Interview with Banu Saatçi, the first author of the paper “(Re)Configuring Hybrid Meetings: Moving from User-Centered Design to Meeting-Centered Design” awarded the 2021 David B. Martin Best Paper Award during ECSCW 2021.

EUSSET: Banu, it’s a pleasure to congratulate you and your co-authors, Kaya Akyüz, Sean Rintel, and Clemens Nylandsted Klokmose, on the 2021 David B. Martin award. Your paper, “(Re)Configuring Hybrid Meetings: Moving from User-Centered Design to Meeting-Centered Design”, has been recognized for the outstanding and unusual perspective on supporting meetings with technology. Could you, please, summarize in your own words the main point you and your co-authors make in this paper?

Banu: Thank you very much, Mateusz! On behalf of my co-authors and myself, I would like to thank all the committee members for taking the time to read, discuss and consider our paper for such a special award. We are honored with the decision and happy for the opportunity to present our paper at ECSCW 2021. Our study focuses on hybrid meetings, in other words, video-based meetings among co-located and remote participants. In this paper, we looked at the details of three disruptive episodes in a hybrid meeting at a global software company. Our analysis shows that both technical infrastructure and social dynamics among participants affect the meeting continuity as well as the practices of inclusion and exclusion of remote participants. For more inclusive hybrid meetings, we suggest moving from user-centered design to a meeting-centered design approach. Focusing on the meeting allows transcending beyond assumptions on the (potential) users, acknowledging and putting the diversity of meeting dynamics of the meeting situation at the center of design. In doing so, we are imagining configurable meeting technologies adaptable to the needs and purposes of hybrid meetings. An adaptable hybrid meeting technology might for instance allow the organizer(s) to set both physical and social features of the planned meeting such as meeting rules, goals, setting, formats, expectations from attendees etc. and communicating them with the participants beforehand. Such configuration requires treating meetings as diverse socio-technical phenomena shaped by not only users, but also the social and technical dynamics around them in each and every meeting.

EUSSET: Your paper deals with collaborative work in meetings involving people on-site and connected via digital channels. How do you imagine the future of collaborative work given the results of your study? What will change compared to how we worked in the past? How much did COVID-19 outbreak change the character of meetings?

Banu: The COVID-19 outbreak had a huge effect on video-mediated communication worldwide. Before the pandemic, it would have been difficult for us to imagine such a rapid and extensive switch to virtual meetings and global adaptation to using video-conferencing technologies, from pre-school kids, who have learned to mute/unmute themselves to the elderly, who have turned to their smartphones to communicate with their loved ones via video chat. While it seems that the pandemic has forced various societal groups to collectively adapt to such technologies, we cannot ignore the digital and socioeconomic divides that it has revealed and to some extent exacerbated. My personal feeling is that the future of collaborative work will be neither fully co-located, nor remote, but it will be more hybrid. Like what we observed from our meeting data dating back in 2018, primary room dominance and exclusion of remote participants will probably remain as the main challenge of hybrid meetings. However, I believe that hybrid meetings and hybrid events might have already become the new normal as they provide flexibility in ways of participation and in many cases seem to be both eco-friendlier and more sustainable. The main challenge for technology developers of as well as large meeting organizers will be meeting the needs and expectations of diverse groups of people and sectors to provide them the best meeting experiences. As we propose in our paper, designing video-conferencing technologies, which are adaptable to the meeting needs rather than the other way around, will inevitably be in the horizon of hybrid work.

EUSSET: The award was established to recognize research that particularly contributes to the multidisciplinary understanding of society and work from the CSCW perspective. Is there anything that needs to change in how CSCW approaches meetings? How should we analyze meetings? How should we design for meetings?

Banu: As a researcher with a background in sociology, one of my difficulties in adapting to the fields of HCI and CSCW has been to decide where to position myself theoretically and methodologically in researching hybrid meetings. When I started my PhD, it was quite difficult to sort out the hybrid meeting literature, since as you mentioned there have been many studies on video-based communication but the approaches, research questions and studies are quite diverse. Many researchers also refer to the same or similar phenomena under different terms including but not limited to remote, virtual, online, distributed, partially distributed, and finally, hybrid meeting. When we were submitting our papers to HCI- or CSCW-related conferences/journals, the first comments we get from the reviewers have been “But this topic has been researched a lot.” However, when you look at the CSCW literature, meetings in a hybrid setting are still under-studied. I think this is partially because research is mostly done in controlled lab settings involving very small number of people, where the real-world experiences are simulated though with significant limitations and questionable validity of the findings in real-life meeting situations. I believe that especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, more CSCW scholars should focus on ethnographic studies on hybrid meetings/events in resonance with other highly related interdisciplinary fields such as science and technology studies (STS), business communication or tourism and hospitality studies.

