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In-person and hybrid meeting strategies in the COVID era

When some workers are reporting in-person and others are remote, technology can help bridge the gap and ensure that everyone's voice is heard.

"The great return" to the office is proceeding very awkwardly. Some businesses have delayed office reopenings. Others are bringing smaller groups of employees in for two, three, or four days a week. Others are requiring all employees to come back to the office. Others still require some employees to report to the office, but older, and more "at-risk" employees are allowed to work from home.

It is a mess. And it's not likely to change anytime soon. Business leadership has to plan as if this level of disruption will remain the new normal for the foreseeable future, because it probably will.

In that context, how do we do meetings? Sure, we had the answer back at the beginning of COVID: We all just used Zoom or Teams. But now? Now we have some people in the office and some at home, and we still have to sync up and work through business challenges. 

Let's start with conference rooms. As it turns out, crammed conference room meetings weren't as prevalent as we may remember. Office planning company Density Inc. did some really interesting polling back in 2019, before the pandemic hit.

Density found that, 76% of the time, conference rooms were used by four people or fewer. In fact, 36% of the time, conference rooms were used by just one person. I'm guilty of that. During my years working in an office, I camped out in a conference room as much as possible. My cube was noisy and there were constant drop-ins, but if I moved to a conference room (especially in a different building), I could get some peace and quiet and get my writing or research done.

Of course, I was also guilty of organizing 36-person meetings, so I have some karma to atone for as well.

Density's statistic is important. In a room with reasonable ventilation, it's possible for four people to socially distance and yet have a meeting. It might not work in a 10x10 room, but in a boardroom or departmental-sized room, it would. 

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Obviously, not all meetings can be limited to four people or less. As Density showed, 24% of meetings had five people or more in them.

It might be time to start rethinking how you allocate conference room space in your office. For example, it may no longer be practical to use smaller conference rooms if people need to remain distanced. Perhaps those spaces can be turned into individual offices, or they can be allocated as available spaces for quiet work -- maybe with a signup sheet or scheduling board like the Joan display.

If your office has classrooms, they might be reconfigured to serve double-duty as conference rooms. If you don't have any larger meeting spaces, it may be necessary to look at how the office may be reconfigured to create one. Consider carving out a section of warehouse space, if nothing else is available.

In-person and virtual 

But what about mixing in-person participants with those connecting in remotely? It's important that everyone feels like a full member of the team, so good collaboration technology must be part of the solution. (The general guidelines in this article apply to almost all related purchases, and as this blog is sponsored by Dell, I'm happy to use Dell gear to illustrate my recommendations.) 

You can set up basic hybrid meeting spaces at relatively low cost. Connect a laptop to a nice, wall-mounted monitor like the Dell 55 4K Conference Room Monitor, a Dell Ultrasharp Webcam, and a Jabra SPEAK 710 speakerphone, and you're off and running. 

What makes this speakerphone special is that it's battery-powered and it uses Bluetooth, so there's no need to run wires to the conference table. Another valuable feature is that you can link two 710 speakerphones together in order to provide coverage in larger rooms, which is  important in offices that are adhering to social-distance guidelines.

A less expensive option than the Jabra, Dell's Mobile Adapter Speakerphone serves as a charging hub, omnidirectional speaker and microphone, and KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) dock all in one. 

At the higher end of the price range is the ultimate answer to hybrid meetings: the Dell OptiPlex 7080 Micro for Microsoft Team Rooms. If you're serious about hybrid meetings, it is totally the way to go. Solutions like this provide all of the hardware (including camera, speakers, and large-format touch screens) and software (pre-integrated with Microsoft Teams) to turn a conference room into a dynamic, hybrid meeting environment. Dell offers a variety of sizes, configurations, and mounting options for these systems, all based on 10th-Generation Intel Core i7 processors. 

On the subject of wall-mounted screens, you may opt to use two, so one can be dedicated to showing the faces of all the participants and one to displaying materials for presentation and collaboration.

One of the more interesting components available is a pan-and-zoom camera that mounts on the wall near the screen. When someone in the room speaks, the camera will focus on the speaker automatically.

Other features include automatic device muting, so when new participants enter the physical rooms, their computers automatically detect they're in a Teams room and mute their audio. (This helps reduce that annoying feedback for a few seconds while participants get settled.)

For those folks who love using a physical whiteboard, a content camera can be set up to film the whiteboard and present that to virtual participants. There's even a feature that makes the person standing in front of the whiteboard transparent, so remote participants can see what's being drawn even when the presenter is in the way. Teams supports virtual whiteboards, as well.

Wrapping up, it's important to keep in mind that flexibility is key. When I wrote The Flexible Enterprise, it had become obvious that businesses would need to be able to respond to changing conditions. But we had no idea we'd be planning for the level of constant experiential change we have in the COVID era.

As inconvenient and sometimes terrifying as the pandemic has been, we're fortunate to have good broadband and exceptional collaboration tools. As you've seen in this article, we have the tools necessary to build hybrid meeting environments and customize each meeting space based on the business needs and exigencies of each organization.

Stay safe out there!