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What It Takes to Run a Great Hybrid Meeting

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A recent McKinsey survey suggests that 90% of organizations will adopt some combination of remote and on-site work as they emerge from Covid restrictions. This new model will bring with it a dramatic change in how we meet — a hybrid mix of in-person attendees and remote meeting participants seems an inevitable component of our “new normal.”

There’s simply no going back to the world of “squawk boxes” on the conference room table, with those on the phone straining to hear, being “talked over” when trying to speak, or guessing what’s on that PowerPoint slide on a screen only their colleagues in the room can see.

As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO recently put it, “We want to ensure those joining remotely are always first-class participants.”

But hybrid meetings are vastly more complex than meeting in-person or virtually. They are easy to do poorly and hard to do well — remote participants are only one slip-up away from losing that first-class status. Just as executives learned how to run great virtual meetings over this past year, they now need to learn how to conduct great hybrid meetings as well.

Drawing from our combined half-century of experience designing and facilitating meetings for executive teams and boards, we’ve assembled eight best practices to help make your hybrid meetings more effective:

1. Up your audio game.

While remote participants need to see who is talking and what’s taking place in the meeting room, great audio is actually more critical. Yet while a lot of attention is paid to the visual aspects of meetings, audio is often overlooked until the last minute. Pre-Covid, we often heard remote participants say, “I’m sorry, can you get a little closer to the speakerphone and repeat what you just said?” Now, they expect to hear everything clearly — just as they can on Zoom.

To avoid a last-minute scramble caused by poor audio, make sure the room is equipped with enough high-quality microphones so remote participants can hear. If you’re in a hotel or other temporary meeting space and multiple microphones aren’t a viable option, consider supplementing your audio input by having in-person attendees pass around a hand-held microphone before speaking.

2. Explore a technology boost.

The pandemic accelerated the use and evolution of videoconference technology to enable virtual meetings from PCs, tablets, and phones. As providers invest heavily to better enable hybrid meetings, new features are being introduced to improve face-to-face communication among in-person and remote attendees.

For example, Zoom’s Smart Gallery (targeted for completion this year) uses artificial intelligence to detect individual faces in a shared room and pull them into panes on the screen so remote participants can see them in the now-familiar gallery view. Microsoft is developing new types of meeting rooms optimized for the hybrid experience. You should investigate what technology upgrades might be accessible to help make your team’s experience more immersive and authentic.

3. Consider video from the remote participant perspective.

As you design the meeting, continually ask yourself: What do remote participants need to see in order to fully engage? They should be able to see the faces of in-room attendees, shared presentations, physical documents handed out, content created during the meeting on whiteboards or flipcharts, etc.

It is tempting to just ask the in-person attendees to open their laptops and join a Zoom meeting (on mute), so remote participants can see everyone’s faces and documents can be easily shared. Clients frequently suggest this type of “in-room virtual meeting.” However, if the folks gathering in the room spend the meeting on their computers, they might as well have stayed in their homes or offices. The people meeting in person are — at least for the moment — so thrilled to finally be together again the last thing you want is for them to crouch over their individual laptops all day for the sake of the remote participants.

Especially in cases where cutting edge video technology is unaffordable or unavailable, a little ingenuity can go a long way to create a high-quality video experience for everyone.

For example, for a two-day offsite at a Florida hotel with 10 in-person attendees and two remote participants (one in Zurich and one in LA), we attached three webcams to laptops, and used a fourth laptop to share what was on the main screen (usually a PowerPoint).  We mounted two of the webcams on tripods, which faced the in-room attendees so remote participants could see who was speaking. We moved the third camera around to show a close-up view of presenters, flip charts, and wall charts throughout the session as needed. The four laptops joined the two used by our two remote executives for a total of six separate Zoom “participants” in the single Zoom meeting.

Post-meeting feedback confirmed that this setup allowed the remote participants to feel like they were an integral part of the meeting rather than distant observers.

4. Make remote participants full sized.

Another way to give remote participants equal stature is to give them greater presence in the room. In addition to the main screen in the center, set up two additional large monitors — one on each side of the room — showing “life-size” panes of the remote participants for the duration of the meeting.

We find these large images help in-person attendees accept remote colleagues as full participants and provide a constant reminder to include them in the conversation. Similarly, if possible the voices of remote participants should emanate from the same monitors as their faces — ceiling speakers tend to reinforce the artificiality of the situation.

5. Test the technology in advance.

Nothing kills a meeting’s momentum like waiting to fix a glitch in the audio or video. Prior to an important meeting, test the audio-visual set up — both in-room and for the remote attendees. Schedule a 10-15 minute one-on-one dry run to get remote participants comfortable with what they will see and hear during the meeting, as well as to review any software features they’ll likely be asked to use. It’s well worth the brief time required.

