Hybrid Work Meetings: a mess by default

Posted by Luke Thomas
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There's a lot of discussion right now about hybrid work. As many organizations navigate the transition back to the office (or make the decision to go remote-first), many are choosing a mixture of both modalities.

Many organizations had over a year to start planning for a return to the office after COVID-19 wanes, and the grandiose theories are now being put to the test in the real-world. The battleground at the moment is meetings, specifically hybrid work meetings.

I recently saw this tweet by the founder of Asana discussing the challenges of hybrid meetings, which you can see below:

As someone who's worked remotely since ~2013, I've had my fair share of hybrid meetings. I rarely was the person in the office, but instead was the person joining remotely. I've experienced this pain for many years, so I'd love to share some thoughts and tips for you.

I'm not going to mince this post, hybrid meetings can become a mess very quickly. In the rest of this post I'll share the problems and outline potential solutions for you to pursue as you navigate this transition.

What are hybrid meetings?

A hybrid meeting is when a core group of participants join a video or conference call from a single shared space, while others join remotely. Before COVID-19, many organizations would hold distributed meetings, but instead of having fully remote attendees, it was a collection of groups of people in different offices collectively gathered in multiple conference rooms.

Why are hybrid meetings messy?

The rationale is quite simple. The people in the shared space have communication advantages that remote attendees do not have.

Advantages for in-person meeting attendees:

  • When someone is sitting in front of you, it's easy remember that they exist and incorporate them into the meeting conversation. When someone is only located on a screen, it's much easier to forget that they exist.
  • It's much easier to communicate in-person. You can easily read body language, adjust your tone of voice, and more. There's a natural flow to the conversation and the fast feedback loop between participants helps establish everyone get on the same page.
  • You can easily whiteboard and use visual cues to make a point.

On the other hand, people who join remotely have build-in disadvantages, such as:

  • Bandwidth issues. Sometimes remote participants are dropped from the call and miss out on key conversations.
  • It can be difficult to know when to jump into a conversation, as you are trying to gauge long periods of silence. Once again, this is much easier when you are in-person.
  • It can be much more difficult to read body language, especially if everyone in the conference room is sharing a single video camera.

Here's my point. A remote participant has baked in disadvantages compared to the people attending the meeting from the conference room.

So what do you do about it? This is the question ūüôā

Fancy tech doesn't solve the core problem

I'm seeing more and more technology providers start to tackle this problem. Specifically, companies like Google and Around are making it easy to all be on a video call from the same room, without the annoying background noise.

While I applaud these efforts, I'm unconvinced this solves the root problem.

While it's nice to see conference room participants on their own video tile (which allows remote team members to better read body language and non-verbal cues), it doesn't solve the core problem. People in the office have a ton more data that they can parse as other participants are sitting right next to them!

Even with these products, if everyone is in the same room, you will probably just look up at the person talking instead of staring at the screen. This instantly gives you an advantage that remote participants don't have!

My story with hybrid meetings

To illustrate the nuance that you will need to deal with, let me share a personal story that happened way back in 2016.

At a startup I used to work for, I was one of the fully remote employees, but most of the team was based out of the office in Nashville, TN. In the Winter of 2016, my wife and I decided to make a cross-country trip and stay a few months within driving distance to the office. It was a nice chance to escape the snow in the Northeast, but also to get some face time with the rest of the team. I was excited about it.

While working out of the office, we had hybrid meetings, but this time, I was the person in the office. The CEO had a rule for people who worked out of the office - when we had company calls, everyone had to split up and join the call individually.

At first, I complained about this idea and thought it was ridiculous. If people are in the office, why not just use a single camera and gather around a table instead of splitting up? It didn't make sense to me. It felt like we were handicapping meetings for people in the office.

His response was: "everyone needs to be on the same playing field."

The only solution for hybrid meetings: level the playing field

If you are looking for a solution to hybrid meetings, let me propose a radical idea. Instead of creating an uneven playing field, you should have everyone split up throughout the office and each join the call individually.

Then, each person has the same advantages and disadvantages as the remote attendees.

Yup, it's that simple.

Wrapping up

If you want to make your life easier, have participants join calls on their own. If you want to make life complicated and create an uneven playing field for some people on your team, you should have groups of people join from a conference room.

To read more content like this, you should check out the book I'm writing called the Anywhere Operating System.

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