“This needs to be a time of deep experimentation and bets,” gathering expert Priya Parker told us in June 2021, as many organizations were beginning to figure out their office returns.
Two years—and many hybrid gatherings, return-to-office battles, and meeting resets and reckonings—later, we went back to Parker, author of the book The Art of Gathering and a digital course of the same name, for her thoughts on how that experimentation has played out. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Last time you spoke to us about workplace gathering, it was 2021. What do we know now that we didn’t then about gathering, and where are organizations still struggling to get it right?
What we're starting to realize is that gathering well is a learnable skill. What the pandemic did in many workplaces was introduce a foundational question, which is, where and why and how and when and for what should we meet?
That was dawning on us when we last spoke. That was the moment when some companies were starting to issue back-to-work policies, invitations, whatever you want to call them. It was around the time when Tim Cook wrote his employees and announced a plan for employees to return to the office three days a week in the fall. Two days later, a group of 80 Apple employees posted a public letter to Mr. Cook that said, it feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote location, flexible work ,and the lived experience of many of Apple's employees. The company basically paused and shifted, delayed its plans. And I think what we've seen over the last two years is a lot of collective experiments. What we have learned and are still learning is that you can gather in person poorly, you can gather online poorly, and as we all know, your hybrid gatherings are probably the worst of all.
Why might that be the case?
Many of us think that hybrid gatherings are the best of both worlds and a solution to the problem of people not all being able to be at the same place at the same time. When I say hybrid gatherings, what I mean by that is that there's a group in person, having a shared experience in the same room around the same table, and there's a group on the proverbial Zoom, there's an online experience, and they are trying to have the same meeting. That's how I define hybrid gathering.
One of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking that a hybrid gathering is one gathering. A hybrid gathering is three simultaneous meetings, and they're all thinking about their own experience. If you are in a hybrid board meeting and you're in the room, there's all of the dynamics of the four or six or eight directors next to you chatting or passing each other pieces of paper or looking at you or wondering when to speak, and then trying to listen in or look on the screen. And then similarly in the online room, there's the chat box. They're different simultaneous worlds. And then there's the third choice of whether or not to connect the two.
So the hybrid gathering is kind of the wild west of gatherings, in part because there are actually three experiences to tend to simultaneously. My tips for hybrid gathering—which is my same orientation to all meetings—are first, don't ask if it should be hybrid. First ask, what is the need? What is the purpose of this meeting?
And sometimes ratios matter. I was speaking with the CEO of a company who was convening one of his first in-person board meetings post-pandemic, and it was hybrid because two members couldn't come. He told me this afterwards: He didn't design for the complexity of what that meant to do well, and he just kind of hoped for the best. Designing a hybrid experience that works for people is something that takes thought, skill, intention, and usually two facilitators or two meeting heads. One person's paying attention to and running the Zoom, and one person’s running the room.
Can you say more about what it means to connect those two dimensions, virtual and in-person?
If you think about a hybrid town hall—I do a lot of speaking on gatherings in companies, and one of the experiences I've had in the last year is that I will be invited in person, and there will be 900 or 1200 chairs set up. It’s a hybrid workforce and 2,000 people have signed up for the town hall, but they don't know, because of flex work policies, whether they’re going to be in person or online. You walk in and maybe there's a thousand chairs and 48 people, but then 1,950 people online.
So hybrid gatherings are super complex because, one, with flexible work policies for something like that, you're not actually sure who's going to be in which day. But the second is we need to pay attention to the in-person experience and the online experience. With the in-person experience, a small tip is you can always add chairs. The perception of fullness is based on the number of chairs there are as a ratio to the number of bodies there are in those chairs. If you walk in and if you have 80 people and there's 60 chairs, it's a packed room. If you have 80 people and it's 300 chairs, it's an empty room. So what is the architecture of the room and how much choice do people have?
