For two years, I have worked as the only remote employee in the team. Right before the pandemic, I was still working partially remotely (sometimes in the office, sometimes at home). Our meetings, such as daily stand-ups, retrospectives, and plannings, were in a conference room. When I was in the office, everything was good, but when I was working remotely, I didn't have the best experience. I was on the TV screen in the conference room (and sometimes on the laptop screen because the TV didn't work). Besides technical problems such as bad internet connection and broken TV setup, I had other more significant issues that annoyed me a lot.
When there is one camera--that no one looks at it directly--at the top of the big screen, the camera captures everyone simultaneously. Whenever someone talks, you need to put extra effort to identify who is speaking without seeing their faces even though you know their voice. Meanwhile, you see most of the people from the profile, not the front. Think about TV shows where a couple of people are discussing a political topic. The director shows their seating as a group from time to time during the show.
But throughout the show, the director uses close-up shots on each person separately and sometimes even assign a personal camera because TV shows want you to feel included in the discussion. When you see people individually, you think they are talking to you. Humans are evolved to read the other person's feelings, micro gestures to organize groups and survive together. That's why humans are so good at reading the smallest mimics on the face, to collaborate better. In the end, with the help of the evolution and director's camera usage, you stay engaged with the show. In the hybrid meetings with only one camera, you cannot read the body language, mimics on the faces, and micro-gestures. There are solutions like expensive teleconference cameras, but they are still far from being as efficient as individual cameras. As a remote person, you feel outsider even though you are bonded with your team.
Sometimes the team enters the room with a high emotional state, either happy, sad, or nervous. They carry these emotions because they are still together and cannot easily switch to the meeting mode. You, as an outsider remote team member, don't understand it because you cannot read the air in the room. So you ask what's going on. But everyone knows that when someone explains the joke later, it's never as funny as before. Also, if they are sad or nervous, they often struggle to explain and leave the topic out of the room because describing emotions is difficult. The problem is that they carry the emotions to the meeting, but not the reason or the situation that caused it. On the other side of the screen, you have no idea what's going on.
We can argue that it will be the same while everyone joins the meeting remotely. But emotional dynamics are different. People affect each other's emotions when they are together. Collective emotions have a more intensive impact than individual emotions. So a person has a lower magnitude of emotion when joining the meeting alone rather than joining it with a group.
With many companies going into a hybrid model, they will face these challenges. If they are not careful, they will encounter many conflicts, employee disengagement, and a higher turnover rate. Companies aim to create an environment with fewer conflicts, higher engagement, and high employee retention. Since they cannot put many cameras and set up systems in the conference rooms to have close-up shots of individuals, they should hold all the meetings either on-site or fully remote. For remote, when there is one remote person, everyone should join the meeting remotely from their own computers even though most of the team is in the office. The people in the office can be in the same room while they are using headsets. For some convenience, it's okay to leave one microphone in the conference room unmute but keep the individual cameras open. There is no other way around; don't have hybrid meetings.
At first, it can, and will, feel awkward to join meetings remotely while you are in the same office. But you need equity, not equality. Here the equality is giving everyone a choice according to their preference. Equity is asking everyone to join the meeting remotely when there is only one remote worker. The people in the office might not have the easiest time, but the experience will be the same for everyone in the meeting. Everyone shares emotions and body language and, as a result, understands each other better because everyone gets a personal camera with a close-up shot during the whole meeting.
If you want to read about my tips for partially remote teams, click here.