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We still need conference rooms. Here’s what they should look like post-pandemic

A big table, a bunch of chairs, and a speakerphone are no longer enough. As people return to the office, it’s time to rethink meeting spaces.

We still need conference rooms. Here’s what they should look like post-pandemic
[Source illustration: Marc_Osborne/iStock]
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Not so long ago, there were all sorts of predictions about what the future of the office would look like. Open-space floor plans were facing some backlash and some experts were predicting that big conference rooms would give way to smaller, enclosed spaces and “huddle” areas where groups could work closely together.

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Then, the pandemic happened. And virtually no one is going to be working closely together, at least for a while.

As hybrid workplaces take shape, companies need to think about how to facilitate meetings and collaboration with a mix of in-person and remote employees. “We’ve had hybrid before—not necessarily at the scale of everyone working from home—but to link together multiple offices around the world,” says Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at consulting firm EY. “Yes, we have the traditional conference room with the big desks and the video screen on the one side of it. But we also have to have other types of environments.”

What will those environments look like? Here are some of the considerations when creating post-pandemic meeting spaces.

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Environments

After a year of videoconferencing, it’s not going to be enough to have a table, chairs, and speakerphone in the middle of the table anymore. Wong says the first thing that teams need to examine is how they will be gathering and the type of work that will need to be done during meetings.

Emerging telepresence technology solutions offer more sophisticated options for hybrid teams to collaborate. “Telepresence tech is going to be a big part of the future,” says technology and collaboration expert and speaker Phil Simon, author of Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work. Telepresence hardware includes high-quality video and audio to simulate the effect of hybrid team members meeting in the same room. Systems typically have large touchscreens, high-quality cameras, and microphones. Software platforms often unify the backgrounds of meeting attendees to eliminate those distractions and make it look like everyone is in the same meeting room, even if they’re on the screen. Touchscreens allow the device to be used as a whiteboard while screen-sharing, facilitating collaboration. Depending on the software solution or collaboration platform used—perhaps Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another—participants may send and share files, chat, and use other features.

EY has applied these solutions in the office, Wong says. One is a conference room with hardware that creates an immersive meeting experience with a massive panel of screens on one wall. Microphones and built-in soundproofing provide excellent audio quality. “I call it the Starship Enterprise,” he quips.

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In places where such investments are not possible, think about how you can best accommodate your teams. The right type of audio is the most essential component, says Rachel Zsembery, vice president of Bergmeyer, a workplace design firm based in Boston and Los Angeles.

Flexibility

When considering the right meeting spaces for your office, safety should be the No. 1 priority, says John Mitton, the chief technology officer and vice president of audiovisual at Red Thread, a workplace solution and design firm. First, companies will need to be able to provide health screening, measure air quality, and implement other policies that make employees feel safe. Social distancing requirements, company policies, and individual comfort levels may affect the number of people a meeting space can accommodate, which will require greater flexibility, such as movable furniture and easy remote integration, even if someone is in the office but the conference area is at capacity.

Red Thread has started looking at how companies can use tools like electronic whiteboards in open-space floor plans to accommodate greater numbers of people. “You might roll up a piece of technology that’s an all-in-one solution with a camera and video together, like a Microsoft Surface Hub or a Zoom Neat Bar, where they’re just going to meet on-demand very quickly,” Mitton says. Offices may also need more movable furniture that can be assembled into distanced collaboration spaces and technology can be moved in and out of the space as needed. “I’ve found those spaces to be powerfully effective when we have a hybrid, either a multi-office or a multi-office plus people from home experience,” he says.

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Accommodations

One of the things Zsembery and her team found was that individual screens and shared audio were often more effective for hybrid meetings than having a big screen at the end of the room. That way, each team member was able to adjust fonts and enlarge images for their individual needs.

Wong says it’s important to be cognizant of your team’s individual needs—and create an environment where they’re comfortable asking for what they need. Those accommodations might include noise-canceling headsets, larger screens, better cameras or microphones for remote employees, or others.

Platforms

Simon predicts that more companies will need to pick a platform and stick with it. While the “official” office platform might be Zoom or Teams, too often, employees may be using some features, such as instant messaging and videoconferencing, but then opting for other tools on their own instead of learning the features they need in the platform, ranging from simple messaging to telepresence options. “We are using Teams as email 2.0 and Zoom as Skype 2.0,” he says. “Those tools are actually much more powerful.”

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By sticking to one solution and using it as a hub for all internal communication, including integrated third-party apps, or “spokes” as Simon calls them, companies can build comprehensive knowledge repositories that house all of their data and work product. Doing so allows them to eliminate time wasted (a half-hour per day by some estimates) looking for documents and capture information that can be analyzed for deeper insights. 

“Think about the near future. These hubs will benefit from artificial intelligence and machine learning. Hubs will alert you to things that you would never be able to see: Which employees are zoning out? Which ones aren’t contributing as much to the conversation? Who are the key contributors? Do the white guys routinely dominate the conversation? Do young people not have an opportunity to contribute? Which employees are disengaged?” he says. That type of data can make teams and cultures stronger and nip problems in the bud. 

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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