And if you are listening to a speaker, there's the experience in the room and then there may also be simultaneously a live stream. Wth an experience like having a speaker, or frankly even something internally, whether or not you have a speaker or you have a visiting guest or you have your CEO or you have your head of diversity, whoever it is talking on stage, there’s a question of whether or not it's okay for the people in the room and the people watching on livestream to have two simultaneous experiences but are not connected.
What does it look like to have an experience connected? For example, I'm on stage and I ask the people in the room to raise their hands, if the majority of their meetings are hybrid and the people on the Zoom can't see that and I don't tell them what I'm seeing, it's not a connected experience. If I say, ‘Pop into the chat a one’—if you are responsible for hybrid meetings, then everyone in the chat can actually see the context of the chat, but it's not connected to the room. To connect it to the room, which is a choice and adds a layer of complexity, you would then have a screen up so that the people in the room could also see the number of ones.
That was a long explanation, but basically these are two simultaneous experiences, and if both sides are getting context, you can create connection between the people online and then you can create connection for people in the room. But to have them have to know what each other is also doing is a choice, and it's not always necessary.
What are some core principles that should apply for every workplace gathering, whether hybrid, remote, or in person?
Number one, don't assume that the purpose of the gathering is obvious or shared. The biggest mistake we make when we gather is, we assume that we know what the purpose or the need is, and so does everyone else. First of all, many of the meetings that exist in an organization are often inherited from other people and from a previous time. I write about the New York Times page one meeting in my book, The Art of Gathering, and how this 70-year-old meeting was created years ago to determine what seven pieces went on the front page of the paper before the internet existed. And in 2018, the most important meeting at the New York Times was still called the page one meeting. [Former executive editor] Dean Baquet at the time had to basically rethink, what is the purpose of that meeting when the majority of their readers don't access news from a physical paper?
Most of us have meetings that have passed their shelf life. And so the first is to ask every single time, what is the actual purpose of this? Do we need this? The pandemic allowed us to ask a question that was previously taboo, which is do we actually need this meeting? The second is, given the need or the purpose, to then say, who needs to be there? We tend to back into a purpose based on who's in the room: ‘Huh, I guess that's what the purpose of this meeting is, legal is here,’ or what have you. Ask who needs to be there and why.
Third, particularly for larger meetings and particularly meetings that are cultural meetings in the organization, is to know that not everybody in a meeting has to play the same role. So one of the things that the norm of online meetings has done is, technically there's no limitation to how many people can join, and so it's actually really hard to defend a smaller group. A choice point people have, depending on the purpose, is who actually needs to be part of this conversation—that's a small political question—and who would benefit from either listening to it or culturally being a sponge to understand how this place works.
I'm a conflict resolution facilitator. One of the things I do with my clients ahead of time is really help people understand, what is the role and the function of the different people at these meetings? Often we enter and we actually don't know how we're supposed to behave. Someone may run a large 800-person town hall and say, ‘We hope to hear from everyone.’ In 60 minutes, that's actually literally impossible. So how do you actually more deeply think about how you use this time? When and how do you use the chat box? What does it actually mean? What questions should be collected ahead of time? Meetings are the social and intellectual infrastructure of our workplaces and they should be treated with that much respect.
Is everybody's individual role within a meeting something that should be communicated at the outset, along with the purpose?
It depends on the meeting, and it depends on the context and it depends on the culture. I'll give an example. What works in one place may not work in another, but the first 5% of what happens in any meeting, in any gathering, sets the pathway for the rest of the meeting. And particularly in our online meetings, we've lost that first few moments of what in person often feels like informal connection time: ‘Pull out the chair here, let me grab you some coffee. How's it going? Did you run the 5k this weekend?’ It's actually difficult to kind of banter in an online room because of the way these tools exist. And so a couple of things: The first is, in those first few moments in online meetings, to think about how to design for informal connection. It can be through breakout rooms, the chat box, but in a largely remote workforce, when the majority of the ways that people are experiencing the culture of the place is through meetings, you have to start designing for that reality.
