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’Everyone should be able to participate in distance work meetings on same terms’

Why KTH lecturer Jens Edlund has decided against hybrid meetings

Person in front of a laptop with digital meeting gallery view of several faces
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. Photo: Unsplash
Published Oct 11, 2021

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.”

Portrait of Jens Edlund
“The best scenario would be if administrative authorities and larger companies created small standardized meeting rooms for every participant in distance meetings. It would mean that they are exceptionally well prepared for successful distance meetings. It is truly well invested money. Inefficient and contra productive hybrid meetings cost the businesses more in the long run,” Jens Edlund says.

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.

Laptops and a hand holding a pen over a notepad on a table
Photo: Unsplash

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.” 

Katarina Ahlfort
Foto: KTH

Jens Edlund: How you contribute to better distance meetings

  • The combination of some meeting participants being in a room and some joining from distance is a challenge. The best thing to do is to have every participant in front of their own screen and camera, preferably in separate meeting rooms – participants should be able to meet on equal terms.
  • Don’t try to control the meeting by asking people to use the thumbs up or hand raising symbols. They often appear at an inconvenient time and stay for too long, creating confusion and time-wasting questions such as “Was there something you wanted to say or has your question been answered already?”
  • Always turn on the camera and gallery-view so that you can see everyone’s faces. That way you understand the participants’ facial expressions and nods.
  • Try to find good lighting, preferably by a window. It might be worth buying a good lamp, with a soft light especially made for meetings, to your work place. 
  • Angle your face toward the screen your camera is attached to – shut the other one off if it means that you have to turn your face to the side when you’re in the meeting. 
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Belongs to: About KTH
Last changed: Oct 11, 2021