6. Design meetings for all attendees.

Review each activity or exercise focusing specifically on how remote participants will engage. Consider what tools and techniques, digital or otherwise, can be used to maximize their interaction with the in-room attendees.

For example, if you need to poll the group, use a phone-based survey tool like Poll Everywhere to collect everyone’s input in real time. This puts remote participants on an equal footing, versus a show-of-hands or relying on verbal feedback. To capture meeting notes, use an online whiteboard (or focus a remote camera on a flip chart) so everyone can see what’s being written as it happens.

Similarly, if the meeting design calls for in-room attendees to put dots or post-its on a wall chart, use a webcam to allow remote participants to read their peers’ responses before placing their own, just as they could if they were physically present.

If the meeting design calls for putting people into breakout groups, the easiest solution is to include all the remote participants in a single group. While simpler, this sends them the wrong message by reinforcing their physical absence. It’s likely worth the extra logistical and technical effort to integrate remote participants across several breakout groups to accentuate their equal status.

7. Provide strong facilitation.

Managing a hybrid meeting is harder than when the whole group is in person or on Zoom together. One person — a staff member, an outsider or a meeting participant — should be assigned to guide the conversation and keep it on track.

Despite the effort you may put into meeting design and logistics, it remains far too easy for in-person attendees to dominate the discussion. A facilitator should draw the remote participants in, keep them engaged and ensure their voices are heard, not interrupted or talked over. At times, the facilitator may need to call on in-room or remote participants to ensure that all voices are heard.

8. Give each remote participant an in-room “avatar.”

There may be times when remote participants need a physical presence in the room. It could be as simple as a camera view being blocked. Maybe a microphone isn’t working, or an attendee needs to be reminded to speak up. A post-it may need placement on a wall chart, or a poker chip placed on a table as part of a resource allocation exercise.

For these situations, each remote participant should have what we call an “in-room avatar” — a staff person (or fellow participant) who can be their physical presence in the meeting room as required. Whether via text, chat, or phone, they have a private line of communication constantly available throughout the meeting. Remote participants tell us that having confidential access to a single point-of-contact goes a long way to removing a sense of isolation or distance from those in the room itself. How embarrassing is having a remote participant asking “Fred, can you please speak up. I can’t hear you” every time Fred speaks? How much better to have another person come up to Fred during a break and discretely remind him “Fred. Please speak louder. It’s really hard for Natasha to hear you from Zurich.”

As the pandemic eases and we resume gathering in person, hybrid meetings will become a permanent part of how organizations function. These meetings bring added complexity at the same time that our collective Covid-driven year of meeting virtually raised expectations for remote participation. Fortunately, by leveraging technology and tools, being thoughtful in meeting design, and providing strong facilitation we can create hybrid meetings where all participants — whether in the room or an ocean away — feel engaged, valued and equal.

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Managing people

It's never been more clear: companies should give up on back to office and let us all work remotely, permanently

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  • With the rise of the Delta Variant, companies should switch to all remote.
  • All-remote is better for workplace collaboration, the environment, and companies' bottom lines.
  • Companies that switch to all-remote should be intentional about collaboration and technology.
  • Jeff Chow is SVP Product at InVision.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

It's time to go back to the office for good – the home office.

With the CDC's recommendation that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with "substantial" and "high" transmission of COVID-19, employees across industries are wondering what the new future of work looks like. As the possibility of another shelter-in-place order looms, companies are deciding whether moving to a hybrid situation – simultaneously in-person and remote – is worth it.

It's not. Simply put, the concept of "forever remote" makes sense for numerous companies and industries. For many, America's "back to work" isn't a simple light switch, but many organizations are better off to shut the lights off at the traditional office. The switch to all remote will broaden a company's talent pool and increase employee happiness and retention, while limiting a lease and lowering its carbon footprint.

There are benefits to becoming a fully-remote organization. A top example is that the talent pool now goes national, or even international. Organizations are no longer limited to recruiting employees from a given radius to their offices. Asynchronous work helps to open the door for employees to work across time zones to get projects and deliverables completed in time.

InVision, where I work, has been all-remote since its inception. We have the luxury of hiring people living across the US and in 25 countries.

Additionally, without the need for a large physical office presence, companies can save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, on leasing office space or building an expansive campus.

There is also evidence that eliminating an office for all employees to work remotely is better for the environment. Eliminating a daily commute, whether it's driving a vehicle or taking mass transit, helps cut down on emissions. This was initially noticed back in the spring and summer of 2020, when a decline in transportation due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 6.4% decrease in global carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of 2.3 billion tons. The United States had the largest drop in carbon emissions at 12%, followed by the entirety of the European Union at 11%.