The second thing, though, is that most people are ricocheting between virtual meeting after virtual meeting, playing very different roles. And so that first 5%, it's like a palate cleanser to understand, what are the norms here, what is my role here, what is this meeting for? And to start after that kind of short informal time, which can be done in a lot of different ways, with the purpose of the meeting. As a facilitator, I do this in my own work, to quickly go around and say, what is the purpose and why are these different people here? I can do it in like 30 seconds.
I'm a conflict resolution facilitator. A lot of my meetings are with people from either different teams or different stakeholders. And so I'll often say, ‘The purpose of this meeting is to get alignment on blah blah blah blah blah,’ whatever it is, ‘and I want to tell you why I've invited each of you here. We've invited these two people, because you currently have your finger closest to the customer pulse. We've invited these two people because you two are really good at finding errors in our thinking. And I actually don't want or need you to speak for the first 40 minutes of this. I really want you to listen to our core assumptions as we're talking and then reflect back to us at the end of that conversation what you hear.’ So basically it's honoring each person, telling them why they're there, in part for them and in part for everyone else, but then also to make it okay to stop assuming that the only way to participate is to all try to get in there. It's really starting to lay out this infrastructure to say, given what we need to do, what is the right conversation to have? How do we have it and at what moment do different people play the role?
A lot of organizations right now want people back in the office, but their stated reason is something nebulous like ‘connection.’ Are those unplanned moments enough of a purpose in and of themselves? How do you best plan for them or make sure they’re part of the in-person experience. versus ‘I'm here to be on Zoom all day’?
I'll say a couple of things. The first is, I can't tell you how many people I know in corporations and tech companies, in academia, in nonprofits, go back to work and find doors closed and everyone on Zoom and ask, why am I here? In part, there's this nostalgia for a workplace in which the norm wasn't online meetings, and that is actually no longer accurate. Your workplace is different. You can absolutely go back to in-person work, and if it's not designed well, it can be a long commute and then you're kind of still online in ways that you were before. So whether it's in person or whether it's online, one of the things the pandemic has taught us and helped us see is that gathering well takes intention.
In my own experience as a facilitator, as well as looking at any organizations or corporations where the work is somewhat craft-based, where there's somewhat of an apprenticeship model, to me the deeper reason to be in person in an organization at certain moments is less connection than implicit apprenticeship. The kind of osmosis of not just of a culture, but very specifically how to build a craft. Whether it's a newsroom sitting and listening to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist next to you warming up a source—beyond connection, to me, the reason to create some amount of in-person time in some organizations is actually the osmosis that benefits younger and newer employees, rather than connection for connection's sake. Part of what's happening in work is that people are—I think this is a good thing—spending more time trying to connect with their neighbors and connect with their friends and connect with their families. There's a larger shift happening that I think is very healthy, where your work isn't your entire life. And so at some level, the reason to come in should be about improving and enhancing your craft with other people, or having the types of meetings that actually are really complicated to have online.
The second thing I'll just say is you can design for informal connection virtually. Again, part of what the pandemic has done is taught us that gathering well is a skill. It's a learnable skill. And if we no longer have the organic forms that we used to bump into each other in the hallway, go down an elevator together, we need to synthetically design for the connection that we want online. And it is possible.
Microsoft recently published some internal data the company had collected identifying three moments its workers found most impactful for in-person gathering: onboarding, project kickoffs, and strengthening team cohesion. I'm curious what you make of that list.
What I hear in those responses that is interesting to me, at least the first two, is moments that matter are openings, are beginnings. Onboarding is a beginning: What does it mean to be here? What is this place? Do I belong here? The beginning of a project is like, wait, what is this thing? What are we to each other? What are our roles? The first two are basically looking at the fact that the opening, the formation of something, really matters. As I said earlier, the first 5% of something really matters, because it sets the pathway for the rest of it. There was a wonderful graph that a facilitator named Rae Ringel published in Harvard Business Review in the summer of 2021 that said what rises to the level of an in-person meeting. And I really like that graph in part because even whether or not her dots are correct, she put forward that we benefit from in-person meetings when the topic is intellectually complex and emotionally complex. I agree with that.
