There’s no doubt that virtual meetings work. For one thing, they saved companies’ collective butts when the world went into lockdown at the start of a global pandemic. And it’s also clear they’re here to stay in the era of hybrid work, with many employees continuing to work at home a large percentage of the time.

Yet virtual meetings, as they’ve typically been run until now, leave much to be desired. They don’t always let everyone participate fully, with some people physically present and others remote. They remove the spontaneity of chance hallway encounters and informal conversations. And back-to-back virtual meetings, while perhaps physically possible when people don’t have to move between conference rooms, can lead to burnout.

Something has to shift. Can technology come to the rescue once again, this time to save us from online meeting fatigue?

Getting back to the water cooler

Water cooler chats. Chance hallway conversations that lead to problem-solving. Impromptu check-ins over coffee. All can grease organizational wheels and lead to more effective teams. Yet in the era of hybrid work, such opportunities are not so common. As an indicator, Foundry’s Future of Work Study 2022 found that a majority of organizations (51%) consider collaboration a significant challenge in the context of hybrid work.

However, thanks to newly collaborative productivity tools, people working on the same document can now edit, chat, and even launch a quick video conference to iron out the kinks.

Walking the talk

Of course, not every worker has the luxury of going completely remote as desired. Certain workplaces, including factories, hospitals, and retail stores, need more in-person interaction and often use shared devices.

Accordingly, concerns about the ability to collaborate abound in such environments. For example, the 2022 Future of Work study found that the percentage of survey respondents worried about how to foster face-to-face interactions shot up to 72% for manufacturers and to 80% for retailers.

Indoor mapping technology makes life easier for employees in such places as well as hybrid offices. In this vision of the workplace of the future, Wi-Fi signals, cameras, and other sensors create real-time updates on the availability of conference rooms, general occupancy levels, and more, helping to bridge the physical/digital divide.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said recently, “Every organization requires a digital fabric that connects people, places, and processes. . . . When it comes to people, it starts with taking a new approach to collaboration, both inside and outside the organization. We need to be great at sync, async, in-person, and remote collaboration.”

Including everyone

Better meetings are ultimately all about inclusivity, giving everyone a chance to be heard and present ideas. Helping that effort, digital whiteboards can give equal access to drawings and ad hoc notes to both in-person and remote meeting participants.

New meeting software and hardware can also help level the playing field for remote and in-person participants, letting everyone chime in on their own device rather than struggling with the standard wide-angle camera and big screen that may not show everyone.

And when all else fails, innovative robots can give participants you-are-there telepresence in conference rooms and, yes, even the water cooler, although they may be a bridge too far for some.

The shifts made during the pandemic showed just how flexible organizations and employees can be. Now it’s time for some additional adjustments to make meetings more productive and inclusive. New technologies and new approaches to meetings can help.