Remote and hybrid work is undoubtedly here to stay in some form or another. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, before the Covid-19 pandemic, 5.7% of working Americans (roughly 9 million people) worked from home. That number tripled in 2021 to 17.9% (27.6 million people). But at the height of the pandemic, 70% of U.S. full-time employees in non-rural areas worked from home. More than half of those employees (51%) worked entirely remotely, while the rest (49%) returned to the office at least one day a week. Although hybrid work was already experiencing an upward trend, the pandemic transitioned people into an unknown and unplanned situation without all the tools needed to do it right.
Successfully maintaining the hybrid work transition has required companies to reevaluate managerial styles, as well as the technologies they use to support in- and out-of-office employees and how they work and collaborate. At Enterprise Connect, the annual enterprise communications and collaboration conference held last month in Orlando, the growing trend of hybrid work and its implications for equity in the workplace were front and center.
In this article I'll examine how a pronounced focus on equity and inclusion in meetings has evolved. I'll also dive into why it's imperative that technologies continue to foster the inclusiveness that remote and hybrid work cultivates, plus look at some companies working on this critical issue.
The new normal and the next normal
The definition of hybrid work is continually evolving. Moreover, the "new normal" in the modern workplace—that thing we heard so much about during the early going of the pandemic—is never the norm for very long. In today’s workplace, we're always looking for the next normal we need to adapt to—and technology needs to evolve along with us. As companies navigate the next normal for remote, in-office and hybrid work, they must also address the concern of proximity bias and make sure meetings are productive and inclusive for all.
New technologies and capabilities from companies like Cisco and Microsoft address these concerns. They are bringing collaboration and meeting inclusivity to the table—whether the kitchen table or a Fortune 100 board room—to make meetings more equitable.
Meeting people where they are
Video conferencing technology has improved access to remote work and increased opportunities for marginalized populations. Hybrid work also has allowed people to have more flexibility in where they live in relation to where they work, opening up a broader opportunity base for workers. At the same time, companies benefit from being able to hire a more diverse workforce from different areas and backgrounds without the typical limitations of geography, cost of living or the physical constraints that prevent some people from going into an office.
What's more, remote workers work from more locations than just a home office. Technology companies have acknowledged this by offering a broader availability of collaboration tools—both hardware and software—included natively with mobile phones, tablets and even cars.
Challenges of video conferencing technology and meeting equity in hybrid work
Previously, video conferencing technology could exacerbate equity issues, such as lack of access to high-speed internet or digital literacy. Emerging and improving technologies address meeting equity challenges with AI to help increase bandwidth in low-connectivity areas and rectify video resolution issues. This means that, regardless of the quality of a device or its broadband connection, meeting participants can access the same clear video and audio without "glitching" in and out of discussions.
Being seen and heard on video are just steps in the journey, albeit significant ones. Technology can also play a big part in remedying the disparity that arises when some people are more seen and heard because they are in the office rather than remote, or when people are less seen and heard because of a lack of accessibility features.
At Enterprise Connect, several brands announced hardware and software to help to make hybrid meetings better and more effective. Webex expanded on its "People Focus" for its devices, announced last year, which utilizes intelligent cameras to improve hybrid meetings. The People Focus feature optimizes screen real estate by removing excess floor and ceiling space from the video frame, ensuring that all participants are included in the best possible view.
By improving video quality and ensuring everyone is visible and included, People Focus enables remote participants to better gauge the body language and expressions of in-room meeting participants. That same screen view optimization is now available in the Webex Frames solution for an inclusive view of all participants in any meeting, regardless of the platform used.
How collaboration technology can level the playing field for all employees
Having a seat at the table or on the video screen is an excellent start for hybrid meeting inclusivity. Yet it can be challenging for remote workers to participate and contribute effectively in hybrid meetings, and studies have shown that virtual meetings may also generate fewer ideas. One solution from Microsoft Teams brings ideation to virtual life with collaborative "whiteboards" that people can participate in either remotely or in person. By using a digital whiteboard or similar technologies, remote workers can more easily stay involved and have their ideas and thoughts heard.
Microsoft Whiteboard helps keep participants in sync with new Loop components; these are interactive canvases that move freely among Microsoft apps such as Teams and Outlook, where people are already ideating and communicating. Once a user copies an existing Loop component from another Microsoft 365 app and pastes it into Whiteboard, any changes made to that component in Whiteboard will sync across all apps where the component lives.
The people factor in adopting inclusive collaboration
Even the most advanced technologies will only be helpful in reducing inequities if meeting leaders have the necessary skills to use them—and have an inclusive mindset that prioritizes the needs of all participants. Incorporating new technologies requires an organizational change in behavior as well.
At Enterprise Connect, there was nearly as much talk about the culture that communications and collaboration tools help to foster in the workplace as there was talk about new technologies. As companies navigate the next normal for how and where employees work, these conversations are crucial. When referring to how employers should view creating organizational change, sayings such as “Earn the commute” and “Magnet, not mandate” were often used. Clever catchphrases aside, I see an evolution of products and services that were originally intended to be utilitarian becoming much more humanitarian.
The ultimate agenda
With the basics of bandwidth and image clarity established as table stakes, video conferencing plays a more prominent role in creating a more equitable meeting structure. Remote collaboration and communication tools help foster important nonverbal communication, such as body language and facial expressions, in establishing trust between people. When people pick up on these cues, they can better understand the intentions and emotions of the people they are communicating with.
Devices and software are increasingly designed to enhance virtual meetings and give people a more productive meeting experience. This technological advancement also helps ensure that everyone has an equal seat at the hybrid table, meaning that regardless of whether someone is attending in person or virtually, they should be able to participate in the meeting and have their voice heard fully.
However, we must not rely on technology alone when attempting to level the playing field for hybrid meetings. A culture that treats remote workers equally and fairly is similarly crucial, and organizations must foster inclusivity as a matter of management philosophy if they want to adequately address issues of equity. By providing employees with relevant training and resources as well as investing in accessibility technology, companies will create an environment in which hybrid meetings are one more avenue for fostering a more equitable—and engaged—workplace culture.