Are hybrid meetings the best of both worlds?

13 January 2022

This blog is written by Alastair Downie, Head of IT at The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge, who has been kind enough to share his thoughts on hybrid meetings.

In the University where I work, there is a lot of chat just now about hybrid meeting rooms, and there are many interesting interpretations and creative ideas floating around. It feels like there is still a lot of experimenting to be done before we will be able to identify best practices for all the different use-cases that people are imagining, but it is both cool and unusual to be part of the process of building the ‘new normal.’ It seems to me that most people want the new normal to be different from the old – perhaps an expression of some disaffection; or perhaps simply an appetite for some fresh thinking and to see where change will take us.

There will always be a place for ‘real’ meetings – sometimes it is practical and expedient, or sometimes it is just better to get together in a room and chat without technology. I think the same is true for some elements of the conference experience too. The spontaneous encounters and exchanges that take place when you find yourself hanging around at a poster presentation for example, or when sitting next to a stranger from the other side of the globe at lunchtime… I do not think anyone has found a way to replicate these successfully, so far. So, now we are experimenting with hybrid approaches to combine the benefits of both virtual and in-person meetings.

The traditional video conferencing suite
Institutional service departments have been tasked to install hybrid meeting facilities urgently – they have not had the luxury of time to wait and see what emerges as the community’s favourite approach. A common response is to install managed infrastructure in a small number of rooms around a campus – typically a static camera, screen, speakers, and microphones built around a meeting room table and hard-wired into an ethernet network. This has been the default approach that has suited most institutional requirements for many years now, but the new democratisation and ease-of-use of desktop video conferencing makes this seem a bit old-fashioned and inflexible.

Zoom in the Room
Now that we are all accustomed to Zoom and Teams meetings, and so familiar with chatting into a screen, it hardly seems weird to imagine a meeting room full of people, sitting around the table, but talking into their laptops. Well… maybe a little weird. Or a lot. And fraught with potential for mishaps, like switching your camera off and thinking that nobody can see you anymore or trying to mute the guy who is sitting three seats to your left. BUT… with such ease-of-use and familiarity, it is by far the most straightforward way to organise a hybrid meeting: the entire global audience can be on Zoom; a lucky few can be on Zoom in the Room. And, since no large screen is required because all presentations will be shared to laptops, the only infrastructure requirement is a good Wi-Fi system. Any space can be used for the in-person meeting – large or small, indoors, or outdoors.

The pop-up mini hub
The Meeting Owl has become a popular solution for small group meetings where organisers are keen to provide a more engaging ‘face-to-face-like’ experience for remote participants. They are portable and very easy to set up quickly in a variety of situations, and this versatility and accessibility create the possibility of many Owls participating in a larger meeting. A faculty meeting could take the form of an Owl in each of many departments; an international conference could take the form of one or more Owls in many institutions around the world – each pop-up Owl room could be a node in a giant network of Owls that becomes a large conference. A true parliament of Owls! This option seems attractive to me because it brings many individuals together, in person, in accessible, local hubs, and then brings those groups together into a very scalable virtual meeting.

So, are hybrid meetings the best of both worlds? I think they are a pretty good compromise and a flexible blueprint that will be capable of evolving easily – not a bad starting point.

We are always keen to hear your ideas and any questions you might have and invite you to share your thoughts and join the discussion. Tell us what you want to read next in our blog by emailing sustainability@biologists.com. Please feel free to share this article if you think others might like to contribute their ideas and to visit our sustainability blogs for more tips.

Read Alistair’s previous blog Meeting Owls and Poster Bots.

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