EUSSET: How come, you decided to research meetings? One might think that meetings have been researched so much, there is little to add to it. Your paper proves the opposite. Where did the idea for the paper come from?

Banu: This paper is part of my PhD work, which had been co-funded by Aarhus University in Denmark and Microsoft Research Cambridge within the scope of their PhD Scholarship Programme in EMEA, and my PhD research had been focusing on hybrid meetings even before the pandemic since it had been already a common meeting format in companies. The overall motivation of my PhD research was understanding the users’ needs and pain points as well as the diverse meeting dynamics in hybrid meetings particularly in the workplaces today and coming up with design suggestions to improve hybrid meeting experiences and (hopefully) in this way setting ground for more inclusive meetings. To do that, I collected diverse ethnographic data on hybrid meetings from two different global software companies located in the United Kingdom and Denmark in 2018. In this paper, in contrast to my previous work, we wanted to hold a micro-analytic approach to better understand the challenges in how co-located and remote participants interact with each other and involve in turn-taking, which could not be observed with macro-analytic methods.

EUSSET: What was the specific challenge in conducting the research that underlies the paper? How did you deal with that?

Banu: I think the most challenging part had been collecting real world data on hybrid meetings in companies. It was quite difficult to get permission from companies to observe the employees due to the confidentiality of the content discussed in such meetings. Also, even if we got the permission, the time we were allowed to spend in those companies was quite limited, making long-term data collection impossible. Moreover, having access to those meetings did not mean that all participants have time for an interview. It was difficult to collect ethnographic data and conduct detailed interviews with participants. Our solution was trying to make the best out of it by collecting various types of data as much as possible and using different methods like conversation analysis to analyze the video data from different angles.

EUSSET: And what was the most positive experience during conducting this research?

Banu: It was very interesting to see how problematic hybrid meetings can get even in global software companies. I have to admit that I assumed the employees in such companies would  be more tech-savvy and the companies themselves would have better technical infrastructure. In that sense, the most fascinating experience was the process of analyzing the video recordings of the meetings and discovering the minute details, not to forget the jokes and fun among participants even during a breakdown. These would have remained unnoticed with a methodology based on participant observation only. Hybrid meetings in real world are more crowded and complex than what we imagine in the laboratory-like settings and many things are happening at the same time, so, analyzing video recordings had been research-wise quite eye opening and fun.

EUSSET: What are the next steps for this research? When to expect follow-up papers?

Banu: While we propose the meeting-centered design approach in this paper, our next step was working on a more configurable and adaptable hybrid meeting prototype based on what we have learned from our research in companies. Together with my colleagues Jens Emil Grønbæk, Carla Griggio and Clemens Nylandsted Klokmose at Aarhus University, we developed and analyzed a tool called “MirrorBlender”, which is a malleable video-conferencing system creating a What-You-See-Is-What-I-See (WYSIWIS) blended space for co-located and remote users and supports inclusion of remote participants particularly by supporting deictic gestures. We conducted a user study on our prototype and shared our findings in our recent paper with the title “MirrorBlender: Supporting Hybrid Meetings with a Malleable Video-Conferencing System” published at CHI 2021. You may find the paper here and watch the video of our presentation at CHI 2021 through this link.

EUSSET: Dear Banu, you and your co-authors have decided to donate the money that comes with the well-deserved award to a reforestation project in south Turkey. It is extremely generous of you and, I am sure, everybody will love this idea. Could you explain in a few words what the project is exactly about? What made you donating your award to exactly this project? 

Banu: The COVID-19 pandemic made us, as members of the the academic world, realize the carbon footprints we leave by traveling often for the purpose of attending conferences, and in this way accelerating the climate change. Many countries around the world have been experiencing the severe effects of global warming. Last year, there were a number of large fires in the southernmost city in Turkey, Hatay, resulting in the loss of 300 hectars of forest. As co-authors of this paper, we wanted to contribute to the reforestation effort in this area. So, in memory of David B. Martin, we have donated the award that we have received to TEMA Foundation, the biggest NGO in Turkey fighting against soil erosion by reforestation. 400 trees will soon be growing in Hatay Reforestation Fields and we hope in this way we can contribute towards fighting against the global warming and recognize an important member of our ECSCW community.

EUSSET: This is definitely so! I thank you very much for the interview. It was a pleasure to discuss your work with you. We are looking forward to seeing you around during EUSSET conferences

The interview was conducted by Mateusz Dolata, 10 June 2021

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