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Video calls can be a pain for hybrid offices. Tech companies say relief is coming.

Zoom, Google, Microsoft and others say new features and tools will help improve the headaches of hybrid work meetings

(Zoom and iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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In meetings where some of her colleagues are on video calls and others are in a conference room, Vanessa Moss says she’s been having a hard time following along because of choppy audio feeds or people in the office sitting too far from microphones.

In other “hybrid” work meetings she’s participated in, the astronomer at an arm of Australia’s national science agency says she was easily forgotten along with other remote participants as the conversation was dominated by those in person. She says she witnessed side laughter and chatter from the in-person group, many of whom she couldn’t see very well. It often left her feeling isolated, and she said the experience can be surprisingly disempowering.

“Your voice isn’t heard so you translate it into your feelings or thoughts don’t matter,” she said.

Moss’s experience mirrors that of many office workers across the world who are navigating the technical challenges of a hybrid work environment — one in which some employees are working remotely while others are in the office. The fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant is also adding a new layer of uncertainty for workers hoping to bring some sense of normalcy to their work routines.

Workers are putting on pants to return to the office only to be on Zoom all day

Between the dreaded echo that occurs when two employees on their respective devices are at proximity on a video conference to trouble hearing and seeing people who join a meeting from a conference room, many hybrid workplaces are discovering that video calls can be frustrating, complex and sometimes downright inequitable.

“It’s all these seemingly little things” that happen, Moss said. “But when all the little things add up, it leads to a bad experience.”

As workers brace for a hybrid environment in the long run, makers of some of the most commonly used video conferencing tools are hoping their latest updates and those yet to come will address some of the biggest pain points of video calling and provide more collaborative capabilities.

“It’s an evolving set of concerns,” said Sanaz Ahari, senior director of product for communication apps across Google Workspace and Android. “A lot of [our focus] has been around collaboration equity and making sure we have the right set of tools so people can collaborate regardless of where they are.”

Office workers have a growing wish list of improvements for videoconferencing tools, from audio enhancements to better video features, that they’ve been using for nearly two years. And the makers of the tools — Microsoft, Zoom, Google, Webex, BlueJeans and LogMeIn — say they’re listening and responding. They’re working on minimizing background noise, allowing people to blur or change their backgrounds, get in and out of back-to-back meetings with one click, and better focus on individual faces and voices when workers are huddled in the same room together.

Companies also plan to introduce new collaboration tools that they hope will help workers in hybrid workplaces. BlueJeans users are expected to soon be able to move around virtual spaces and be able to hear where people are in a room. Microsoft Teams users will be able to make a PowerPoint presentation remotely with their video feed streaming through their slides. And workers on Webex may soon collaborate via 3-D holograms.

“It’s like what else can you do for me [beyond video calling], and we have to respond to that,” said Mike Sharp, chief product officer for unified communications and collaboration of LogMeIn, a remote software provider.

The most maddening part about working from home: video conferences

When two colleagues sit too closely to each other with open microphones, they are often hit with an endless audio reverberation. Webex says it is targeting the issue with its echo cancellation feature, debuting in the next few months. The company previously released noise-removal and speech-amplification features to help remote workers deal with issues like screaming kids and lawn mowers in the background of their homes.

Google Workspace, Google’s suite of productivity tools for businesses, is attacking the problem with a new feature called companion mode, expected to debut early next year. The feature will allow participants to use their mobile devices while on a conference room video stream so they can do things like raise their hand, use the chat and vote on polls, without creating an echo.

Another awkward reality of hybrid video calls? Workers, who have become conditioned to seeing their colleagues’ individual boxes on the screen, are struggling to see their in-person colleagues gathered in a meeting room. The experience can create a sense of exclusion among remote workers, they say.

So Microsoft Teams and Cisco’s Webex are taking a stab at making workers feel more connected on video calls, despite their location. Early next year, Microsoft Teams plans to roll out a feature called front row, a new layout option in which video boxes are spread across a horizontal plane at the bottom of the screen to help remote workers feel more connected in the meeting. Then with help from hardware manufacturing partners, Microsoft aims to introduce new intelligent cameras, which will debut sometime next year, to in part provide each participant in the room their own box on the video screen.

“Normally when you look at a conference room, you see these tiny people you can’t recognize,” said Shiraz Cupala, product leader for Microsoft Teams Meetings Platform Innovation. “We’re able to segment people and give them their own video feeds.”

Webex is releasing a similar capability, called People Focus, by the end of the year to give in-person participants their own individual frame on the video screen.

But workers have also complained about the complication associated with scheduling and attending video meetings. Employees are finding themselves in back-to-back meetings, trying to find the link of their next meeting, which could be on a different video service, while still on their previous call. And switching devices while attending a meeting sometimes creates unnecessary chaos.

LogMeIn, the creator of GoToMeeting, said its focus for the upcoming year is to make all of these transitions a little easier. The company, which this year introduced pop-ups to join the next meeting with one click, is working on features that would allow workers to seamlessly leave a GoToMeeting call and join one on another service, for example. It is also aiming to help workers switch devices without the tech friction.

“Maybe I start a meeting on my mobile,” Sharp said. “Then I walk into a meeting I want to flip it to my laptop.”

Workers are also asking tech providers for ways to collaborate face-to-face across different tools. People no longer just want to sit on a video call, they want to work together during those calls.

So next year, workers are expected to be able to make remote presentations on Microsoft PowerPoint, with their video streams embedded into the slides. Workers using Zoom will be able to brainstorm together on a virtual whiteboard. They’ll also be able to work on Google Docs and Sheets as they video chat with each other via an embedded Google Meet box.

And workers in different industries need different collaboration tools, said Peter Verwayen, vice president of product management at BlueJeans by Verizon. So the company said it’s focused on building industry-specialized products for workers in manufacturing, education or construction, for example.

As employees continue to navigate a world that is at least partially based in a virtual environment, tech companies are hoping to provide additional services to improve working relationships.

For example, Webex is working on enhancing the insights it gives users, which currently include how often they work, when they work, whom a user speaks to the most and when they may want to catch up with important contacts. The goal? Help workers build better relationships and avoid issues like burnout.

“We have to simplify and take out the friction” of the tech, said Jeetu Patel, Cisco executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration. “We have to make sure the [virtual] engagements people have … allow us to build tight bonds and relationships.”

And Zoom is working on real-time automated translation that would support multiple languages, a feature expected to debut next year.

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The makers of popular video conferencing services are also hoping to push the future of the virtual meeting — though it’s unclear whether demand from workers for that future exists yet.

BlueJeans plans to debut Spaces, a virtual environment in which people can represent themselves with avatars, move around and have various conversations or one-on-ones with spatial audio that gives them a sense of location in the room. Meanwhile, Webex thinks the future of meetings and job training is inside an augmented reality environment complete with 3-D holograms — similar to the virtual reality workplace product Facebook released earlier this year.

Moss says her employer, which has been exploring the future of meetings with partners, has learned a few lessons that can alleviate some frustration. Meeting facilitators should consider using a digital-first mind-set, in which all attendees equally rely on tech to participate and consciously work to balance the power between both groups of participants. And finally, every participant — including the meeting room — should be equipped with the right tech tools.

“Bad technology or tech implemented in the wrong way can make [problems] worse,” Moss said. “But there are also ways [tech] can make it better.”

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