When Dallas-based web design firm Pixoul tried hybrid video conferencing in mid-2020, it encountered some early stumbling blocks. "Our first approach was to have everybody who was in the office in a conference room together," CEO Devon Fata said. Remote workers joined via video, visible on a monitor at the end of the table. "Our goal was to maximize the advantages of in-person communication for those who were there."
But Fata noticed this setup ultimately created inequity on both sides, with on-site colleagues holding side conversations that excluded video-based participants and their remote counterparts enjoying easier, more immediate access to digital documents via the virtual meeting app. As a workaround, Fata asked users in the conference room to join the video session individually from their respective devices. "That was abandoned within a few seconds [because of] feedback and echo," he said.
Businesses have staked a lot on the move to hybrid work and are counting on video conferencing to make it happen. Nearly half of organizations plan to support a fluid mix of on-site and remote employees, and only 12% anticipate a total, full-time return to the office, according to Metrigy's "Workplace Collaboration: 2021-22" report. But, if a hybrid workforce is the future, its success may depend on the enterprise's ability to deliver what Mike Fasciani, senior director analyst at Gartner, calls "collaboration equity." That means workers can participate equally and enjoy comparable influence in discussions whether they are on-site or remote.
"If hybrid meetings are not productive and successful, with a high degree of inclusivity for all participants, then hybrid work itself is at risk," Fasciani said. "And that's a big deal because a lot of companies are banking on hybrid work." If remote employees find themselves sidelined in discussions, they will likely either grudgingly return to the office or leave their jobs, he added. Either scenario threatens high-level, long-term corporate strategies.
How the pandemic democratized virtual meetings
In 2020, the great remote work experiment was by necessity, not by design. But it ended up catalyzing a paradigm shift that transformed end-user expectations of virtual conferencing for the better, according to Fasciani. Historically, a hybrid meeting involved the majority of participants gathering in a conference room with "a few stragglers" joining remotely, often without video. Those participants took a backseat, with in-person stakeholders driving conversations. "But, once the pandemic started, there was no more meeting 'center,'" Fasciani said. "Everyone was on the same plane, with the same capability to participate, access information and influence outcomes."
Seeing and experiencing those benefits has also motivated IT leaders to keep hybrid meeting participants on an equal footing going forward. At consulting and professional services firm Accenture, for example, collaboration equity has become a strategic priority. Jason Warnke, senior managing IT director and global digital experiences lead, said the company's IT organization is working to ensure its 560,000 global end users are "included and connected, regardless of physical location." That means paying careful attention to technology, training and culture.
But, even with strong IT planning and the best of intentions, collaboration equity is easier said than done. As the pandemic wanes, moving from fully remote to hybrid video conferencing environments will likely involve some growing pains, predicted Irwin Lazar, president and principal analyst at Metrigy. "I think it's going to be awkward at first because the experience we're all used to is changing," he said.
5 ways to improve hybrid video meetings
As the world increasingly embraces hybrid work, here are five expert recommendations for achieving collaboration equity in video meetings.
1. Add video capabilities to conference rooms
According to the Metrigy workplace collaboration study, 57% of organizations plan to upgrade their conference rooms to support hybrid video meetings by the end of 2021. Lazar predicted all enterprise conference rooms will soon have similar capabilities, compared with just one in three before the pandemic.
In Accenture's offices, the IT team recently deployed Microsoft's Teams Rooms systems and Surface Hub smart screens, plus intelligent speakers and ceiling-mounted microphones. On-site staff will use the new video conferencing gear to meet with both internal colleagues and external clients, Warnke said. PeopleFinderFree, a directory search engine based in Singapore, has also invested in a video conference room system to promote hybrid meeting engagement. "The idea is to give in-office staff the impression of sharing the room with their remote co-workers," co-founder Eden Cheng said.
Vendors such as Zoom are also working on technology that would individually frame in-room participants' faces in the same way as remote workers so everyone appears equally in the onscreen gallery. Lazar believes this capability could go a long way toward achieving collaboration equity. "I think it will have to happen, but it's going to take some time and probably some hardware upgrades to make it work," he said.
2. Consider virtual whiteboards
At Gartner, Fasciani said he now fields questions from clients about digital whiteboarding applications on a daily basis, up from a scant handful per month before the pandemic. That's because organizations increasingly identify the virtual whiteboard as a missing element in their video conferencing strategies. "It solves the need for a common canvas in a hybrid meeting scenario," where a traditional whiteboard would exclude remote participants, Fasciani said. And both on-site and remote workers benefit from the fact that virtual whiteboard notes have an unlimited shelf life, with users able to add to them over time. "It's a living document."
