Stephen Fleming sat stiffly at one end of a conference table, blinking at a laptop computer a few feet away. Two colleagues were crushed next to him, the arms of the chair touching each other, trying to make sure they were all captured in the computer’s camera viewfinder.
“We were close enough to rub our noses,” says Mr. Fleming, an administrator at the University of Arizona, who kept his eyes studiously ahead, not wanting to risk turning his head and breathing too close to his feet. colleagues.
Instead, he looked at a large screen mounted on the back wall, where four other colleagues participating from a distance were visible, and tried to look attentive. “I didn’t want them to feel left out,” he explains. “Meetings are about the little niceties.
During the pandemic, businesses across the United States have grown accustomed to meeting exclusively by video call. But with more and more workers returning to their desks part-time, often on schedules with minimal overlap, many find themselves increasingly immersed in meetings that mix in-person and remote participants.
For colleagues, that means navigating tricky new social dances and the hiccups that go with them, as workplaces experiment with different ways to make sure everyone can be seen and heard.
At a recent meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, Business Development Manager Ashley Pate was surprised when she started talking and found a camera sitting on a nearby ledge suddenly zooming in on her. The AI-equipped device had detected his voice and wanted to highlight his face for the benefit of distant colleagues who connected by video. Surprised, she let out a laugh and tried to sound unfazed.
When Yunyao Li, senior research director at IBM in Almaden, Calif., Attended a recent hybrid meeting, participating colleagues from their homes were displayed on large screens on two different walls, which she said helped to create the feeling that they were spread around the room.
“They were slightly bigger than us,” she said of the size of their heads on the screens. “I think it helped to really feel their presence.”
While remote meetings had their pitfalls – people failing to turn the sound on or off, pet and kid cameos – organizers say hybrid meetings make them worse, with even less room for error.
Recently, Texas A&M University Biomedical Writing Professor Yasha Hartberg participated in a faculty meeting, with five people in person and five online. Ten minutes later, the aerial camera connecting the room to the remote participants stopped working.
“Those of us zooming in must have looked at the coordinator’s face on her laptop,” says Hartberg. “Every now and then she would turn the situation around so we could all watch and see what was going on” in the rest of the room, he adds, but the effect was alienating and the sound mediocre. After 25 minutes, he left.
Given the difficulty of trying to mix virtual and in-person participants, hybrid meetings are primarily useful for status report type updates, rather than in-depth discussions, says Josh Gordon, president of Full Spectrum. Marketing in Akron, Ohio.
They are also a useful fix to a person’s vanity, he says. In his company, the screen used to display remote participants is 85 inches: “It’s like, please brush your teeth and cut your nose hair, people, because everything is enlarged. “
The funhouse mirror effect goes both ways. In Boston, union organizer Alejandra Tejeda co-led a recent Zoom meeting of about 40 people, split between in-person and remote participants. As Ms. Tejeda stared at the screen of her 13-inch Mac, much to her amusement and dismay, she realized that the Zoom box containing a video feed of the participants in person was far too small to see anyone. correctly. “It was a tiny bunch of people. Their heads were probably the size of a pencil head, ”she says.
To make matters worse, the microphone the in-person participants were using also malfunctioned, so the “little pencils” could be seen but not heard. “You really have to laugh,” she said.
Many say they enjoy how mixed-format gatherings make it easier to increase attendance. In Scottsbluff, Neb., For example, Pastor April Fiet says she is grateful that older parishioners who are at greater risk to their health can zoom in on weekly Bible study meetings, while younger ones can attend. in person.
Still, it was a bumpy adjustment. Some parishioners in person tended to slowly move their chairs away from the camera to avoid being seen. Delays on the internet mean people accidentally cut themselves off, leading to excuses and false starts.
“The hardest part is psychological,” she says, adding that as the leader of the group she often doesn’t know where to look and is afraid of alienating people, present and far away.
No matter how good the technology, some stumbles are inevitable, says Mike Tremblay, planning director for a transit agency in Portland, Maine. In particular, he says, when videoconferencing in meetings with colleagues in person, “everyone is hiding, so it’s hard to tell sometimes who is speaking.” And as a remote participant, he says, it can be annoying when he hears chatter in the conference room, but is unable to intervene smoothly.
Yet, he says, hybrid meetings enjoy greater efficiency than many face-to-face meetings during previous periods. Given how stuffy they can feel, in his experience, says Tremblay, they tend to conclude more quickly, “We just want it to be done.”
Write to Te-Ping Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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