Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with dozens of business leaders whose companies are adopting a hybrid model going forward. One of the most common topics that comes up is how to optimize meetings for hybrid teams.
It’s true that in some ways hybrid meetings won’t be that different, especially if your business already had a “digital first” approach before the pandemic. But in the hybrid workplace, meetings may frequently include two very distinct groups: office workers who are able to meet together in-person, and virtual employees who must dial-in remotely.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, fairness issues will almost certainly arise if the same group of on-site staff consistently attend meetings together, while their remote counterparts dial-in. Let’s examine this issue more closely, and discuss some ways you can create more fair and effective meetings for your hybrid teams.
Why remote workers are at a disadvantage during hybrid meetings
There’s no denying the fact that facetime matters at work. A recent study from my company Workplace Intelligence and Kahoot! found that 83% of HR leaders say face-to-face communication is important to be successful at their company. Nearly three-quarters of employees (72%) agreed with this sentiment.
This means that your remote workers will be at a disadvantage, since they’ll have far fewer opportunities for in-person interactions than your office-based staff. One of the key ways they can get much-needed facetime is during meetings — in fact, this may be the only time remote employees see their colleagues (albeit via video). And with workers now spending eight hours per week in meetings, it’s critical that you optimize this key touchpoint so that your remote staff are on a more even playing field.
To better understand this issue, we asked over 800 HR leaders how meetings should be held when some employees are remote and some are in the office. Here’s what they said:
- 33% said that all employees should participate virtually
- 37% said that employees who are in the office should meet in-person, and remote workers should participate virtually
- 23% said that employees who are in the office should have the choice to attend meetings in-person or participate virtually, and remote workers should participate virtually
- 7% said that all employees should attend the meeting in-person if possible
Frankly, we were surprised that leaders were almost evenly split between the first two options —we anticipated that more people would say that all employees should participate virtually. But in many ways, it makes sense that leaders are divided on this issue. Companies of course want to provide a fair meeting experience for their remote staff. But at the same time, the whole point of having people go back to the office is so they can spend time together in-person again — so why force on-site employees to retreat to individual workspaces for meetings?
I want to examine both sides of this debate. What I’m hearing from many workplace experts is that eliminating any unfair advantages should be absolutely paramount in the hybrid workplace. In my recent conversation with Robert Glazer, he recommended having all team members join from their desks via their personal computers, rather than having remote employees awkwardly join a video call with their colleagues in a conference room. “It’s much easier to include everyone when you have everyone on a level playing field,” he emphasized.
But I’m also hearing some leaders say that it doesn’t feel right to force office employees to dial-in separately if they’re all in the office together. However, the reality is that even with the best technology, allowing on-site staff to convene during meetings will never be completely fair. In-person attendees will have opportunities for sidebar conversations and chats that remote attendees won’t be part of. And if managers prefer to attend meetings in-person, that means they’ll get more facetime with their office-based employees — yet another way that remote workers will be at a disadvantage.
So I think we have to acknowledge that this set-up will never truly put remote workers on an even playing field. With that in mind, my recommendation is that meetings should be run remotely whenever possible. But I know that this won’t always make sense, so let’s look at 5 ways you can maximize fairness during hybrid meetings.
5 ways to make hybrid meetings more fair
- Use technology to boost remote worker visibility
It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing a growing interest in solutions like Zoom Rooms and Google’s Campfire concept, both of which use large or life-sized screens to maximize remote worker visibility during hybrid meetings. But even without these telepresence technologies, you can create a similar experience by displaying the video feeds for your remote staff as largely as possible. And be sure to remind your remote employees to sit close to their computers and improve their lighting and camera set-up if necessary.
- Optimize the audio — for everyone
It’s critical that your remote workers come across loud and clear during meetings. Encourage them to wear a headset instead of relying on their computer’s microphone, and make sure they’ve optimized their volume level. You should also make sure that remote participants can clearly hear everyone in the meeting room. This may require setting up multiple speakers in the room, or you may want to have everyone dial-in to the meeting via their computers so that they can be heard through their individual microphones.
- Consider spatial audio solutions
One new innovation that’s entering the market are spatial audio solutions, which allow remote attendees to hear and track each speaker’s location in a conference room. These tools achieve this by identifying where an individual is and keeping the sounds congruent with the location of the person speaking. Not only do spatial audio solutions emulate a true meeting experience, they also reduce background noise and relieve mental strain for remote participants.
- Take a “digital first” approach
Yes, that means it’s time to bid farewell to physical whiteboards, flipcharts, and sticky-notes. Thankfully, there are many solutions available now that provide a similar experience, including digital whiteboards. But remember, “digital first” doesn’t mean endless slideshows. Compared to before the pandemic, people have 13% more meetings now and they’re attending one more meeting per day. So if your meetings tend to center around long slideshows, then as the old saying goes, “that probably could’ve been an email.”
- Get remote participants involved
It’s far easier for meeting participants to speak up when they’re physically in the room, so be vigilant about engaging employees who are attending remotely. You could address them first when asking for the group to weigh-in on something, or you can incorporate tools like virtual polls to make meetings more interactive. It’s also a great idea to start off meetings with a quick roundtable where everyone provides a personal update — this can help replicate some of the sidebar chats that remote workers will miss out on.
Make fairness your top priority
The tips I’ve shared can certainly go a long way toward improving fairness during hybrid meetings. However, you should continue to keep a close eye on things, including how often remote attendees speak up and whether those attending in-person are frequently having sidebar conversations before, during, and after meetings. If it’s clear that hybrid meetings are giving office employees an advantage — even if it’s a small one — then the best approach is to have everyone dial-in from their own workspace.
I'd love to get your thoughts on this — what’s the best set-up for hybrid meetings? How is your company approaching this? Let me know in the comments on LinkedIn!