What is the purpose of an office? While it was once thought to be a place central to work performance and productivity, the global lockdown has provided evidence that a number of people actually get more done working from home. Yet, while remote work may be more efficient, the collaborative nature of the office has more or less been lost. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has written a book about collaborative workplace culture, has called his company’s exodus from the office “a pure negative.” Some analysts predict that twenty to thirty percent of the global workforce will be working from home by the end of 2021. This means that offices will have to accommodate an entirely new business culture, including reexamining how meetings are conducted moving forward.
While virtual meetings have now become a normal part of our business lives, the tradeoffs are clear. Virtual meetings cut down on travel time and allow meetings to fit more easily into our schedules, but they don’t create the same feeling of connection or collaboration as in-person meetings. As some organizations begin initiating a flexible ‘hybrid’ approach to workplace setup—with a number of employees in the office, but a population that continues to be remote—physically present workers find themselves grappling with the tradeoffs of difficult communication and decreased intimacy with their virtual peers. So, how do you provide a space for collaboration when there is such a wide swath of opinions about how it should be conducted? The answer might be to create flexibility in the way we design our offices that fosters virtual, in-person, and hybrid gatherings.
To help understand what the new conference room will look like, I spoke with Morten Meisner-Jensen, Co-Founder of ROOM. His company has recently introduced a series of new modular meeting rooms, so Morten has spent plenty of time thinking about how purpose-built spaces allow companies to connect, collaborate, and contribute in the current age. “First it is important to understand that there are lots of different types of meetings,” he told me. Before they set about creating their modular meeting rooms, they extensively researched the core structures and properties of today’s meetings. They found that around 80 percent have less than four people, a significant space concern for the vast number of offices equipped with large boardroom style conference rooms.
Shrinking a conference room does more than reduce unused space. Interestingly, it also creates a more collaborative environment. “One of the most important elements of a meeting is intimacy, that is why you hear about so many great ideas being written on cocktail napkins and not office stationery,” Meisner-Jensen says. Smaller meeting rooms can also unlock many more options when it comes to office layout. ROOM has designed their latest model to comfortably seat up to four adults, with a compact footprint able to fit into a previously unused corner or even tucked into a wide hallway. As social distancing and de-densification remain a concern, large assembly spaces can even be turned into mini-conference centers. With a number of smaller, enclosed spaces, offices are better suited to the increased frequency of Zoom meetings and phone conversations taking place.
The virtual component
Long after the pandemic is over, we are likely to see continued virtual attendance in meetings. The stigma of not being able to attend in-person is a thing of the past. That means that from this point onwards, meeting rooms have to be designed with both live and remote attendees in mind.
A critical consideration is acoustics. Interestingly, this doesn’t always mean complete soundproofing. “There are some meetings that need privacy, such as one-on-one meetings and performance reviews,” Meisner-Jensen says. “But there are plenty of other meetings that don’t require perfect silence.” While ROOM’s enclosed models effectively block out all typical office distractions with 28 decibels of sound insulation, they also offer a more nook-like model that can remain open to the rest of the office. This introduces a more social element to brainstorms and low-stakes discussions, while still having the ability to maintain quality audio for virtual guests.
Lighting is another massive consideration. Thanks to new virtual meeting expertise (and our vanity) we are all learning that traditional harsh, fluorescent lights are less than flattering through a camera. To help with this challenge, ROOM has designed their meeting rooms with variable light settings for in-person focused work and meetings, as well as video conferencing. “Direct light is often too harsh, so we installed a fixture that reflects light in a way that makes it much more appealing on-screen,” explains Meisner-Jensen.
Since meetings will, for the foreseeable future, frequently have a video component to them, ROOM has outfitted their “Pro” models with a built-in teleconferencing suite, designed to recreate the nuances of face-to-face conversation better than any regular webcam. Rather than trying to push everyone on one side of a table, ROOM has partnered with A/V giant Jabra to install the Panacast: a device that creates a 180 degree image of the space by using software to stitch three camera feeds together, offering a full view of the interior without distortion or delay. This software is also smart enough to adjust itself on the fly, with onboard artificial intelligence and facial recognition. If only one side of the room is being used, the camera will automatically adjust to exclude the vacant areas, for example.
Plug and play
For offices to be able to accommodate for the diverse and sudden needs of the modern workplace, they need to be designed with adaptability in mind. Rather than committing to building new office layouts, office managers should experiment first. By introducing purpose-built spaces that can be easily installed and rearranged, office space can be quickly modified as needs change. Meisner-Jensen said the team looked to Lego blocks as an inspiration on how to create a product that was universally compatible and endlessly expandable. “Since our rooms can be flat packed and easily built without a contractor or permits, they allow for office designs to be easily reorganized,” he said. These adaptations can be informed by occupancy sensors that come installed in each ROOM product. Only by having this type of immediate feedback loop can offices change as quickly as the way that we work.
For landlords, this modular approach can reduce the amount of build out a space needs every time an office turns over. Some have even repacked these rooms and kept them in storage until they are needed by another tenant. By reducing the amount of tenant improvements needed for a new office lease, property owners can keep their costs down and eliminate an often contentious point of a lease negotiation. Using the sensor data can advise tenants of the most productive layouts historically for the space.
Every company’s return to the workplace is coming along differently. Even still, there are certain elements central to the anatomy of an office that will always be important—meeting space unequivocally being one. We will always desire a workspace to help us collaborate more effectively, the difference is that now offices will have to create meeting spaces that are well suited to both in-person and virtual collaboration. This requires good lighting, agreeable acoustics and an intimate feel for any type of group. Designing and building such meeting space is incredibly difficult and often prohibitively expensive for most tenants and property owners. That is why the future of the office looks modular. Purpose-built meeting rooms can help companies meet the needs of their teams and help landlords fulfill the expectations of their tenants while meeting standards for quality, budget, and above all, flexibility.