Technology Brings in ‘Forgotten’ Remote Workers

By Dave Zielinski August 30, 2021
virtual conference

​One of the biggest concerns for human resource leaders as their organizations prepare to implement new work models is that employees who continue to work from home will feel "on the outside, looking in" compared to colleagues who will spend more time in the office.

The lack of physical proximity to bosses and peers, having to dial in to meetings that co-workers are attending in person or receiving less performance feedback can make remote workers feel disengaged or forgotten and lead to talented employees leaving the organization.

Organizations are using technology creatively to make things more equitable between remote workers and their in-office counterparts. Some companies, for example, have introduced a new type of videoconferencing with 360-degree cameras and advanced split-screen technology that makes remote employees feel like they're sitting at the table with in-office colleagues.

Beth Sallomi, vice president of people for Sundae, a San Francisco-based company that connects home sellers with investors and buyers, uses a videoconferencing system called Meeting Owl Pro from Owl Labs in Boston to help remote employees feel more included and engaged.

The Meeting Owl has a 360-degree camera, microphone and speakers and uses visual and audio cues to determine who is speaking during meetings. The technology can split a video screen up to three times to project speakers—whether they be in person or remote—at similar sizes on screen and provide a panoramic view of all attendees in a room.

If two employees in the physical room begin to interact, for example, the screen could split to project a third person working remotely in the middle of the two on screen, so the remote worker feels more immersed in the conversation. The technology also includes a whiteboard that captures notes in real time for presentations or training sessions.

Sallomi said her workforce is distributed across the country, and she deployed the technology to facilitate brainstorming, improved communication and closer connections between team members.

The technology helps remote workers "feel" and experience the conference room in the same way as those who are there in person, Sallomi said.

"It's much easier to have free-flowing conversations that allow remote team members to chime in," she said. "It also helps uphold our 'one team' value, which encourages all employees to actively participate in the decisions we make. Enabling remote team members to feel they truly have a seat at the table by using the technology helps to facilitate that behavior."

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Process Changes Level Playing Field

Rather than investing in new hardware or software, other organizations are simply modifying existing processes to put in-office and remote workers on equal footing.

At 15Five, a performance management software provider in San Francisco, the company changed how in-office workers access videoconferences to avoid making remote workers feel like back-bench participants, according to CEO David Hassell.

In the past, remote employees dialing in to videoconferences were the only ones appearing on screen in conference rooms; their small head-shot images projected among colleagues attending meetings in person.

"Being the only person on screen in that setting doesn't create a sense of connection," Hassell said. "So we changed it so that everyone participating in a meeting dials in from their own laptop and camera, even if they are working onsite. That makes everyone's face equal size on screen in the conversation. Small changes like that help remote workers feel part of the team rather than disconnected."

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Holograms and Other Technology Innovations

Other companies are making big investments. Some are upgrading conference rooms to create more inclusive and immersive meeting experiences. For example, Google built a new meeting room called Campfire where in-person employees sit in a circle interspersed with large screens showing workers dialing in by videoconference from home.

Some companies are experimenting with installing screens in office break rooms that allow remote employees to have the same kind of impromptu "watercooler" chats with colleagues they'd have if they were in the office.

Others are deploying hologram technology to make video communications feel more personal and natural. The idea is to use holograms and large screens that give viewers three-dimensional depth of a speaker, making it easier to read body language cues and enhancing the meeting experience.

Analysts believe as the price of workplace holograms drops over time, use of the technology will become more common for learning sessions, town hall meetings or recorded events.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.



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