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6 Lessons from a hybrid board retreat

In the days and weeks leading up to Aug. 27, 2021, we were incessantly refreshing the The NewYork Times COVID map for risk level. Just don’t be purple, just don’t be purple, we’d pray as we zoomed in on Montgomery County, Va., where the board retreat we were planning was scheduled to take place.

Luckily, Montgomery County, home to Virginia Tech, never turned purple (the highest level of risk exposure). Despite some angst, the board retreat was a go, and off to Virginia we went to facilitate a fully outdoors, hybrid weekend for the Hillel@VT Board of Directors.

As other organizations debate whether to hold important events in person, online, or through a hybrid format, here are some learnings that can help in your own planning and implementation.

  1. Safety first. Getting board members to visit a college campus on its first weekend of the school year required several layers of reassurances. In an early communication, we asked everyone to confirm that they would comply with Centers for Disease Control, Virginia and Virginia Tech health and safety guidelines (which included vaccinations). As the event approached, we informed them that the entire program would be held in an extra-spacious tent instead of indoors. Finally, we requested that everyone submit a negative COVID test before arriving. This was all done to set expectations while reassuring the board members that we’d be taking their health and safety seriously.

  2. Invest in tech and tech support. For those signing in from home, we knew the gap would already be significant enough as they might miss some invaluable schmoozing time. So to the extent to which your budget allows for it, bring in a professional team and equipment. Get an A/V system to pick up and distribute sound clearly (so those joining us online could hear people around different tables and those who were in person could hear the virtual participants when they chimed in); a TV screen that works well in sunlight; a wireless mic to be passed around; and an external webcam to capture the whole room. Most importantly, hire a tech person to problem solve during the day. If your budget is tight, prioritize the tech over snacks or swag.

  3. Have a spare laptop or two on hand. When someone started writing on a whiteboard that was “off camera” for the webcam, we were able to pull out a spare laptop and set it up with no sound to face the board and show the virtual participants what was being written or drawn. The laptop also traveled around the tables so the participants on Zoom could join small group discussions. The second laptop was helpful in monitoring the Zoom chat, as well.

  4. In the final planning stages, run through the schedule through the lens of an in-person participant – and then review it again from the perspective of someone on Zoom. Jot down every place where you can anticipate an experience gap and plan concretely how you will address it. Will the people on Zoom be in a breakout room together while everyone else is working in small groups? What if there’s only 1 person online (see point #3 about spare laptops)? The more contingency plans, the better.

  5. An empty tent can wear many hats. When we’d originally designed the schedule for the weekend, we’d planned to use the building’s various rooms and outdoor spaces. When the decision was made to conduct the entire event outdoors, our options shrunk, but our imagination only expanded. We set the tent up differently on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to meet the needs of the program, with tables, chairs, podiums, whiteboards and microphones rotating accordingly. There was also a firepit on the grass, where we ran the social program after Shabbat dinner, along with a shaded patio, where a breakout group could have some privacy.

  6. Don’t be afraid to invite everyone to take risks. After a year and a half of boring Zoom meetings, we wondered whether these board members would remember how to sit around a firepit and open up to new people. When invited, would they share things they don’t normally say out loud? Would they see anything that’s not strictly business as a waste of time? Admittedly, it felt risky to even suggest certain activities that might be considered too touchy-feely after a year of sitting and listening passively on Zoom. But we ran them anyway, tacitly inviting the participants to remember the heights to which we can rise together if we open our hearts to people who share a passion for the same cause. And you know what? It worked. When it was all over, they expressed appreciation for the deep questions, simple art activities, and storytelling that framed the business that had to get done. They acknowledged that those activities deepened their connection to one another, the mission, and the tasks they volunteered to do moving forward.

As the social bonds among the board members in the tent deepened over the weekend, we could sense their motivation and accountability increasing. At the closing activity, one board member looked into the eyes of the board chair and said, “Now that we’ve met in person, it’ll be harder to say yes and not do what I said I’d do.” Mission accomplished.

But the truth is that back in 2019 we could have elicited that in-person moment of vulnerability, connection and accountability. The trick here was creating that experience for those in person AND online. So how could we tell if we were succeeding? During one break between sessions, we glanced over at the big TV monitor and noticed the virtual participants chatting and laughing while munching on their own snacks. The technician had wisely muted the TV but left the Zoom sound on and these board members had chosen to stay and hang out while we milled around the tent. And later, the in-person and virtual participants were locked into intense conversations in hybrid breakout sessions. Mission really accomplished.

Purple counties on a map or not, it turns out that COVID wasn’t the only kind of risk on our minds. We’d planned a program that required emotional risk; a level of vulnerability that some of these board members might not have experienced since February 2020. The technical challenge was creating that experience in person and virtually alike. Overall, everyone’s desire to be there – through Zoom or in person – shone through. With the right mindset and dedication to flexibility, hybrid models can drive us into the future.

Maya Dolgin, MBA, ACC is the founder of BraverMe. She helps leaders and rising stars bring out the best in themselves at work through webinars, workshops, facilitation, coaching and training.

Rebecca Gerbert, M.Ed, is the director of Hillel International’s Center for Volunteer Leadership where she strengthens boards and board work across the movement through trainings, educational seminars, and retreats.


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