Among the many challenges faced by remote workers who participate in hybrid meetings—videoconferences that include their in-office colleagues—is difficulty seeing notes written on a whiteboard in the physical room because the presenter’s body is blocking the board. But thanks to advancing technology, presenters can be rendered transparent in that situation, no longer impeding remote participants’ view.
Similarly, new 360-degree cameras powered by artificial intelligence can automatically zoom in on whoever is speaking in the conference room and provide split video screens with remote and in-person participants projected at the same size, creating a feeling of in-the-room participation for remote attendees. Such cameras also can provide a panoramic, rather than “bowling alley,” view of in-person participants, making it easier for those outside the room to see people’s faces.
Some organizations also are employing new AI-powered audio systems that optimize the voices of all participants, regardless of how far they sit from a conference room microphone, solving the common problem of remote attendees struggling to hear what’s being said.
An Equitable Experience
These new features are designed to address inclusivity and “collaboration equity” challenges posed by hybrid meetings. Such issues existed before the pandemic but were exacerbated when vast numbers of employees began working remotely after the public health crisis hit.
In the past, remote participants in hybrid meetings often were made to feel like second-class citizens: Their small webcam images were projected on screens for in-person counterparts to scrutinize (or ignore), discussions between those in the physical room took center stage, and poor audio quality made it difficult for remote participants to hear or be heard.
It’s likely that such challenges will persist, as many organizations are expected to retain some form of hybrid work going forward.
Industry analysts say more technology vendors have acknowledged the obstacles faced by remote attendees in hybrid meetings by introducing new features designed to level the playing field for all participants.
“There are now an array of technologies that help provide better visual, collaboration and audio equity between in-person and remote participants in meetings,” says Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration solutions for IDC, a research and advisory firm in Boston.
Enhancements and Improvements
Andrew Hewitt, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based market research and advisory company Forrester, says providers of commonly used productivity suites and videoconferencing platforms, such as Microsoft, Google and Cisco, have led the way by creating new tools designed to put remote attendees on equal footing with their in-the-room colleagues. Providers of third-party technologies like digital whiteboards also are doing their part toward that end, Hewitt notes.
“These providers are building in more functionality to handle a wider range of meeting use cases,” he says. “Vendors have responded with new capabilities to help meetings be more inclusive of remote workers.”
For example, Microsoft recently rolled out a feature called Front Row for its Teams product. The feature, designed to make interaction between remote and in-person meeting participants feel more organic and natural, moves the typical gallery of attendee faces to the bottom of a videoconferencing screen so remote attendees will be face-to-face with colleagues sitting in the physical room.
Somerville, Mass.-based Owl Labs, a pioneer in designing technology to create more equity among participants in hybrid meetings, has its Meeting Owl Pro, a 360-degree camera, microphone and speaker system that sits in the center of a conference room and uses audio and visual cues to automatically focus on whoever is speaking.
While a traditional webcam can capture only a small portion of a conference room at one time, the Meeting Owl Pro can show a panoramic view of the physical room and provide split-screen video feeds that help remote employees experience the conference room in the same way as those in the physical space, such as by placing them on screen between two in-room attendees having a conversation.
The Meeting Owl Pro is plugged into a computer via a USB cable and is compatible with popular videoconferencing systems such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. For larger meeting rooms, two Owl Pro devices can be connected wirelessly to extend video and audio range.
Cisco is partnering with Apple Airplay so remote employees can project content to its Webex videoconferencing system, enabling them to share, for example, their iPad or iPhone screens to conference room displays. Cisco also unveiled an upgraded sound system for meetings, designed to “equalize” audio for all participants.
In a nod to the fact that remote employees don’t just work from home offices, Cisco also recently extended its Webex conferencing capability to cars. The vendor partnered with Ford to allow employees to use the auto manufacturer’s communications technology to join meetings from their vehicles. Cisco says the calls will be audio-only when users are driving, but participants will be able to join via video when they’re parked.
Management of hybrid meetings isn’t the only area where advancing technology is making an impact. HR leaders also are using new software applications to aid in the challenging task of managing hybrid work schedules as more employees return to the office.
Determining logistics such as who will be in the office when, what desks or rooms they will use, and when key meetings will be held requires a sophisticated level of planning that new software tools can help facilitate, experts say. For example, employees working remotely may want to know who is attending a meeting on a given day before deciding whether to endure a long commute into the office.
Gartner calls this class of software “workforce experience applications.”
“Most organizations still are not set up to answer all of the questions employees have about returning to the office in a hybrid format,” says Tori Paulman, a Boston-based senior director analyst in the research and advisory firm’s employee experience technology group. “Many employees in hybrid arrangements will continue to be treated as visitors to the workplace, and companies need more structure around managing that. That’s where workforce experience apps can help.”
