Workplace

Can Google make bad hybrid meetings better?

Workers in the conference room can all join meetings separately with Google’s “Companion mode.”

A Google Meet highlighting Companion mode

Companion mode launched to all Google Workspace customers on Thursday.

Image: Google

The worst part of hybrid work right now might be the meeting. How do you bridge the gap between the people video calling in from home and the people chatting around the conference room table? There’s the dreaded video echo, the inability to chat through the conference room monitor and the general disconnect between the people talking in person and those stuck in the grid. One of Google’s answers to the problem of hybrid meetings is Companion mode, which launched to all Google Workspace customers on Thursday.

Companion mode brings features like chat, polls, hand-raising and screen-sharing to workers joining a call from a shared conference room. Instead of being at the whim of Google Meet’s hardware, workers can log in to meetings on their own devices and use these features (which have become standard within meeting software).

For now, workers using companion mode will rely on conference room hardware for audio and video. But Dave Citron, head of product for Google Meet, said the next step will be allowing workers in companion mode to use their own video feeds. “We heard a lot from our customers that one of the great equalizers of everyone working from home is that everyone is a tile,” Citron said.

For Google Workspace and its customers tackling hybrid work, the goal is “collaboration equity” — in other words, the ability to contribute equally no matter your location or device of choice. Though omicron has put return-to-office plans on hold, companies haven’t totally given up on the office. At the same time, they are reckoning with the fact that remote work is here to stay. At the bare minimum, remote and in-person employees need to be able to easily communicate with each other. This is where collaboration software and video conferencing hardware has become so essential. And chaotic.

The hybrid-meeting problem has created a mad dash among video software providers, and everyone’s approaching it a little differently. Zoom unveiled its “Smart Gallery” in December, which uses hardware and AI to isolate faces within a conference room and place them in separate tiles. Microsoft is experimenting with a new type of conference room, complete with a curved table and projected screen. Webex is investing in the home office.

Google rebranded its G-Suite workplace products as Google Workspace back in October 2020, and since then has positioned itself as one of the all-in-one productivity setups to beat. With our dramatic increase in usage of video software, Google Meet is one of the tools customers rely most on. Citron said he closely follows the changing ways we do our work.

He said workplace uncertainty is top of mind for his team, both as engineers and as Google employees (the company pushed back its planned Jan. 10 reopening). Flexibility is key. He wants to build products that allow for every possible way of working. “If we can continue to build products that enable work through all sorts of different flexible configurations, it helps inoculate the uncertainty and disruption,” Citron said.

Companion mode on its own cannot singlehandedly equalize meetings. As Google notes in its blog post, it’s still difficult for remote employees to weigh in when other employees are in-person. It might be hard, too, for in-person employees to resist side conversations. Fixing hybrid meetings goes beyond software. It will require a concerted culture shift and compromise from us all.

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