As more organizations adopt a hybrid work model in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some wonder whether productivity will suffer. But with the right tools and approach—especially around communication—a hybrid environment can be a business enabler.

As they settle in to what for many is now a permanent hybrid work environment, organizations are now facing a new challenge: making hybrid work productive.

The shift to hybrid work may not be a permanent move in workplaces where management is determined to bring everyone back in the office. But in other companies—especially those that saw a boost of productivity during the pandemic and full-time work from home—many are taking a more measured approach, either allowing 100% remote work or a mix of in-office and remote work. “Companies that were in a good place culturally and with their technology stack have really reaped the benefits,” says Sam Adams, CEO at 1Focus LLC, a digital consulting firm based in Tampa. But to move forward with hybrid work, he adds, leaders need to rethink how they manage communication, meetings and the purpose of those meetings.

Communication Clash

Any organization that isn’t 100% in-person or 100% distributed will have to figure out how to make different modes of work, well, work. Encouraging positive hybrid work experiences (and avoiding horrible ones) is suddenly far more of a corporate issue because it’s now a common experience.

For one, remote participants miss out on spontaneous hallways conversations, which sometimes are more important than what happens in a meeting. In a recent Gartner webinar on managing hybrid work, analyst Brent Cassell, VP on the HR Advisory team, lamented that too many organizations “have compensated by scheduling more and more meetings.” The problem, he says, is it’s hard to get in the flow of work “if you’re in back-to-back meetings.”

Managers tend to treat meetings as the default way to communicate, get work done and build team cohesion when asynchronous modes of communication and collaboration can be as or even more effective, Cassel says.

Quantity is one thing, but the quality of meetings is altogether another issue. To their credit, some of the more popular collaboration vendors recognize the inherent communication limitations that plague the online meeting space and are doing something about it. Earlier this year, Microsoft rolled out a series of hybrid work upgrades to its Teams collaboration platform and partnered with conference room manufacturers on technologies to enhance the communication experience, such as cameras that pan and zoom robotically to keep up with whoever is speaking and multiple display arrangements that more intelligently display remote participants, not just screen shares.

Cisco announced a similar series of upgrades to its WebEx for hybrid meetings. For example, the My Voice Only feature in WebEx filters out background noise and voices, making it easier to participate in an online meeting while in a busy office. For meetings on a large scale, including conferences and company town hall events, Zoom now has a Zoom Events platform that tries to replicate some of the “conversations in the hallways” experiences that remote attendees otherwise cannot get at an online event.

Worth the Investment?

But while the vendors are stepping up to improve their communication and collaboration technologies, technology leaders must decide how much to invest in new meeting room tech versus making better use of technology they already have.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, is working on upgrading all municipal conference rooms with better microphones as well as pan-and-tilt videoconference cameras that can be set to adjust to a few pre-built angles on the room (for example, to focus on the head of the table versus the whiteboard). However, his preferred solution for hybrid meetings is avoiding them.

“For meetings, we’re trying to make them all-remote or all in-person,” Feldman says, because that’s the best way to put everyone on a level playing field. “The worst situation is where you have four people in a conference room and two remote [workers],” as many times the “real conversations” happen among the in-person attendees after the remote participants have logged off. That is often when decisions actually are made, he says.

For an all-remote meeting, Feldman and others in his office will sign in separately on their own devices rather than gather in a conference room, where remote participants might feel excluded. Having the whole team together in one room is still the ideal environment for people to engage, he says, but inevitably there will be instances in which one or more important participants are remote for an otherwise in-person meeting, which is why conference room upgrades make sense, he says.

However, he adds, “I don’t think we’ll spend a ton of money, because you still have to train people.”

Adams says he coaches organizations to do a better job of planning meetings to ensure meetings are worthy of participants’ time. Those planning activities can happen asynchronously via group messaging channels such as Slack.

For well-managed companies, investing in new communication and conference room technologies “makes sense and will be a force multiplier,” he says. “But on the other hand, garbage in, garbage out.

“You could have Star Trek Holodeck technology, but if you don’t have the right organization, it won’t do you much good,” he notes.

Steve diFilipo, a CIO and consultant in the higher education space, says campus administrative workers learning to adapt to hybrid work should be able to learn from educators, many of whom have been doing both online and in-person teaching for years. “Dual modality” classrooms exist on most campuses, so administrators “may not want to go into a conference room anymore if they can grab a spare classroom, he says.

Relatively low-cost devices such as the Owl 360-degree camera, which autofocuses on the person who is speaking, also may be worth considering, diFilipo says, but adds that people who are motivated to collaborate will make do with whatever technology is readily available.

“I was in a meeting the other day where it was just everyone gathered around a laptop, very impromptu, joining other people on Zoom, just leaning in together,” he says, noting he’s seen other meetings take place in the corner of the library or out in the parking lot, with a laptop propped up on the hood.

These days, “do it yourself adaptability” is a key skill for communicating and collaborating, diFilipo says. “You can make it work if you’re willing to think outside the box.”