The key to creating a truly inclusive workplace is to think of those off-site as the ‘first-class participants’.

Not so long ago we highlighted a Microsoft study that showed employees’ conflicting desires when it came to the future of hybrid work. More time spent at home: tick. More face-to-face and collaborative time: tick. A hard circle to square, but the tech giant believes it now has a solution that can go some way in helping bridge the gap between in-person and remote attendees. A new combined software and product suite, Microsoft Teams Rooms feels like the manifestation of research CBRE carried out last year – it outlined the need for hybrid room systems that would help remote workers collaborate with on-site peers. 

The solution is fairly simple, relying largely on maintaining certain levels of scale and composition between physical and digital infrastructures. The use of larger screens is central, allowing virtual attendees to appear across the bottom at close to life-size. These feeds are placed at eye-level, as are the relevant camera and speaker arrays. What this achieves, in effect, is the ability to look participants in the eye and hear their voice emanating from (or near to) their image. There are also improved protocols (read slightly, but perhaps needfully, intrusive emoticons) that let remote workers share non-verbal cues (high-five). In short, it's a more humanized experience, or as the marketing script would have it, offers the ability to create more ‘authentic’ and ‘natural’ connections.

Microsoft suggests specific buildouts based on room size and purpose: the focus room features a smart whiteboard so that off-site workers can collaborate using a digital canvas tool, and on-table smart speakers that highlight who’s currently talking. Larger meeting spaces rely on automated cameras that follow the ebb and flow of the conversation, and integrated ceiling microphones that help avoid those awkward ‘lean and shout’ moments. The system will even alert users when visitor numbers have gone past a COVID-safe capacity.

On the face of it, this is all in the name of productivity, while the benefits seem to largely accrue to those who are office-based, in as much as they will be the ones with the most radically altered experience. The subtext to the marketing script paints a different picture, however. Terms like ‘inclusive’ and ‘representation’ surface repeatedly. What Microsoft has built, in part, is a mechanism that goes some way to reassuring those on the other side of the screen that they are now more likely to be heard, acknowledged and included. As one promotional video signs off: ‘Now when you’re home, you can have a seat at the table.’

That’s important, because both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that a world of increased video conferencing is a mixed bag for groups who were already fighting for equal representation in the workplace. According to Catalyst, 45 per cent of women business leaders say its difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, while research shows remote workers have historically found it harder to get promoted. At the same time, remote working has be heralded as enabling employers to hire from more diverse locations, and thus more diverse demographics. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained in a recent post: ‘Creating equitable, inclusive experiences starts with designing for people not in the room. We want to ensure those joining remotely are always first-class participants.’