Virtual vs IRL vs Hybrid

Which format is best for your next convening?

On March 24th, 2022, Six session designers convened virtually to talk about the pros and cons of the different session formats we now have to choose from: virtual, in real life (IRL) and hybrids (a mixture of both).  The session included Tanya Begum RESULTS UK, Ffion Dean Wales TUC, Martin Dooley, Liz McLean Knowsaic, hvale vale and myself.  

As we emerge slowly from this pandemic, we face a brave new world where people have strengthened their ability to make the most of convening in virtual formats. As a result, a new buzzword has emerged: ‘hybrid’. How do we convene and design hybrids harnessing the best elements of both virtual and face to face formats? We also need to understand how to choose between the three formats. 

Always choose a session format that will provide the best experience for participants and be the most efficient in reaching the organisers’ goals.

A significant takeaway for all of us about Hybrids: Hybrids don’t mean that you are having your whole convening with some participants physically together whilst interacting with other online participants. Hybrids can and probably should be sequential, dividing up tasks and interactions between the formats in an optimal way. 

A large part of our discussion was breaking down the pros and cons of all three formats.

The Pros of a Virtual Meeting

  • No travel costs (or hotel car shuttle)
  • Less time involved because of lack of travel
  • Can include more geographically dispersed participants
  • Open up to more participants – more in numbers but also online is more accessible to certain groups who aren’t able to get to IRL events.
  • Create or support alternative infrastructure
  • Neuroatypical and introvert participation
  • Easier control of trolls
  • More democratic – everyone can participate and big personalities less likely to dominate 
  • More security for dissident/activist/marginalized groups
  • Immediate documentation capture with collaborative tools – makes co-creation seem more integrated
  • Participants/presenters can research, use online reference materials quicker/more discretely
  • Don’t have to chase people to come back to the main room
  • Easy to chat discretely
  • Can allow participation from extremely low bandwidth environments
  • Asynchronous options (slack/email prior, during, after)
  • Obviates visa delay or denial
  • Platforms evolving & improving
  • Can do short event without much overhead
  • Can iterate frequently
  • People are more willing to do virtual when it is necessary (eg COVID lockdown)

The Cons of a Virtual Meeting

  • Lack of full primate engagement (less eye contact, pheromones) 🙂
  • Easier to lurk and not engage
  • Mental fatigue comes easier
  • Lack of a culture about saying no to one-click away engagements
  • Little opportunity for serendipitous conversations
  • Possible overreach by time zone
  • Lack of shared cultural/legislative/political context
  • Few platforms allow you to go off in a side room
  • People are less likely to pay attention – easy to sign up to an online event and then have it on in the background while you do your emails etc
  • You cant cut off in the middle of a sentence and thrown out of a breakout room unlike IRL events  
  • Easy for trolls to enter disrupt (they don’t have costs/travel)
  • Takes more planning
  • Quality can decline sooner & faster and we are less likely to notice or pivot (?)
  • Tech fail can entirely stop participation
  • If internet fail, we sometimes lose presentation & communication with presenter
  • Most people are still learning to balance remote rhythm
  • Requires internet/hardware/appropriate software
  • Interactively requires much more rigorous pedagogy/curriculum design
  • Multiple screens can be distracting/overwhelming/confusing (eg mozfest)
  • Staying online for 10-12 hours is not workable/healthy/sustainable
  • Harder to compel people to physically move 

Pros of In Real Life (IRL)

  • Staying full human/engaged
  • Better full spectrum engagement/neurotransmitters
  • Easier to continue conversation following main event
  • Informal break time/networking/ random socializing
  • Emotional and more embodied connections
  • Away from home-life and other distractions / full focus on the event 
  • Bonding experience via food/cigarettes/drinks/flirting
  • Option to split off for a meal/drink after
  • Easier to read the room
  • Easier to gauge level of participation engagement/disengagement
  • You can do physical demos
  • Hands on training
  • Beauty of residential resort
  • Incidental tourist options when travelling
  • Day long events may be overstimulating but are sustainable & productive (mingling, session, break session lunch session dinner cocktail hour)
  • You can keep narrating/using whiteboard ing despite A/V problems

Cons of In Real Life (IRL)

  • Contagion risk
  • Cost/hassle/downsides of particular venue
  • Privilege participants with social capital, time, money, transport, childcare
  • If social anxiety
  • Travel fatigue
  • Risk of drama/violence if disruptive folks, outdoor/public/unfenced area
  • Higher emotional equilibrium/experience necessary to intervene against extreme trolling. risk of arrest/security camera documentation/stingray surveillance
  • Options for food/bathrooms/light/oxygen/shelter are necessary
  • Needs to be enough people/long enough to justify expense/travel
  • Environmental impacts
  • No documents collaboratively created, just documents created by transcribing from flip-chart, sticky notes.

Pros of Hybrid 

  • Full inclusion theoretically
  • More options to join – more accessible
  • Possible separate sequential virtual events then in person (AM series of virtual workshops, PM IRL) vs every session hybridized at the same time )(what should we call that model?)
  • events/channels can be asynchronous or aspects that are not fully synchronous
  • Choice of how you want to participate
  • We don’t have to/can’t necessarily make everything perfectly egalitarian.  Let’s acknowledge the drawbacks but not let imbalances paralyze us
  • Offer one virtual workshop during an IRL retreat

Cons of Hybrid

  • Lots of extra work for moderator, before & during
  • Virtual and In-person have different experiences (not always bad?)
  • Technology and tech issues 
  • Costs
  • Planning double or more
  • Have to work on camera & audience angles, lighting, professional mics 
  • Virtuals jealous of informal physical spaces
  • More/better options require add’l money/time/staffing