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Meetings in the metaverse and other trends in hybrid catch-ups

02:30pm June 29 2022

Microsoft has reimagined the hybrid meeting experience, giving every participant a clear view of every other participant—life-size, and at eye level. (Supplied)

As many of us know, hybrid meetings are easy to do badly, and difficult to do well. But with many workforces opting to keep up the COVID inspired arrangements of splitting their teams’ times between the office and home, more companies are investing in new ways to remove any sources of friction.

Almost twice as many Australians worked from home one or more times a week in April 2022 compared with before pandemic restrictions in March 2020, a recent Bureau of Statistics survey showed. And with nearly half (46 per cent) of employees embracing the hybrid work model, it seems unlikely the trend will reverse anytime soon.

When it comes to hybrid meetings - which combine participants in the office with colleagues joining remotely - most of the friction centres around the online participants feeling unheard and forgotten. To address that, Harvard Business Review suggests setting up two large monitors, one on each side of the room, that show “life-size” panes of the remote attendees, making it next to impossible to forget they are there.

Microsoft also wants to give remote participants a greater sense of physical presence, so that they can be more easily seen and heard, through a feature called “front row”.

“It lines up the people on the video conference along the bottom of the screen, rather than having the Brady Bunch-style boxes,” says Paul McKenna, head of workplace services at Westpac. McKenna regularly liaises with the tech company about implementing improvements to hybrid meetings at Westpac. “It is more engaging because it looks like they are virtually sitting around the table that you're on and it swaps people in and out as they speak.”

Microsoft plans to release other innovations aimed at improving the hybrid experience, but also accepts that remote and in-person participants will never be completely equal.

“When [employees] decide to go into the office, they want experiences that are worth the commute,” says Nathalie D’Hers, corporate vice president of Microsoft Digital Employee Experience in a statement on 8 June. “That means making sure that when they choose to go in, they do so for an experience that they can’t get from home.”

Microsoft’s new hybrid meeting rooms have completely rearranged the furniture. The circle of chairs around a table has disappeared, replaced by a smile-shaped table that faces a big screen and cameras at the front of the room, with in-person attendees sitting side-by-side. There is also an elevated second row of seats to offset any loss of space.

“If people are facing each other in the room, they’re not focused on the people that are there remotely,” said Matt Hempey of the Microsoft Digital Employee Experience.

Westpac is also trying out different configurations, says McKenna. That includes potentially installing big screens in meeting rooms to make online participants more visible. 

McKenna will meet with Microsoft in July to test its virtual reality meeting innovations – which include holding a hybrid meeting in the metaverse, with users wearing VR goggles when they attend. Accenture has already rolled out the tech for its staff.

However, McKenna does not believe that the technology is ready just yet.

“I’ve seen a lot of renderings and the problem at the moment is that you can’t replicate your face or expressions – the avatar is an approximation of the way you look and your expression. Until that problem is solved, I think it would be more distracting than engaging,” he says.

Nonetheless, Westpac is experimenting with different ways of making hybrid meetings more seamless.

“We want to make our spaces more flexible, and are testing solutions which are orientated around assuming that there will always be at least one person virtual when meeting and co-creating,” he says.

McKenna says that while noise filtering technology has improved, there are still sometimes gaps in etiquette that can leave virtual attendees feeling left out. 

“If you’re going to ask for questions or comments, always start with the virtual attendees first, so they’re not forgotten,” he says.

Conversely, sometimes in-person attendees can feel left out if the “critical mass” of meeting participants are online, or if the person chairing the meeting is attending remotely. In that case, it may be better to hold the meeting completely remotely.

Sydney-based fintech Stockspot had a leg up on most organisations: its staff already worked in a hybrid manner prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, when mass work from home orders were issued and flexible work became the norm. 

When scheduling a meeting, the first thing Cassandie Tozer, head of people and culture at Stockspot, assumes is that “everyone will be everywhere.” Both a meeting room and a link are provided. In-person meeting participants know to bring their laptop with them, which they can use as a connected whiteboard.

Stockspot's Cassandie Tozer. (Supplied

One of Tozer’s pet peeves is using paper to share and record ideas during a hybrid meeting (which to her, is simply ‘a meeting’). She thinks paper is outdated.

“One of the worst things about hybrid meetings is when the people in the room have sheets of paper, and especially butcher’s paper, and they're shuffling it over the top of the mic, so the online participants can’t hear what’s being said.” 

“Paper is awkward, and I think it's a bit controlling, because it doesn't allow people to easily interact,” she adds. “A digital whiteboard is far better.”

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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