At PeopleFinderFree, for example, Cheng's team now uses the virtual whiteboard Miro during hybrid meetings. She has found the app promotes collaboration equity by keeping in-office and remote participants on the same digital page. "It allows us to collect thoughts and ideas thrown around during a meeting and easily access them after," Cheng said.
3. Upgrade video call quality with third-party gear
Third-party virtual collaboration hardware, such as external webcams and executive desktop systems, can help advance collaboration equity by providing a video conferencing experience that more closely approximates an in-person interaction. Metrigy found that organizations seeing the largest returns on their collaboration tech investments are more likely to have purchased high-quality endpoint gear for home workers. External devices from third-party vendors, such as Jabra, Poly and Logitech, provide superior video and audio quality than most built-in laptop cameras and microphones can offer, according to Lazar. For example, acoustic fencing minimizes background noise, while low-light compensation corrects for dark environments.
"It really does make a difference," Lazar said, adding that, since early 2021, the prices of such devices have dropped even as their capabilities have improved. "For people in customer-facing roles, I would look at putting a better camera on their desks. And, depending on the company, I think there might be a case to be made for general deployment to everyone." Training is also an important piece of the puzzle to ensure users know how to take advantage of advanced features.
What remains to be seen is if and how organizations will make third-party video calling gear available to hybrid workers when they are on site. "If I'm walking into the office with my laptop, will there be a locker where I can go and check out a higher-quality camera, or do you put one on every desk if you're hot desking?" Lazar said. "My guess is that companies haven't really figured out what they want to do yet."
4. Supplement remote connectivity as necessary
Custom Neon, a global manufacturer and retailer of custom LED neon lighting and signage based in Australia, employs workers across three continents. Co-founder Jess Munday said its most common video conferencing struggles have stemmed from network connectivity problems on the users' ends, which inevitably compromise their ability to participate equally in hybrid meetings. "These issues are often tied to employees having outdated internet plans or poor speeds in their areas," she said. As a workaround, Custom Neon has started encouraging staff to use their company-provided mobile data plans to initiate hotspots for video calls. "We're lucky data caps are a lot larger than they used to be," she added.
PeopleFinderFree took a similar approach when its remote users experienced lagging audio and video during meetings, as well as the occasional dropped call, according to Cheng. The company supplied employees with the hardware and internet service plans they needed for stable connectivity, thus guaranteeing their seats at the virtual table. "We also ensured our IT department was made available to remote staff as much as possible to provide guidance or technical help where needed," Cheng added.
On the access side, network managers might need to upgrade connectivity and prioritize collaboration traffic via WAN optimization or software-defined WAN. Portable storage devices, such as AWS Snowball Edge, can also help reduce cloud latency for remote employees.
For truly remote users who can't even access mobile broadband, partnerships between cloud and satellite internet providers may improve connectivity. And ambitious new low-flying satellite projects, such as the one from Elon Musk's SpaceX, aim to eventually enable unprecedented edge technology capabilities in far-flung locations.
5. Establish cultural norms
The shift from fully remote to hybrid work will require cultural, as well as technological, shifts. "Sometimes, technology is the easy part, and the actual adoption is tougher," Accenture's Warnke said. "It's important to support your people's adjustment to new ways of leveraging technology." In his view, that includes IT provisioning and support processes that are consistent for both in-office and remote employees, as well as an executive-driven change management plan that promotes collaboration equity from the top.
At a more granular level, business leaders should also think about how evolving hybrid video conferencing norms can best position their teams to collaborate successfully. In the conference room, for example, Gartner's Fasciani suggested in-office participants try seating themselves along one side of a table, directly facing a camera and monitor on the other. "Then, the remote participants sort of complete the circle of dialogue rather than sitting off to the side or in the corner," he said.
Custom Neon uses a similar seating configuration for its weekly strategy discussions, according to Munday. "The in-office employees can see the remote workers, and the remote workers can see the in-house team," she said. "We believe it facilitates an open-floor, forum-type feel that encourages contributions and brainstorming." For less interactive, more procedural meetings, however, such as trainings, on-site Custom Neon employees usually access calls from their personal workspaces so they can easily review relevant documents on their respective screens.
Since unique organizational variables, such as physical facilities, employee personalities and meeting software, all influence outcomes, a one-size-fits-all hybrid meeting model likely doesn't exist. And determining how to best achieve collaboration equity in a given workplace may require some troubleshooting.
"There will inevitably be technical and logistical hiccups," Pixoul's Fata said. "It's best to approach these with patience and grace and be ready to adapt on the fly." In contrast to its early experiments with hybrid video conferencing, the Dallas design firm has decided to reserve conference rooms for fully in-person interactions. Today, participants join all hybrid calls individually from their respective desks -- whether at home or the office.
"The social norm that really made hybrid meetings click for us is that every member must attend on their own device and keep their video on," Fata said. "It creates a level playing field for everyone."