The great return to the office is coming, or not. Many recent surveys indicate that, if given a choice, employees favor some combination of a fully remote or hybrid arrangement for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest challenges for leadership teams in this coming hybrid world will be running effective planning sessions. The natural tendency for most groups will be to revert to their in-person way of interacting and then tack on remote participants. Having run hundreds of planning sessions both in-person and virtually, I can tell you that this approach will culminate in a clear divide between those physically present and those dialing in, weaker creative ideas, and a looser sense of team cohesion and alignment than you'd want.
If you're looking to build a compelling hybrid strategic planning session, here are eight things to do.
Acknowledge the reality.
The transition to planning in a completely virtual world was awkward and clunky at first, and so will the switch to hybrid meetings. Give yourself and your team permission for things to feel strange as you work through the early stages, and clearly set your intention to build as inclusive a process as possible within the constraints.
Have all information in one place ahead of the meeting.
Get a central (virtual) repository and put all pertinent information in it ahead of the event. This should include agendas, pre-reads, decks to present, and all documents used to capture outputs. Nobody should be providing brand-new information on the day of your session, nor should they be sharing previously unshared files from their machine. This will ensure everyone has access to the same information and give them time to review it before the meeting, rather than eating into valuable discussion time.
Resist the urge to have everyone join virtually.
"Come to the office but then sit in your cubicle to engage in a planning session" won't exactly motivate your team to get out of bed, put on some hard pants, and trek into the office. Instead, set up a central planning room for your in-person participants with access to your web conferencing tools of choice and some other stations or rooms with a computer setup that they can access throughout the session.
Mix in-person and virtual participants in your breakouts.
Breakout discussions are a great way to reduce groupthink in a planning session. Still, your natural tendency will be to lump your in-person people together in one set of groups and your virtual people in another. Rather than further alienating your virtual participants, use your breakout rooms from the point above to allow folks in the office to interact with at least one virtual participant.
Use virtual rather than physical collaboration tools.
Nothing beats a good whiteboard or flipchart for a brainstorming session. Unfortunately, suppose you opt to use the physical ones in your meeting room. In that case, your virtual participants will miss out on the opportunity to add, edit, iterate, and otherwise engage with them. There are a ton of great virtual whiteboarding tools. Set those up on the computers you are using and give all participants an equal chance to use them.
Facilitate the conversation.
Left to their own devices, most hybrid teams gravitate toward conversations that start in the room, incorporate a bit of feedback from those on the call, and then move back to those physically present for a decision. Facilitate your hybrid discussions a little more rigidly by specifically alternating the perspectives of people that have dialed in and those that are gathered together.
Debrief breaktime ahas.
As good as your facilitation skills are in the room, your in-person participants will likely progress the conversation in the space between the formal working sessions. Rather than try to stamp out what can often be meaningful and creative conversations, encourage those conversations to happen but build in appropriate debrief time after each break to share any outside-the-room ahas.
Check what's working regularly.
Don't assume you'll get everything right immediately. Instead, build in regular review points to discuss what's working and what's not working in the process, and adjust as you go.