Such tools include not only desk- and room-booking software but also applications that can provide commuting assistance and health attestation, help employees coordinate their in-person meeting attendance with colleagues, and address security badging and facility wayfinding needs. Vendors providing such software include Smarten Spaces, ServiceNow, Robin, CloudBooking and Hubquarter.
Some of these applications employ artificial intelligence to help people make more-informed decisions about coming into the office. “The technology can send push notifications to you, for example, about when colleagues who are important to you are planning to be in the office,” Paulman says. “You’ll then be asked if you want a desk booked for that day as well.”
Gartner research found that adoption rates for workplace experience applications and seat reservation systems are expected to grow 250 percent and 146 percent, respectively, between January 2021 and the end of 2022.
As more organizations encourage employees to return to the workplace, many also are offering incentives to do so—and using new software to manage that activity.
“We’re starting to see applications surface for things like booking a parking space, for lunch discounts or to book a yoga class for days you’ll be in the office,” Paulman says. “I recently talked to a client in India that’s enabling its employees to book badminton courts. Having these things available can help employees overcome the No. 1 deterrent to coming into the office, which is the commute.” —D.Z.
Innovations in Digital Whiteboards
Improvements to digital whiteboards also are making it easier for remote and in-person attendees to collaborate during hybrid meetings for brainstorming, document sharing, project management and more.
Dustin Low, vice president of people for Output, a music software company in Los Angeles, uses a digital whiteboard from vendor Miro for hybrid meetings with a staff spread across 15 states. Miro’s product allows meeting participants to take notes, share ideas and track projects via templates and automatically captures content to share with participants after meetings are over.
The technology also can digitize handwritten sticky notes for use in videoconferences. So, rather than having to transcribe what’s been written, users can simply snap a photo and convert the notes into editable images.
Among the many ways Low uses the digital whiteboard is to conduct 9-box-grid performance evaluations of Output employees with the company’s managers. “We do it twice a year, and it’s proven to be a valuable tool for us,” Low says. “We were able to create our own template for that specific use fairly easily.”
Low also uses the whiteboard to map career paths in the organization and for project management with the people operations and recruiting teams he oversees.
Analysts say more organizations are turning to these next-generation whiteboards to enable easier collaboration with remote attendees in hybrid meetings.
“We’re seeing more investment in visual collaboration tools like digital whiteboards,” Hewitt says. “It’s often difficult for remote workers to chime in and participate in hybrid meetings, and when they write something on a digital whiteboard or use a digital sticky note, it keeps them involved and allows their voices to be heard.”
Other common problems for remote attendees include an inability to see roaming presenters or obstructed whiteboards. Owl Labs is among the vendors tackling both problems with new features. The vendor’s technology can make presenters transparent so they don’t block views of the board, and a tool called Presenter Enhance uses flexible camera positioning to track facilitators or other participants as they move around a physical room.
“It allows anyone to move freely in the conference room to share ideas and spark inspiration naturally, without worrying about where the camera and whiteboard are located,” says Frank Weishaupt, Owl Labs’ CEO.
Enabling easier collaboration and idea generation between remote and in-person attendees is particularly important given the natural challenges of brainstorming in videoconferencing settings. A study by Columbia Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that in-person meetings tend to generate more creative ideas than meetings held via videoconference.
One reason is because when meeting in person, team members often share visual cues from their environment and one another, according to the study. “Videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus,” the authors of the study wrote. “Our results suggest that virtual interaction can come with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation.”
The Human Element
Even the most cutting-edge technologies will fall short of reducing inequities in hybrid meetings if meeting leaders aren’t skilled in using the tools or don’t have an inclusive mindset that keeps the needs of remote attendees top of mind, analysts say.
“The difficult part of incorporating these new technologies is that those running hybrid meetings have to change their behaviors to adopt new ways of managing meetings,” IDC’s Kurtzman says. “People will often lead hybrid meetings and not remember that a significant part of the team isn’t in the room. The best facilitators create a culture of collaboration and work to keep everyone involved, starting with remote participants. If those attendees don’t feel seen or heard, it can create problems.”
To ensure remote participants feel included, some organizations assign a second meeting facilitator to moderate live chat during hybrid meetings. Removing that task from the main leader’s plate helps ensure that all questions get addressed, particularly those from remote attendees. Other ways meeting leaders can keep remote workers’ needs front and center include asking if they have questions or feedback before changing topics and involving them in pre- and post-meeting chatter.
Hewitt says there can be an overreliance on technology when employers make efforts to level the playing field for hybrid meetings. “People think a certain tool is going to solve their collaboration problems,” he says. “But you also need a culture that’s inclusive regarding treating remote workers equally and fairly.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis.
Illustration by Michael Korfhage for HR Magazine.