How hybrid meetings increase access

Hybrid working brings various challenges, but there are also huge potential benefits, including wider access to information and talent.

 

This week it was reported that shareholder activist group ShareAction wants FTSE 100 firms to hold hybrid shareholder meetings amid fears that investor debate is being stifled by in-person meetings. Despite the emphasis on returning to normal from some quarters – amid ever rising Covid rates and absences – and the constant stories about the disadvantages of remote working, there have been some really clear benefits of the move to greater online communication.  One such is improved access.

I’m helping to organise events for a hybrid festival at the moment and having the events streamed and available online increases their accessibility by a huge number. Being able to, for instance, watch at your leisure Parliamentary committee debates increases enormously not only the reach of those meetings but the ability of people to understand how Parliament works and to hold MPs up to scrutiny. In the past, you had to schlep to Westminster to see them in person and it took the best part of a day with all the security checks. Of course, you miss out on face to face networking, but most people who don’t live in the south east wouldn’t be able to go regularly anyway.

A Cardiff academic has recently said that the surge in virtual meetings due to the pandemic could also boost the number of women in local government. Leah Hibbs of Cardiff University told the BBC that female politicians face a “triple duty” balancing personal commitments with caring and domestic responsibilities, as well as having a professional career. “The remuneration is around £14,000 and that’s particularly hard for women because of these kind of continuing traditional gendered roles,” she said. On the other hand, I was on a call yesterday with political types and they felt hybrid at a national level would end up with women being less visible and further marginalised. The problem is if the overall culture – and the men – don’t change and we know that Parliament is stuffed full of old school types and ‘tradition’. Tweaking at the edges won’t probably change that. It needs a total overhaul, but will that ever happen?

On the other hand, some businesses are pioneering different approaches like location agnostic working, used by companies such as Roche. It enables employers to attract a broader range of talent.

Hybrid is also having an impact, of course, on office layouts. A European Smart Work Network meeting last week heard from a range of employers who have moved to more collaborative spaces, with desk space bookable on apps and the like. One distributor for Heineken has even got a bar in its office. The aim is to make offices a place worth going to. Another approach is that of Currys which is shutting its west London head office and signing a deal with flexible office giant WeWork. The deal marks one of the first times a major company has shut its headquarters and switched entirely to a flexible office provider. For many firms, though, their HQ is more than a place to work. It’s a status symbol, a marker of their brand, but it has to respond to different ways of working.

Deloitte, for instance, has just opened its first UK ‘future of work’ office in Newcastle. In addition to more collaborative and networking spaces and flexible working areas, the office is designed to support the firm’s hybrid working approach and includes audio and video technology such as 360-degree cameras to create an inclusive meeting experience for all, regardless of location.

We’re still at the experimental stages with hybrid working and there will be challenges. But there are also a lot of benefits to be had if it is done in a way that promotes a more inclusive society, underpinned by the infrastructure, such as childcare and social care, needed to make it a reality. It can’t be used as a vehicle to cut back childcare support and assume women can, as they have had to do during Covid, do everything all at the same time.



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