For many soon-to-be hybrid tech workers, videoconferencing is here to stay, and so are the nasty pain points that come with it. The inability to speak without being interrupted, ignored or spoken over is a common occurrence in the new remote workplace. Webex is working to solve for what many frustrated workers call "virtual mansplaining."
One in five women reported feeling ignored and overlooked by coworkers during video calls, according to a survey released in June 2020 by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to promote women in leadership. 45% of women business leaders said they find it difficult for them to speak up in virtual meetings.
Cisco's Webex conferencing team is launching a new set of video meeting templates and features aimed at promoting more equity and productivity in meetings. Currently, employees are internally testing a videoconferencing feature referred to as "Round Table," designed to allow meeting organizers to set an allotted time for each participant to speak. When one attendee is speaking, everyone else on the call will be automatically muted — an advantage for women who report often being spoken over or ignored in meetings.
"We've been doing testing on that because it is a very large social change," said Lorrissa Horton, vice president and general manager of Webex Calling and Strategy at Cisco. "We do a lot of daily standup meetings, and in theory everyone's supposed to get a couple minutes to do their update, and yet many times certain people in that conversation never get a chance to speak or they're given the last 10 seconds. So the question was: How do we actually make it easier to force equity of time?"
Horton told Protocol the response thus far has been varied. Some people have been offended by being cut off mid-sentence when they've reached their allotted time.
The company also launched a background noise removal feature as another effort to make the remote workplace more equal. "This was around inclusion, [and] thinking through how do we let every single person come to work and be very professional even if they don't have a dedicated home office, even if they're working from that kitchen table?" said Horton.
Providing insights to employees to increase self-awareness is another part of the plan, according to Horton. Workers can learn whether they are frequently running late, how often they speak and how much time they spend multitasking during a meeting. Webex is now working on how to roll this aggregated data out to managers leading meetings. While it wouldn't show an individual breakout of who is multitasking in meetings, it would bring more awareness to productivity overall. This would enable the host of a meeting to know things like what percentage of people in the meeting are speaking out and whether one gender is speaking more than others. The company is focused on making it available more at an aggregated level so that it does not present privacy concerns, said Horton.
Physical gesture recognition, which already exists in Webex, is another inclusion feature aimed at creating equity in remote work. Webex recognizes a range of gestures like a raised hand or a thumbs-up and translates it to pop up on the screen.
Horton said she knows tools like "Round Table" might be uncomfortable for people who are forced to speak if they are not comfortable or ready to do so, but the goal, in addition to equity, is to train people to be more succinct.
"Not everyone is extroverted or going to try to jump in there and interrupt," Horton told Protocol. It's all about "accounting for folks that have a different style of communication, a different level of comfort and interrupting I think from a cultural standpoint."