event is one where the experience of both online and in-person participants is very similar. Any “hybrid” event that does not offer this experience has a different name, such as a livestream or broadcast of an in-person event.

Here are nine lessons we’ve learned over the last nine years about how to craft engaging hybrid events.

1. Make a thoughtful decision: Do you really want a hybrid event?

Some people prefer to meet in person. Some prefer to meet online. Many prefer to have an option. Keeping all preferences in mind, there are several pros and cons to hybrid events that are worth acknowledging as you frame your event. Hybrid events offer multiple advantages, such as inclusiveness, addressing spread-out teams, reducing travel time, climate and flexibility. But they also bear the challenge of considering two audiences instead of one. This requires a bigger team and more preparation time – which may increase the cost in comparison to an online event. Ensure you make a thoughtful decision: Do you really want to go hybrid?

Resources: To navigate this decision, read “How to make a reflective decision” by Learning Moments and consult this decision wheel by Monika Schlatter, Carsten Schulz, Corinne Sprecher and Nadia von Holzen.

Our case: In 2018, one of our clients asked us for help livestreaming small meetings to discuss their organizational culture. We proposed going beyond a livestream and adapting their event agendas to include one online participant with each in-person group of 5. What truly made it hybrid: Each group had an extra laptop and a speaker, and this equipment was located at the same physical level as the rest of participants so that the person online had a physical space in the group. This made it possible for each group to have a diversity of inputs from the head office and other locations, and made the whole process more inclusive.

2. Embrace the complexity of hybrid events

To be honest, a purely online event or a purely in-person event is much easier to organize than a hybrid one. An interactive and engaging hybrid event takes more time, money and human capital to prepare. Going hybrid for purposeful engagement involves creating an event for people who will meet in person and online and making sure that both groups can make the most of the experience. For us, this means that both groups can actively contribute and the objectives of the event are reached with consideration for both audiences. In addition to process design, organizers should determine what technical equipment is needed to allow for a truly engaging and interactive event (e.g., cameras, sound, Wi-Fi amplifiers in case of bad internet connectivity).

Resources: See notes from the “Hybrid Meetings Lab” held in 2022 by the Swiss Knowledge Management Think Table to get an idea of how complex the setting of a hybrid event can be. 

Our case: For the Helvetas Share Week 2019 (Helvetas’ week-long meeting of Country Directors and Program Advisors that takes place every two years), we noticed that many sessions and planned activities were not only relevant for Country Directors or management, but for all staff. We decided to go bolder than in previous years and offer more comprehensive coverage and accessibility to staff. Everyone from around the world could attend plenaries and ask questions, as well as joining group work. They received daily digests in their language summarizing each day, as well as resources and videos. To make this happen, the “social reporting” team grew from two to four persons, including a coordinator, IT/livestream person, videographer/photographer and blogger.

3. Dare to go fully online or fully in-person

If you don’t have the time and resources, don’t be afraid to hold your meeting purely online or in person. You can be bold from the outset when organizing an only in-person event, taking into account that some might not be able to participate and making clear to all that there won’t be any last-minute options to join online. A livestream of a face-to-face event is also a means to disseminate what’s happening in a room at a certain time (accepting that some attendees will only be listening with one ear). But, if you go that route, call it by what it really is: a livestream rather than a hybrid event.

Resources: See the Swiss Knowledge Management Think Table recap on “Let’s talk about Hybrid” to learn about benefits, challenges and solutions to hybrid settings.

Our case: During COVID in 2020 and 2021, we held our General Assembly online. But in 2022 and 2023, we decided to return to only in-person. Why? Because the organizing team took the time to reflect on the pros and cons of online, hybrid and in-person, and based on an audience analysis (which determined that most attendees were Swiss-based and from an older generation) and event profile, they opted to do only in-person.

4. Own your decision to go hybrid

Once you’ve chosen your format – and especially so if you are preparing an engaging hybrid event – own and trust the process. This will be vital within the organizing team and even more so with your audiences. Once you’ve said yes to a hybrid event, you can be creative and try out new tools or different facilitation methods. Your audiences will (very likely, often curiously and eagerly) follow you along.

Resources: See the blog post by Learning Moments on “Saying yes to hybrid meetings – make them inclusive, interactive, and purposeful.”

Our case: When hosting a hybrid multi-day event for staff located in various locations of Burkina Faso and Europe, one team got creative and organized a TV show-like recap of the previous day, which was streamed virtually to all locations via Zoom. This made the event more entertaining, and the methodology was hybrid-friendly while helping relay important messages.

© Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
Cesar Robles (left) and Antonia Does working as the team behind the hybrid facilitation, which includes a livestreamer, blogger, online participants host, and editorial lead. © Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
© Helvetas / Cesar Robles
Technology is only one component of a hybrid event. The priority is the human experience: If we do a hybrid event, how do people online and people joining in-person have the best (and very similar) experience? © Helvetas / Cesar Robles
© Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
Facilitator Cesar Robles streams a close-up tour of a panorama illustration through Zoom to both the screen of the main conference room and to participants online. © Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
© Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
The team behind the hybrid facilitation, including a livestreamer, blogger and online participants host. © Helvetas / Paula Hromkovicova
© Helvetas
Don’t always blame the technology. This photos shows how the team in charge of hybrid facilitation was ready to solve a problem: The audio stream didn’t work and they quickly solved it by placing a "jabra” mic next to the actual speakers in the room (right side in the picture).  © Helvetas

5. Reflect, learn, adapt and improve – as a team

Every hybrid event is different, and we all have varied experience with organizing them. Combining backgrounds, levels of experience (and maybe even different personalities) can be a great strength when putting together your organizing team. It allows for multiple perspectives and the space to bring in new ideas, while at the same time relying on things that have worked well in the past.

