We’ve drafted a hybrid work policy and will roll that out soon. It’s been an interesting experience watching hybrid continuing to roll out. There’s so much variety of control embedded in some hybrid environments. My guiding principle is this: staff can do the work from anywhere the work can be done. Now we need to find a way to make that fluid experience as good as possible. One place I started was at the conference room table.

I was talking to some lawyers who were describing their new hybrid environments. For the most part, it’s really just remote control: there are mandatory days in the office and away. You would think that professionals would be given the most latitude in deciding where to do their knowledge work. If you’re a surgeon, you probably expect to be in an operating room to do a surgery. But do you need to be in the hospital all day?

The worst case of this sort of remote work bias I’ve seen is in English law firms. You can get remote control but only with an up to 20% pay cut. Remote worker bias is a thing all leaders will have to figure out. The UK law firms use a long term practice of paying based on where you live, not based on the work you do. 20% seems like it’s designed to make hybrid something that few people will opt in to.

This is priceless: “[law firm] believes this policy ‘strikes the right balance,’ the spokesperson said, adding that it is consistent with the policies of many law firms in London.” Everybody’s doing it. It’s one thing to be competitive and another to be mindless.

In any event, that’s a bad leadership approach that I’m not interested in. So, assuming (a) we trust the people we hire, and (b) we measure and value the work they do, how do we make the hybrid experience workable?

A Seat at the Table

I’ve referred to the results-only workplace before, it’s not an idea that I created. But it’s something I think a lot about and try to model. Did you complete the task? Is the project on time? Then why does it matter if I am doing the work at a desk between a specific time frame?

Meetings are an activity I’ve focused on. They tend to be wasteful but can also be difficult to make hybrid. The only standing meeting I have is with my senior staff. But all of my meetings are scheduled with the caveat “join from wherever you are working.” So, if staff are not in our law library at the time the meeting occurs, they join from where they are.

I set up a laptop for these meetings and put it at the end of the meeting table. I mean, it could be at any seat at the table but the head of the table seems to make the most sense. This way, I can run the laptop to get the meeting running and then the participants can be virtually at the table.

This is something that’s bothered me about virtual meetings throughout the pandemic. Everyone is face to face. There is no peripheral vision. No matter how much these meetings are a group discussion and well run, you are always looking straight ahead. If everyone is online, that’s one thing. When you are truly hybrid, then not everyone has that experience.

One thing I noticed, though, was that a laptop camera has a narrow perspective. If I sat beside the laptop at the table, I had to lean forward to be seen by the participants. If I sat far enough away to be seen, I lost half the length of the table to use.

You can definitely pay money for a virtual meeting system to create this distance. But that shifts virtual participants to a wall or crash cart and away from the table. That is physically distanced from the people at the table and more likely, in my mind, to make it harder to include them in the call.

I decided to try a simple solution to see if I could improve the experience. I bought a US$15 set of phone camera lenses that had a fish-eye lens. My hope was that the fish-eye might alleviate the tunnel vision.

Fishy Details

It actually worked better than I hoped. The first thing I did was to set up the laptop at the end of the table. Then I started a Microsoft Teams meeting. I mention Teams for a reason.

You can see what it looked like: I’m having to lean in even to be partially visible in one seat at a 6-seat conference table.

Screenshot of Microsoft Teams window showing David peeking in from the left and showing 3 of the 6 seats at the conference room table.

Not ideal. If you’re really motivated, you are probably not going to keep leaning forward to look at the remote participant. You can see them without leaning forward, and you may quickly forget that they can’t also see you. This defeats a lot of the benefit of being in a virtual meeting and getting the physical cues of video.

Enter the fish-eye lens. I chose a mobile phone lens because it comes with a clip. Just like it would clip over the top of a phone, it can clip over a laptop lid and camera. It just takes a moment to clip it on and center it over the laptop camera lens. Immediately, you can see more. From your porthole!

A fish-eye mobile phone lens in a Microsoft Teams meeting window. It allows seeing 5 of the 6 seats at the conference room table.

As a first step, I was pleased. The experience isn’t great but at least now we could have all the seats at the table filled and people participating virtually could see everyone. But the limitations of the fish eye lens are immediately visible.

Not to worry. I’ve written a lot about using OBS Studio for managing my video output for virtual calls. I flipped the Microsoft Teams video input to OBS Studio and used a Crop/Pad filter on the camera to fix the blacked out edges of the screen. The result is much more like what I was aiming for.

Fish-eye lens over a laptop camera but using OBS Studio’s Crop/Pad feature to reduce the rounded black edges of the lens showing onscreen. Now the 5 conference room chairs are all visible.

It’s not perfect but it’s more like being at the table. To a point. What we noticed was that in calls with an odd number of people, the effect doesn’t work so well. This may happen in other applications too. With one person (and the conference table is a second person), it works fine. If you have two remote people (3 total virtual participants), Teams will crop everyone’s video into a more square shape. If you add three remote people (4 total), it re-crops the video back into a rectangle.

It means the virtual participant may want to set the conference table as the speaker. Or toggle it so that the speaker is always maximized, so that the view will switch between the conference table and the other virtual speakers.

I liked having the option for this. We were able to get 6 people at a meeting with 3 in the room and 3 virtual. I felt like we were able to bring each person into the meeting, whether they were sitting in the room together or not.

This is minutiae but the devil is in the details. We are seeing lots of organizations look at flexible work arrangements as the enemy of progress. As leaders, we can remove a lot of the big stumbling blocks by creating policy and process that allows us to focus on the work. We want the work done and, if the location isn’t integral to the work, it shouldn’t matter.

The next step will be to look at the experience of our hybrid staff and see how we can chip away at the small details that highlight their remoteness. This was an inexpensive fix – $15 and some free open source software. I’m going to keep looking for similar opportunities elsewhere as we roll out our hybrid policy.