Going back to what you said earlier about how gathering is a learnable skill, does that apply to attendees as well as the people planning these gatherings? Are there skills or capabilities that managers can be teaching their teams, or workers can be teaching themselves, about how to make the most of gatherings?
Absolutely. My work isn’t called The Art of Hosting. It's called The Art of Gathering in part because I believe guests have power, and really good hosts are usually really good guests. So what does it mean to be a good guest? The first thing—and in the workplace this sometimes is a bit harder—is, as an invitation comes in, to say a committed yes or an intentional no. If you want to change the meeting culture of your workplace, make it not a taboo to ask every time, what's the purpose of this meeting? And guests can help us get there.
The second thing is, some of the best managers I know are very clear on what the purpose of their meeting is, communicate it well, and then find ways throughout the course of that 60 minutes in the structure to rotate hosting a piece of the meeting. I know one manager who, for their weekly all-team staff meeting, which is a pretty big 80 person meeting, they spend that first 5%, first five minutes on doing some kind of icebreaker or warmup or game for the group. But instead of the head of the organization and CEO running the connection exercise every time, they slowly rotate and they invite people to sign up for running those five minutes. What does that do? It gives people a small moment to practice holding a group, figuring out the right activity that is going to connect this group in a way that isn't going to get eye rolls, practicing the physicality of presence, whether online or in person. And building the empathy to actually realize, ‘Oh, it's kind of hard to coordinate and to be in front of a large group, but let me practice in this small five-minute pocket.’
You've written about the importance of the ‘artful rule’ for gatherings. Can you explain that?
I think of gatherings as temporary alternative worlds, whether that's a wedding or a mosh pit or a board meeting or protest. These are all different worlds and people in most workplaces are bopping around from world to world, particularly now that it's remote. Every meeting you go into at some level is a different cultural code based on who's running it, what the purpose is, and rules are a way to help people understand how the group can coordinate better together, often hopefully in a slightly fun way, and how to be successful there.
I have a monthly newsletter, and one of the recent newsletters I wrote was about the power of a good rule in digital communities. It can be anything from an internal Slack channel to a Reddit thread to a larger Facebook group. And if we think of every gathering as a temporary world, these worlds are defined by, what is the purpose and then how do we understand how to be there? An artful rule protects what's precious and explains at some level why we're here. There's a global online community called We Are Child Free, in which one of the rules that caught my eye was, ‘We are not a dating site, and We Are Child Free was not intended to be a place to find a partner.’ You see how it could turn into one. And the organizers believed that if the space morphed into a dating site, the dynamics would affect what and how people post and whether or not they felt safe doing so. And so with no shade to dating sites, the organizers drew a line to help protect what this space is for. So with rules, whether for meetings or for digital communities or just for a retreat, the really good ones aren't there for control. They're actually there for connection.
What would be an example of an artful rule for workplace gathering?
I really enjoyed Oliver Burkeman's Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. He talks about the Swedish tradition of the fika, which is—I don't know if they still do it with the pandemic, but in Sweden, there's a tradition in many organizations where at 3:00 it's culturally normal to go and meet and have coffee together in the work kitchen or whatever. One of the reasons why this works is because everybody's doing the same thing at the same time.
An example, maybe everyone working in person meets at the same time in the same place, in the coffee shop or whatever, and there’s only one rule, which is: Tea and coffee is in the back, but you can't make yourself a drink. You can make anyone else a drink, but you can't make yourself a drink. It's an example of a rule that, again, may not work, you have to figure out what works in your place, but it's an example that's a prosocial rule. Or let's say you're getting a team together for lunch and you serve family-style and the only rule is you can't serve yourself. It's a small little shift that invites people to at some level pay attention to each other. Or there’s an old popular rule called a phone stack rule, which is where people come together for a meal or a meeting and they stack their phones in the middle of the table, and the first person to check their phone foots the bill. Alright, so part of artful rules is incentivizing prosocial behavior. Rules get a bad rap, but doing one well can make sure that, particularly in a digital community, you can separate the signal from the noise.