Our case: Post-event debriefings and reflection meetings are a default for us when organizing events of any kind. Holding these sessions in the evenings of multi-day events allows us to adapt and improve elements as we continue to the next day. Sharing learnings and insights with colleagues is also regularly done through short blog posts on our intranet or public ones like the one you are reading.

6. Connect the visual worlds in hybrid events

To create engaging hybrid events, it is vital to know who is attending – either behind their own screen or sitting in joint rooms. Faceless thumbnails are discouraging. Showing online participants (or the “zoomies,” as Nadia von Holzen calls them) via live video or through profile photos in the thumbnails encourages collaboration, a sense of community, prevents cold responses and provides familiarity to all participants.

Vice versa, it is important to have one (or multiple) cameras that show the room participants (also referred to as “roomies”) so that the participants online have a sense of that space and can relate to it better. While the main facilitator addresses both the in-person and online participants, it is worthwhile to appoint an online facilitator or host who welcomes participants online, gives them specific tips, and liaises between the two environments.

In hybrid events, it is as important for a facilitator to know their crowd as it is for a participant to be familiar with the meeting facilitator. It will not only help the facilitation, but also will connect the participants more easily and make the experience for everyone more worthwhile. As human beings, we can connect much more easily and understand each other when we have had previous interactions.

Our case: An onboarding workshop with the Helvetas Burkina Faso program was launched with a three-day in-person segment. This was followed by four half-days of hybrid workshops that virtually connected three locations and the facilitator one month later.

© Helvetas Burkina Faso
Facilitator Antonia Does (top left) and participants of the hybrid segment of an onboarding workshop with program staff from Helvetas Burkina Faso. © Helvetas Burkina Faso

7. Make it inclusive

Instead of merely thinking of online participants as “receivers” of a livestream, you can create meaningful hybrid events by making the experience engaging and inclusive. This can include offering interpretation services if you have a multi-linguistic audience or using a survey, whiteboard or other note-taking tools online (also for the in-person participants) so that everyone joins on the same platform. While it may be more difficult to create inclusiveness in every session, you can think of other elements that generate a feeling of being included, such as through daily summary emails, video recaps, space for questions and answers, and communication in various languages based on your audience – as is regularly done at Helvetas’ Share Week, which takes place every two years.

Our case: A client who had just finished hosting events around the world wanted to have a “summary” hybrid event to show the results and give people a chance to ask questions and learn about the follow-up. Since the event was planned in English and we knew that many people who do not speak English would not join, we advised splitting the event into three sessions (English, French and Spanish). However, the client quickly became worried about the time and cost of finding speakers for each language. What did we do? We hired interpreters for French and Spanish who worked over Zoom, and the live interpretation was available to everyone in the meeting (including people in the room who could join with their phone to listen in their preferred language or via the main audio in the room).

8. Don’t always blame the technology

Based on our experience, if there is a technical issue at a hybrid event, it’s usually not due to the technology, but due to a lack of proper testing or staff under-resourcing (i.e., the lack of experience or knowledge from the people who are running the hybrid components of the meeting).

Technology can fail, that’s a fact, but the best way to deal with it is by having a team of experienced professionals who can manage hiccups in a fast and reliable manner (e.g., finding alternatives if there is a sudden failure in connectivity, cameras, etc.). But not everyone can afford a whole team of hybrid or livestream professionals. What should you do? The answer is quite simple: design an event that responds to your budget. If you don’t have enough budget or a team to make it hybrid, then don’t do it – instead choose to go fully in-person or fully online. If you are mandated to make your event hybrid, then ask for the resources needed to make it happen; if they are not provided, then don’t commit because you are bound to fail.

Resources: We created three good resources on the required technical setup for hybrid events: (1) Basic setup, (2) Advanced setup, and (3) photos of potential hybrid settings from the Hybrid Lab exchange of the Swiss Knowledge Management Think Table (see Hybrid Lab after page 4.)

9. Remember healthy principles for facilitators

We noticed that after facilitating hybrid and online events we were often more exhausted (and literally sweating more) than if we would have facilitated that event in person. Even though online events tend to be shorter and we can potentially fit more than one in a day, we wondered why this happened. We started digging and discovered that as facilitators this work experience is comparable to the work of an interpreter. Breaks are essential because one’s attention is fully engaged (even if the role is not to be the main host). It is not about the number of hours, but about the intensity of focus during that time, regardless of the tasks undertaken.

When we meet in person we are able to learn from others not only by what they say, but also by body language, tone (often somewhat skewed over Zoom) and other cues. On the other hand, meeting online (or hybrid) means that we have to focus on a little video thumbnail and a limited screen, which leads our brain to “overheat” and get stressed by trying to learn as much as possible in this context. This is also known as “Zoom fatigue” (read more in this National Geographic article). 

What else can help? Make a contingency plan. Last year, for the first time, we created a contingency plan for a major internal event. The plan was very simple: a one-pager outlined the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the organizing team of the event, with a third column describing who could take over if anyone could not perform their duties. Everyone who was included as “plan b” was asked and informed in advance, and they added a placeholder in their calendars. This proved very helpful when one key member of the livestream team got sick, and the “plan b” person was ready to step in.

About the Authors

As an advisor in Evaluation and Learning, Antonia Does works with Helvetas' programs and external clients worldwide facilitating learning processes and events. Speaking different languages makes her almost as happy as cold-water swimming.

Cesar Robles works with teams around the world, co-creating communications and knowledge-sharing strategies. He is a senior advisor in the Learning and Innovation team at Helvetas, and loves tacos and dancing.

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