’Everyone should be able to participate in distance work meetings on same terms’
Why KTH lecturer Jens Edlund has decided against hybrid meetings
A work meeting where some participate together in a room while others join from distance is a bad solution, says Jens Edlund, university lecturer at the Division of Speech, Music and Hearing at KTH.
“People are struggling with technical equipment to facilitate hybrid meetings, but the technology is not the problem. Hybrid meetings worsen problems connected to meetings like exclusion and difficulties cooperating.”
The use of digital distance meetings has been a part of Edlund’s research and teaching for the last two decades. With people working remotely, the pandemic speeded up the development of video conference technology. Now, one of the greatest challenges work places are facing is hybrid meetings.
“A well-observed phenomenon is that when people meet in groups, even if it’s their first time meeting, they tend to favour and agree with members of their own team. Meaning people who are in the same room, in the case of hybrid meetings. So, when others participate remotely, the participants have different prerequisites.”
Edlund says the science points to the fact that people react with different senses—such as smell, sight and hearing—when they’re in physical meetings.
“The whole point of meetings is essentially to cooperate. But hybrid meetings provide a very frail basis for doing that,” he says. Those sitting in the same room are the ones primarily whose voices will be heard.”
How do you use hybrid meetings?
“As a leader or lecturer I don’t use hybrid meetings. I use distance meetings. The difference is that in the latter, every participant sits with their own computer and gallery-view, in Zoom or Teams. That way everyone meets on equal terms.”
Isolation is a recurring line of argument in the reasoning behind distance meetings. Edlund’s thesis, after 20 years of observations in the field, is that hybrid meetings are less successful. When three participants are in one room and face each other to discuss, it excludes the person joining remotely.
“It’s easy to complain about technology when meetings are unsuccessful, but it’s often a case of how the technology is used rather than it being faulty. In larger meetings it generally works well with one person lecturing and passive attendees.”
Edlund always asks students to have their cameras on when he lectures larger groups of students, it makes it easier to understand if they are bored or engaged.
“Otherwise it’s like talking to a wall,” he says.
Edlund is now conducting pilot studies on video conference meetings, and is testing variants where all participants sit in front of their own camera, with good lighting and sound and a steady internet connection.
“Our tests focus on small meetings with up to seven participants. The larger the meeting is it starts resembling a seminary. In that case it works better for the meeting to be in the form of a presentation, where the participants don’t interact, except in smaller “break-out-rooms” or through the chat function.”
Edlund and the doctoral student Ghazaleh Esfandiari-Baiat are now working on a methodology to be able to evaluate distance meetings objectively to understand their success rate.
“We’ll run test meetings and hand out assignments the participants can work on together. We’ll test run the method toward the end of the year and hope to have the pilot study ready by the beginning of next year.”