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From in-person to remote to hybrid meetings – why the focus is shifting

Technology has come to the fore to facilitate better meetings during COVID-19, but we need to think about our behaviours and what we can do differently as we enter a permanently changed world of hybrid meetings, writes Mark Andrews.

Have you found yourself sitting in a meeting room with two or three colleagues where you are all looking only at the remote participants in the meeting who are on screen, or conversely only looking at those in the same room?

This experience was familiar before the pandemic when for meetings we tended to have a small number of locations connected together, whereas today we have a larger number of locations with fewer participants in each location. The risk today is that joining a hybrid meeting when you are in an office may be an inferior experience to that of joining from home. Meetings may, in fact, be a disincentive to return to the office.

To consider this further, let us go back to the pre-pandemic period and then look at changes in technology, personal behaviour, emerging trends and what the future might hold for meetings.

Importantly, in discussing meetings in this article, my focus is on meetings where most people are expected to participate (such as meetings for project teams or business units). I am not considering more presentation-style events (where, for example, a managing partner may be speaking to a broad group and taking questions).

Pre-pandemic meetings

For a long time, the pre-pandemic business meeting had remained fairly similar. There was, of course, the transition from audio-only connection to other sites to audio and video connection.

In essence, though, meetings consisted of people sitting in designated meeting rooms, in addition to the occasional dial-in participant who could not make it into the office. The way we designed meeting rooms and technology focused on providing the best experience for those in the office, while there was less regard for those outside the office.

As a meeting participant, unless you were fortunate enough to have a very good meeting chair, you would have the best experience of the meeting if you were at the office location with the most people. I cite my own experience.

As a participant in a regular meeting some years back, there were typically five to six people in Sydney and one or two in Melbourne. It was always a different experience to join from Melbourne, where you felt very much like a guest in a Sydney meeting. When in Sydney, the challenge of feeling like you were either talking to the room in Sydney or to those in Melbourne, but never both, was ever present.

Despite our best efforts, unless the budget allowed for an immersive audio-visual experience, the use of technology added a certain level of social awkwardness to our meetings. A common behaviour I am sure we have all experienced, or perhaps engaged in, was either looking only at a screen at the front of the room showing participants in other office locations, or staring intently at a speaker phone in the middle of the table even when there were other people in the same room – as if both remote and in-person communication had to be channelled through the speaker phone.

Pandemic-induced technical and behavioural change

Regardless of what technology solution you adopted during the pandemic, what was far more consistent was the experience each of us had (or may well still be having). As a meeting participant, we were all equal – all looking at the screen and seeing each other, all joining from separate locations, all dealing with the realities of working from home, all physically distant.

Courtesy of the pandemic, our location stopped being the most important predictor of our meeting experience.

Using technology to connect became mandatory during COVID-19 and even the most resistant could be seen with their cameras on using the technology just like everyone else. Deficiencies in technology were experienced by everyone and, as a result, many of those shortfalls were addressed far more quickly than was the case pre-pandemic.

There is little doubt that we all became more proficient in using meeting technology as a result of the pandemic.

Behaviours during the pandemic also changed as it became important for teams to connect socially via technology in a regular way. We became more inclusive in our approach as everyone could now join the social events, rather than them being limited to whoever was in the office for whatever the event might be.

This takes us to the idea of the hybrid meeting, as I think we are going to be living with meetings being held over multiple locations, both in offices and outside offices, for some time. What is going to matter is whether we can take our learnings and pandemic-induced meeting behaviours into this hybrid world.

Emerging trends and future meetings

The current, affordable for most, meeting technology solutions don’t provide all of the functionality we might wish for in a hybrid meeting.

There are some useful features available in various systems, such as cameras focusing on the person speaking in the room and framing in-room participants in a similar way to remote participants.

Currently available technology is good, but it means our meeting experience will not be as good as having either everyone in a room or everyone remote. Technology is evolving and I do see a place for some combination of augmented or virtual reality and holograms for the meeting of the future. For now, however, we are often going to be dealing with rooms designed for pre-pandemic meetings coupled with video-based solutions designed for meetings with one person per location.

For those with significant budget to spend, thinking creatively and designing rooms which allow speakers to be positioned around a table, where real and virtual are interspersed, will create a very engaging experience. With this concept, those in the room will be interacting with others around the table, some in person and some on screen. Those on screen will have a view of the whole room, almost as if they were sitting at the table.

With careful design and budget this is possible, but it is not realistic to expect that many firms would have the appetite to invest at this level.

The best tool we have at present is our behaviour. We must be very conscious in the hybrid meeting of how we engage others in the room and those on screen. Each participant requires our attention and we need to be far more aware of making eye contact with those in the room and those in other locations.

Having all participants bring laptops or tablets to the meeting is highly recommended as it will allow them to engage directly with those outside the meeting room. However, care should be taken to place the laptop to the side so that those in the room are not all just looking at their own screen for the duration of the meeting. When we join meetings in the office, it is vital to consider the experience for remote participants.

Importantly, we also need to recognise the value of non-hybrid, traditional meetings and try to hold those whenever possible, with the proviso that all participants that should be in the meeting are able to join the meeting. Making in-person meetings engaging and free from technological distraction is going to help attract people to the office and create richer engagement than the hybrid meetings – at least for now.

The last word

In the evolving world of work, the hybrid meeting is much more of a feature than in the past. So, until technology catches up with the majority of meeting requirements, our behaviour will be critical.

We must also not lose sight of the value of face-to-face interaction and the technology-free meeting. Let’s not forget what it is like to be a remote participant while also not over-compensating for this and creating in-person meetings that everyone would rather do from home.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.