In a June 2021 McKinsey survey of over 1,600 employed people, researchers found about one in three workers back in an office said returning to in-person work negatively impacted their mental health. Those surveyed also reported "COVID-19 safety and flexible work arrangements could help alleviate stress" of returning to the office. Not everyone who works for the same company is going to get along. In an all-remote environment, it is far easier for people who are at odds to simply avoid each other. HR won't have to spend nearly as much time mediating between (or terminating) office Hatfields and McCoys.

So, how exactly do you quickly pivot to remote again and stick with it? The key is intentionality. Teach managers to make a point of celebrating wins and good work on group calls. Build encouraging collaboration into managers' Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s. Take advantage of face-to-face opportunities by holding in-person, all-company all-hands meetings as a time to build culture, not a time to just do more work.

Treat working groups to dinner (use some of the money you saved on your lease!) and let them get to know each other as people. To be intentional, invest in new ways of working that are oftentimes better ways of working: reducing necessary meetings and adjusting more feedback sessions to asynchronous collaboration. Meetings that remain on calendars should be reserved for the purpose of being highly engaging and energizing moments for teams to brainstorm and do generative sessions.

Second is technology. By now, we're all familiar with the likes of Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams, but there are other products that can actively improve collaboration (full disclosure: I work for InVision, which makes one such digital collaboration tool, namely Freehand).

Take a thorough look with your IT team (and talk to your employees) to see what they need on a day-to-day basis. What tools does your accounting team need? Do they differ from what the marketing team needs (spoiler alert: they do). And don't force everyone to use the same tools. If your accounting team loves Microsoft Excel, that's fine for them. I can guarantee, however, that your product design team is not going to use it.

Finally, invest in your employees' ability to make the transition (again).

GreenGen, which provides green energy solutions for businesses and infrastructure projects, had one of the most pioneering ideas. "We had our employees do a two-day work-from-home resiliency test. This was to ensure that everyone's home Wi-Fi was adequate so that all of our documents and materials were easily accessible online, and that we could troubleshoot any potential problems preemptively," said Bradford H. Dockser, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of GreenGen. "Ensuring that our team members got monitors, mice, and keyboards at home made the transition seamless." With that sort of intentional stress test, GreenGen didn't skip a beat.

Above all, the main key to returning to the home office for good lies within communication. Technology and innovative products have helped to bring colleagues closer together virtually, as people work from anywhere at any time. Initial shelter-in-place orders taught many businesses across industries that remote work can be just as effective, if not more so, than the traditional office model. Businesses should make the call to go all-remote permanently. Their employees, their investors, and the environment will all thank you.

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Business Ideas

Some Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores will become WeWork coworking spaces for $300 a month – see inside SaksWorks

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The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

  • Hudson's Bay Company has partnered with WeWork to create co-working spaces.
  • The SaksWorks will be built within existing or past Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores.
  • The coworking spaces will have amenities like gyms, cafes, and restaurants.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) – the mastermind behind Saks Fifth Avenue and formerly Lord and Taylor – has partnered with WeWork to create “SaksWorks.”

SaksWorks' armchairs and coffee tables
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

That’s right. Your local Saks Fifth Avenue could become the next hotspot for freelancers, startups, and remote workers.

SaksWorks' large coworking desk with a presentation screen and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

To tap into the ongoing coworking craze, HBC will be turning part of its real estate collection into WeWork-run SaksWorks.

SaksWorks' tall shelves with plants and books hiding desks
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

This includes both existing or past Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores, Konrad Putzier reported for the Wall Street Journal.

SaksWorks' couch in front of a coffee table surrounded by bookshelves and plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Several SaksWorks will also be located outside of the city for suburbanites who need a break from working from home.

SaksWorks' couch in front of a coffee table surrounded by bookshelves and plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

All of the images shown below are from the partnership’s Brookfield Place location in New York City, but there will also be three additional New York locations – in Manhasset, Scarsdale, and Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship in the city – and one in Greenwich, Connecticut.

SaksWorks with a bookshelf in front of a couch, coffee table, and more shelving
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

The Brookfield Place location is replacing a former Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s store, while the SaksWorks in Saks Fifth Avenue is taking the place of a 10th floor children’s section.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The three other SaksWorks will take the place of Lord and Taylor stores, Steff Yotka reported for Vogue.

a couch with colorful pillows and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source:  Vogue

The first few SaksWorks will open its doors in September, but looking ahead, the team has plans to open more locations across North America.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants, coffee table
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

In the future, this could include Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Boston, Amy Nelson, SaksWorks president, told the Wall Street Journal.

SaksWorks' coworking space with a long line of tables and chairs
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

HBC’s reputation for luxury goods seeps into the SaksWorks spaces …

SaksWorks' armchair and couches and shelves
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

… which will include plush amenities like on-site gyms, retail and restaurant spaces, cafes, and in-house events.

