Hybrid Work Meetings Are Hell. Tech Is Trying to Fix Them.
Hybrid Work Meetings Are Hell. Tech Is Trying to Fix Them.
Colleagues in the conference room. Others in the living room. Hybrid work made meetings even worse. Now Microsoft, Google, Zoom and others are trying to solve the problems
Joanna Stern , WSJ
June 15, 2022 9:00 am ET
To the people I just had a very important meeting with:
I tried to take you all seriously. I really did. Except since I’m at home, watching you all crowded into a conference room, the effect was more like toy figures sitting around Polly Pocket’s kitchen table. I spent most of the time imagining picking you up with tweezers then zipping you into my change purse.
Please don’t call HR.
Welcome to the hell of the hybrid meeting. Throw in the related side effects—office-people often ignoring the video-call people and that guy who always forgets to mute—and you’re left longing for the simpler times of toilet-paper shortages, double-masking and all-day Zoom.
The solution? Ask Elon Musk and it’s butts-in-seats for all. Employees of SpaceX and Tesla are expected to spend at least 40 hours in company offices. Yet the hybrid model has emerged as the leading choice for many companies, with 42% of people with remote-capable jobs working partly at home and 39% working entirely from home, according to a February 2022 Gallup poll.
The more likely solution? Tech features that help us adapt to this new new normal—just like they helped us adapt to the old new normal. Microsoft, MSFT 2.97%▲ Google, Zoom and others have some of their finest working to fix the greatest problem of our time: How we meet to talk about work stuff.
The solutions below won’t fix everything. But there are big developments coming, along with creative—and some free—options you can start trying with your colleagues right now.
Solution 1: BYO Laptop
The primary rule of hybrid meetings: Create equity among attendees—or, you know, don’t make your people go all Hunger Games. How to do that? With laptops, of course.
“Making laptops a required tool for all participants in a hybrid meeting helps level the playing field,” Angela Henderson, a meetings expert at Decisions, a startup that makes meeting management software, told me.
If people in the conference room turn on their laptop webcams, the people at home can see everybody’s face framed individually like during Covid times. This is better than some impersonal, drone-like conference-room view, especially when people in that room are talking. Microsoft, Google and other companies have started encouraging their employees to do this.
Of course, all those laptops on the same video call in the same room will create more ear-piercing feedback than a Kiss concert sound check. Avoid that by joining the call from your conference room’s audio/video system, then get everyone on laptops to mute their mics and kill their speaker volume before signing into the meeting.
If you use Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, you can log into the meeting from the conference room using a companion setting. (Google’s version is Companion Mode, Microsoft’s is Companion Device Experience.) Both automatically cut off your laptop’s mic and speakers while allowing you to turn on your webcam and access other virtual tools, including screen sharing, group chats and hand raising.
To make things feel more fair, Teams can line up people at home on the conference-room screen at eye level with a setting called Front Row.
Solution 2: Camera-Crazed Conference Rooms
The trouble with using your laptop’s webcam in the conference room is you don’t know where to look. At the webcam? At your colleague across the table, which gives everyone at home a nice view of your nostrils? At the wall?
“Conference rooms need to be rethought as hybrid spaces,” Greg Baribault, group program manager on Microsoft Teams, told me. And new systems combine updated conference-room camera technology with software from the most popular video-calling platforms, including Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams.
For example, Microsoft Teams works with other camera systems, such as Logitech’s $3,999 Rally Bar. Instead of that drone-like view, the systems use artificial intelligence to isolate the people speaking and show them on screen as if they were individual participants in the meeting. No laptop webcam needed.
Zoom’s Smart Gallery works similarly. On supported cameras, it can create individual video feeds of each person in the room, and will even pan as people move. Yep, Google’s Meet works with similar conference-room offerings, too.
Now, if I’m the CEO, I’m thinking: “Uh uh. Nope. Have you seen this record inflation?” Yet the cost of conference-room A/V equipment is coming down.
Five years ago it could “cost you $20,000 to $50,000 and take three days” to redo a conference room with equipment, Logitech Chief Executive Bracken Darrell told me. Now it takes less than an hour to set up these newer, sub-$5,000 cameras, he said.
Solution 3: Metaverse Meetings
Or maybe, just maybe, the solution is completely virtual conference rooms. You know, we sit around virtual tables, our virtual legless avatars sipping virtual coffees.
vigating hybrid meetings? Join the conversation below.
Yes, I’ve attended metaverse meetings. I’ve put on a Meta Quest 2 headset and launched Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, only to find my editor as an avatar resembling Milhouse from “The Simpsons,” cursing the tech. And I still have no idea what’s up with the virtual deer head on the wall!
Meeting in VR right now is a mess of uncomfortable headsets, flaky apps and real-world physical obstacles. But there is potential. Once we got the tech issues straightened out in that meeting with my editor, we had a lively and engaging conversation where it felt like I was really sitting across from him. (Too bad I’ll have to bribe him with non-virtual sushi to ever do it again.)
When hopping into a metaverse meeting is as easy as hopping into a Zoom call or Google Meet today, and my ears don’t feel like they have been crushed under the weight of a nerd helmet, then, sure, have your avatar call my avatar!
But in the real-verse, I have found the most promising solution of all: “There’s no better way to combat issues with hybrid meetings than to just not have as many of them to begin with,” Ms. Henderson said.
Precisely! So everyone step away from the laptop and ask yourselves: Could this meeting I’m about to schedule be an email? A Slack? A phone call? A text? Or a GIF of an angry Milhouse from “The Simpsons”?
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