Zoom attacking hybrid meeting shortfalls

Zoom will look to stand out in a competitive market by improving hybrid meetings. The company hopes upcoming features will bridge the divide between remote and in-person attendees.

Zoom can no longer depend on video conferencing alone to drive its business, so the company has added services that make meetings more enjoyable for participants working from home or the office. To improve those hybrid meetings further, the company plans to add to its Rooms conferencing product features that make it seem like all meeting members are in the same place.

The company will attack the problems posed by hybrid meetings on multiple fronts, said Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, in an interview this week. Zoom plans to expand its Smart Gallery feature, make it easier for remote workers to hear breakout conversations, and let their office colleagues interact with online whiteboards and chat.

Many companies are moving to a hybrid workplace to accommodate workers in a tight labor market. According to a PwC survey of 1,200 office workers, 55% said they'd prefer to be remote at least three days a week. Almost 30% of the surveyed workers said they would like to work from home all the time.

Zoom has pivoted to solving hybrid-work problems to demonstrate its video conferencing service is more than a commodity. The company's stock soared during the pandemic as people forced to work from home turned to Zoom for simplicity in video conferencing. However, with people returning to the office and competition rising, Zoom's stock has fallen from nearly $560 a share in October 2020 to about $140.

Zoom's Smart Gallery feature
Zoom's Smart Gallery feature places conference-room meeting participants in individual video frames. The company plans to expand the feature to include multi-camera setups.

Zoom's product changes include giving remote workers a better view of body language and facial expressions within Smart Gallery, which displays conference-room attendees in individual video frames. The company will expand the feature to accommodate conference rooms with more than one camera, which will mean Smart Gallery can handle larger meetings with more participants.

Zoom wants to improve hybrid meeting audio, too. Future features will provide audio covering more activity within a conference room.

For example, Zoom Rooms could pick up sound from different zones within a conference room and direct it into separate breakout rooms, letting remote participants hear side discussions.

"We are putting a lot of thought into how you make a much more flexible audio environment," Smith said.

Remote participants are not the only ones at risk of an unequal experience. In-room participants are often unable to see the meeting chat, draw on the virtual whiteboard or answer online polls. To fix the problem, Zoom will let conference-room employees access those features through their laptops or tablets, Smith said.

"For the audio-visual interface between remote and in-room people, you'll use room equipment [integrated with Zoom]," he said. "If I want to chat, if I want to participate in a poll, or if I want to interact with the digital whiteboard, all those things I could do from my personal device."

Zoom will continue to update hybrid-work features it announced last year. The company launched in beta a virtual whiteboard that creates a persistent space where workers can draw, write notes and add comments. Zoom has placed hot desking features in beta, allowing workers to reserve shared desks and coordinate seating with collaborators.

Zoom's competitors have also introduced hybrid meeting features. Microsoft and Cisco have introduced features akin to Smart Gallery in Teams and Webex, respectively.

Cisco has touted Webex's ability to filter out background noise. The company plans to launch a feature this month that boosts the voices of workers who are far away from the microphone. Both Microsoft and Cisco have also introduced features to accommodate hot desking.

Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily NewsWalpole TimesSharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.

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