The Effects of Omicron on Facilitated Meetings
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As a result of the Omicron variant (not to mention the latest storm systems sweeping the nation), we’ve seen a number of clients this year move trainings, facilitations, and strategic planning sessions from scheduled January and February dates to early spring. Most are citing participants not yet ready to convene again in-person as they remain concerned for the health and wellbeing of both themselves and their families.
Knowing the importance of face-to-face meetings (particularly the formal and informal networking elements that are difficult to replicate in a virtual environment), many are electing to postpone gatherings a couple of months to a time when they sincerely hope the threats — both real and perceived — are reduced. In the meantime, organizations are really struggling with when and how to make these decisions.
While there’s not a one-sized-fits-all approach, following are some key considerations about whether or not to postpone that facilitated exercise with a small stakeholder group or that much-needed strategic planning session with your board of directors:
- Just how mission-critical is the meeting?
- What are the negative implications of postponing the meeting a month or two?
- To what extent is your industry meeting in-person right now?
- To what extent does your industry look to your organization as a role model for convening safely in-person?
- What is the comfort level of your participants to travel right now?
- To what extent are you prepared to institute and enforce COVID safety protocols?
- How would you handle an outbreak (both internally and externally)?
- Is the venue fully staffed to support your meeting’s needs?
- Could this meeting be accomplished with comparable outcomes if held remotely?
- Should you decide to postpone, will two to four weeks give your participants sufficient time to change their travel/participation plans?
And yet, many other groups continue to move forward planning and hosting meetings that are fully in-person. But these, too, offer an interesting dilemma: What are your COVID safety protocols? How will you communicate them before/during the session? How will you enforce behaviors not aligned with your protocols?
Particularly for small, facilitated meetings with no more than about 25 people, I’ve noticed that they often begin with the best of intentions, but quickly the masks come down/off and social distancing becomes a distant memory. But just because these gatherings are significantly smaller than, say, an annual meeting/expo, shouldn’t we still give them adequate attention and consideration?
Having been onsite for a number of in-person meetings since the summer of 2021, I’ve experienced a serious range of onsite practices (from nearly nonexistent to significantly more restrictive). While your protocols should be specific to your organization, following are just some of the questions you’ll want to answer when planning your next facilitated meeting:
- What are the current CDC guidelines?
- What are the current state, city, local, and venue guidelines?
- What safety protocols do your participants currently experience in their workplaces (and to what extent does this vary by location)?
- Have your participants been getting out and about for fun/pleasure in the last six months?
- What do your participants expect from you? (The only real way to know is to ask them — and you may be surprised by what they say.)
- What are you willing to put into place/enforce (and who will take responsibility for this)?
- Might your policies need to change closer to the meeting should a new variant be introduced?
- What are the best ways to proactively communicate your policies before/during the session (even if there are no restrictions)?
- How will you navigate participants who believe your protocols are too restrictive/not restrictive enough?
And finally, since many groups were forced to be fully remote for the better part of the last two years, it seems that many are trying their hardest to avoid it as a solution this year (unless, of course, there are extenuating circumstances making remote meetings more practical, more equitable, more financially responsible, and the like).
Particularly for those participants not yet ready to convene again in-person, but respecting those who are, groups are asking with greater regularity to shift to a hybrid model. What organizers are not recognizing, however, is that this approach to meetings often requires a different design plan than meetings either 100 percent virtual or 100 percent in-person.
Without a doubt, hybrid facilitation is difficult. It does take added intentionality and patience. Likewise, both budget and capacity are often impacted because, depending on the size of each group and the purpose of the meeting, you may need two facilitation teams to ensure the same level of participation, engagement, discussion, consensus, and accountability.
So, before just “going hybrid,” following are some key considerations for both you and your facilitator(s) to help ensure the best possible experience for everyone involved:
- How many people will join in-person vs. remotely?
- How will you handle participants who choose to “go remote” at the last minute?
- How will you set the room to be mindful of your COVID safety protocols and to best engage both the in-person and remote audiences?
- What supplies are needed in the room (and what might you recommend the remote participants gather to fully participate)?
- What technologies will be needed to bridge the in-person and remote audiences?
- How will this affect the meeting budget?
- Will one or more producers be needed to navigate these technologies?
- Will the in-person audience get to see/hear the remote audience (and vice versa)?
- Is there an expectation that the remote audience be on camera?
- Is the remote audience just seeing a panoramic of the entire room or individual participant faces?
- Will the two groups get to engage directly with one another or will a facilitator be needed to bridge the conversation?
- Who will respond to remote participant questions/comments and elevate to the full room, as needed?
- Do all of the planned exercises (e.g., networking, small group discussions) translate to the in-person and remote audiences?
- How many facilitators will be needed to effectively lead the planned exercises for both the in-person and remote audiences?
- How will you handle instruction clarifications, drop ins, consultations, and the like for the remote audience during group exercises?
- Who will scribe ideas from the remote audience onto half sheets/flipcharts and present them in the room?
- Can the remote audience see PowerPoint slides, sticky walls, flipcharts, and the like?
- If not, who will take pictures of these items to share with the remote audience?
- Who will prepare/upload handouts to the remote audience throughout the session?
- How are you handling the remote audience during breaks/meal times?
If you or your team is navigating the effects of Omicron on your facilitated meetings, please share with us your tips, tricks, and recommendations using the comments below or by emailing us at email@example.com.