There are many different types of groups that meet regularly. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 most meetings have taken place through alternate means such as telephone conferences and video systems such as MS Teams, Zoom and Webex.
Now that the end of the pandemic is being considered, groups that have been using new electronic systems, are considering both a return to in-person meetings, and, because a number of benefits have arisen from their use, are considering using some type of ‘hybrid model’ to continue meeting.
In this blog, I will use the term ‘hybrid model’ to describe any meeting where some of the participants are in person (around a board table or in a class-room style room) and some of them are participating remotely using telephone or, preferably, video systems. I say preferably because I think the use of video has created an important additional dimension by which we can communicate with others. For example, we may hear some say they are in agreement with what you are saying but, when you look in their eyes through the video, you realize that might not be the case.
Electronic meetings have been beneficial for many. Those who are physically limited have found that they can participate on a much more equal basis with others. Travel to and from meetings as well as the expenses related to an in-person meeting have been eliminated. Voluntary social and service groups have found that attendance has increased. In legal circles, many counsel are finding that they can be far more effective if they are calling into a hearing for a fixed time with some lawyers realizing that they can travel quickly among many different courts. In a jurisdiction like the Province of Ontario, clients are also realizing that their choice of counsel is no longer limited by geography: they can now choose any lawyer qualified in the jurisdiction with those in lower-cost areas having an ability to now compete with those from higher cost areas.
Lots of people are beginning from the misapprehension that a ‘hybrid model’ will be easy. After all, the shift to electronic meetings was relatively easy and came with benefits for some groups such as increased attendance or reduced travel costs. Doesn’t the simplicity with which we were able to move to electronic mean that we go back to in-person meetings, that keeping some electronic will be just as successful?
I have had a lot of experience in helping groups run part of their annual meetings online on both a national and a provincial basis. For the last 5 years — even before the pandemic — I have had experience in trying to convert part of a meeting to include online participants. My experience suggests that moving to a hybrid model successfully requires some planning and possibly equipment acquisition. The balance of this blog will illustrate the problem and some solutions.
Some type of meetings in legal circles such as mediations, discoveries, court hearings have already given us some idea of where problems will occur. Lets consider those areas.
One of the most common problems is when multiple users with laptop computers (usually senior and junior lawyers) all fire up their separate computers in a Zoom meeting while being in the same room. Even though all but one computer will be unmuted, there is echoing and almost screeching to the point where the sound is not just unusable, at times it might be painful. If you think about it for a minute, you will quickly realize what the problem is: even though Zoom has done a great job of muting the speaker on a computer when that computer’s microphone is being used, it can’t mute the speakers of other computers in the same room.
There are two possible equipment solutions to the problem: the first involves everyone using headsets so that the sound from one computer doesn’t feedback into the microphone of another. The normal type of headset may be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time or make the user look like they are ready for a space mission. A new type of bone conduction headphone is epensive but allows the user’s ears to remain uncovered to speak to others while still hearing the feed from the remote users. (Search for ‘bond conduction headpones’). The challenge with any headphone solution is that every user needs a headphone and that they are generall uncomfortable.
Another solution to the sound problem is to use only one computer for sound in a room (especially the main meeting room). That computer then must have a more sophisticated microphone system feeding the computer the sound from the room and a speaker system to amplify the sound generated by the computer. Zoom will take care of when the one computer’s sound system should be listening and playing. The amplified speakers are actually the easy part of this arrangement. Any means of tying the audio output from the computer into a speaker system will work: patching into a room audio system, using small amplified speaker’s or a larger PA system will all work. A
The real trick is the microphone system.
The problem with microphones built into computers is that they are relatively inexpensive and have little noise cancelling logic built into them. One solution to sound from a larger room is to do what happens in meeting rooms: provide separate podium or lavalier microphones for each person that will be speaking and pipe the sound through a mixing board to the computer. Another solution for smaller groups and rooms is to use a purpose-built noise-cancelling microphone for the room. As can be appreciated, if there is only one microsphone in a room, the room cannot be that large nor can there be that many people in the room.
A third option provides a poorer quality of sound. However, the technology is well-understood. That is to use a speaker phone system in a room. Zoom has a feature where a phone link can be used as the audio source for a user. Meetings that may have used speakerphones before the pandemic will find that their continued use provides the same quality of audio that people were used to: it isn’t the best quality but, if a phone line and speakerphone are available for a number of people, it may be an effective means.
The video portion of a hybrid meeting also provides challenges. Again, we have to consider both the sending and receiving of the video signal separately.
Receiving the video channel is simple enough: projectors or flat-screen TVs will permit participants in a room to see the remote users. It should be considered that there may actually be 2 or 3 different video streams that need to be shown: 1) a gallery view of all of the remote participants; 2) the speaker’s view of one or more speakers or spotlighted remote participants; and 3) any presentation material such as a screen-shared document or power point presentation.
Sending a video signal is more complicated. Consider a board table or a class room. Where would a camera be positioned to ensure that all participants in the room can be properly seen?
One solution is to put multiple cameras in a room on different computers which each then join our remote meeting: the ‘active’ camera can be spotlighted as required.
Another solution is to use multiple cameras on a single computer using software such as ManyCam or a more expensive video switcher. THis can provide a more ‘produced’ look but will require someone to take charge of switching the cameras as required.
Zoom itself has come up with a combined hardware and software solution called Zoom Rooms. Logitech and other manufacturers create video and audio hardware that can be installed with flat-screen TVs in small and medium meeting rooms. Costs will run in the mid-thousands with a more expensive Zoom account. Those who are in the business of hosting meetings such as reporters, clubs and restaurants might think about the potential return on investment of the installation of such equipment.
Those who run meetings who think that all they need is a laptop computer in a corner of the meeting room will likely be disappointed with the outcome. This is the real challenge with making the hybrid model work. When someone thinks they can’t hear what’s going on, if they feel that they cannot be heard in the main meeting room or cannot hear what is being discussed, they will quickly reconsider remote participation. Getting the notion of the hybrid model incorrect could lead to lost members, lower participation or, for lawyer, running the risk of not being able to prevail in a case because they were at a disadvantage from a remote appearance versus those who were in the same rule as the arbiter.