SaksWorks' squat rack in front of a mirror
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Like any other WeWork, SaksWorks will also have the prerequisite meeting spaces and open concept coworking spots.

SaksWorks' large coworking desk with a presentation screen and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

As part of the collaboration, the SaksWorks locations will use WeWork’s “workplace management technology,” such as its booking app, according to a press release.

a couch with colorful pillows and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

“With HBC, we take the first step toward expanding our technology platform product offering and providing a differentiated approach to how landlords can incorporate flexible space across their portfolio,” Sandeep Mathrani, WeWork’s CEO, said in the press release.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants, coffee table
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

Prices will start at $299 a month, and the waitlist is already a few hundred people deep.

SaksWorks' tall shelves with plants and books hiding desks
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source:  Vogue

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Finance & Accounting

Section 321 Probably isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

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With the change of administration in the U.S. in 2021, many American domestic businesses—and some from throughout the world—watched to see if the U.S. imposed trade tariffs would be lifted on China. 

However, the tariffs remain in place which means that Section 321, a regulation that pertains to imports, is here to stay. On the bright side, this statute presents a money-saving opportunity for eCommerce business owners and a continued need for fulfillment companies in Canada and Mexico. 

What is Section 321?

The statute, Section 321, categorizes certain goods that can be cleared through customs without extra taxes or duties. This allows business owners to avoid additional shipping expenses that would usually force them to increase prices and/or gain very little profit.

Likewise, by invoking Section 321 on imports while employing the services of a Mexican or Canadian fulfillment company, businesses can also save time by improving the efficiency of their logistics strategy. 

What Has Prompted Frequent Use of Section 321?

China and the U.S. make up two of the largest economic powers in the world. In fact, as of 2019, trade between both countries equaled almost $559 billion in American dollars. This, in part, resulted from China’s induction into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Flash forward a little over a decade and half later, tariffs were imposed on Chinese goods to hold the economic power accountable for a rash of intellectual theft, unfair trade practices, and to leverage the playing field between the two nations.

While during the election of 2020, President Biden had disagreed with President Trump’s political or economic tactics in relation to dealing with China, he has not made any moves to lift the tariffs that were imposed by the previous administration. Rather, he has chosen to keep these measures in place that cover roughly $350 billion worth in goods imported from China. This decision stems from the first in-person meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping which did little to thaw the relationship between the two countries.

Thus, going with the bipartisan support of holding China accountable for its political missteps and for its unfair trade practices on the economic world stage, the tariffs remain in place for the time being. 

Why is Section 321 Here to Stay?

So, what does this mean for companies that have traded with China? 66% of goods that are exported from China to the U.S. carry a tariff at an average rate of 19%. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, that’s about 19% higher than before the trade war started. 

Since American importers bear the cost of those duties, prices on items like televisions, baseball hats, luggage, bikes, and sneakers have gone up. This means that consumers might have noticed a difference on the price tag compared to years ago or a higher shipping cost once they reach “cart” on an eCommerce site. 

Consequently, business owners have invoked Section 321 with the help of Canadian or Mexican fulfillment companies to cut the cost that’s triggered by these tariffs. 

How to Qualify for Section 321

While Section 321 enables businesses to avoid tariffs on some imported goods, you would have to make sure shipments do not exceed $800 in value. Additionally, you would have to remember that not all products fall under the eligibility of Section 321 coverage. These include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Dinnerware
  • Bio samples for lab analysis
  • Raw oysters

Plus, you would have your shipments to Canada or Mexico, where fulfillment companies will divide your goods into parcels that value $800 or less. They are then shipped to the U.S. but not all at the same time so as not to exceed the $800 limit. 

How to Apply Section 321 to Your Business Strategy?

Depending on where you’re located, you would partner with a fulfillment company in Canada or Mexico to come up with a plan of how to divide the shipment and schedule delivery. Furthermore, the fulfillment company would check the proper paperwork to ensure all necessary and correct information is given. With the shipments arriving in either of these two countries, you wouldn’t have to be concerned about the tariffs because the destination from China would be Canada or Mexico. Neither of these countries have to pay a tariff (or as high of a tariff). Plus, technically, your supplies are “arriving from” Canada or Mexico who have a trade agreement in place with the U.S. that doesn’t involve tariffs. So, this practice presents a mutually beneficial situation for your organization and the fulfillment company. 

Because Section 321 doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, you can ensure a timely delivery of your goods by securing the services of a Canadian or Mexican fulfillment company, depending on your location. These companies take care of the logistics and paperwork for you which saves time and money. They double check on the scheduling of the arrival of your imports to guarantee that they will meet the Section 321 criteria. All in all, this means that you won’t have to worry about paying the high tariffs, and your customers can count on reasonable prices and receiving their products on time.

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