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Does Every Conference Room Need Walls?

Federico Caputo Alamy Stock Photo.jpg

Image: Federico Caputo - Alamy Stock Photo
The return-to-office (RTO) process has been more trying than many people expected, and enterprises are still struggling with how communications/collaboration technology can best help the process along and create a foundation for new ways of working. This should be a fruitful time for experimentation, and I heard about an interesting example recently: open-air conference rooms.
The idea came via Nathan Manuel, head of workplace experience at PagerDuty, a SaaS company specializing in digital operations management and incident response. Manuel described the setup for such an open-air conference area: “It has a full Zoom kit, and it really is in the middle of the office. You can literally come and have a Zoom meeting in the middle of office.”
Why would anybody want to do that? Manuel explained that if people are coming into the office for collaboration instead of heads-down work, the open-air conference room offers another opportunity for people to drop into conversations and take advantage of the fact that they’ve come into the office to work face-to-face.
“People thought it was going to be really disruptive and wasn't going to fit into the culture of the office, but the reality is, is it didn't fit into the culture of the old-world office, where you had people sitting around doing individual work or heads-down work,” Manuel said. “In the new mode where you have people coming in and doing collaboration and walking around, engaged in different things, there isn't as much: ‘I'm putting my noise-cancelling headphones on and please don't disturb me.’ There's a lot more of like, ‘Oh, we're engaging anyways.’”
(You can read a full Q&A I recently conducted with Manuel at our sister site WorkSpace Connect.)
The point isn’t that everyone should rush out and set up full videoconferencing kits in the middle of every office. It’s that this is a time when, to whatever extent possible, enterprises can be experimenting with how they deploy technology, not just what technology they deploy. Maybe a videoconferencing setup in the middle of a workspace doesn’t fit the bill for your locations — but maybe in a café or other lounge area, the blend of remote connection and random interaction is more of a fit, helping build the social bonds we say we want from hybrid work.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how these future-of-work type projects have to run alongside the types of fundamental technology migrations that drove IT before the pandemic. As we launch into the planning process for the Enterprise Connect 2023 conference program, our team is hearing a lot about the nuts and bolts of technology migration, especially regarding cloud services. Many enterprises seem to be at an inflection point where, if they’re not completely getting rid of legacy technology, they’re actively planning for its demise, which means they are needing to engage full-on with the myriad details of complex migrations to new technologies.
At the same time, they’re continuing to deal with the context for this migration, which is that their enterprises are still figuring out how to equip workers with technology that enhances the employee experience in a post-pandemic world. That may create unique challenges for IT folks — among whom terms like “open-air conference rooms” are likely to raise eyebrows.
So, I think we’re heading towards a dual focus: The nitty-gritty of necessary migrations, plus the ever-shifting challenges of the new work environments that need to be served. But complicated migrations, combined with changing workplace dynamics, will keep IT as a vital partner in the years ahead, which is good for everyone.