Meeting Space Evolution
A system integrator and service provider perspective on how to approach meeting spaces -- both physical and virtual.
There's recently been a tremendous amount of focus on improving the collaborative experience for virtual meetings. Virtual meeting places, team collaboration tools, and other applications have made it much easier for people scattered around the globe to get together virtually and get work done.
However, there's been a lack of focus on evolving the physical meeting space. For the most part, physical spaces such as conference rooms, huddle rooms, or just open meeting areas are as they have been for the past couple of decades. One might say that no innovation has happened in this realm because meeting rooms are fine the way they are. The fact is, meeting spaces are highly inefficient and need to evolve.
To get an idea of the limitations of physical meeting spaces, I interviewed Rob Portwood, Managing Director and Owner of Videocall, a U.K.-based systems integrator and service provider that for almost two decades has been building physical meeting spaces and deploying the technology around the world that enables it.Learning from the Past
So what sort of interest is out there from customers on revamping physical spaces? Rob told me that Videocall has seen a tremendous amount of uptake recently on businesses wanting to use these spaces more efficiently. He said the primary focus from organizations building meeting spaces is to not repeat the mistakes of the past. This means working on the following three initiatives:
- Size conference rooms appropriately. This requires an understanding of how many meetings the organization holds and the number of participants. Real estate within businesses is an on-going battle; as rent prices rise, space needs to be efficiently used. Many organizations build numerous rooms all of the same size, but too many people in a room too small is obviously bad, and only a few people in a large room is a waste of expensive space; particularly in a city like where Videocall is headquartered, London, where space is at a premium. . Doing a little bit of up-front work will lead to the correct number of two to three person huddle rooms, four to eight person medium-sized rooms, and nine plus person large rooms.
- Deploy technology that is easy to use. Meeting places are filled with technology, much of which is difficult for most workers to use. This has for many years been driven by a traditional AV approach to the space. Everyone I know has experienced a meeting where half the time is wasted trying to figure out which cable to connect to the laptop, which button to press, who is on the conference, and how to control the camera at the other end. Difficult-to-use technology wastes time, costs companies real dollars in productivity, and quite honestly puts people off.
- Reduce meeting fatigue. Long meetings can be exhausting if you're always needing to lean over a speaker phone and yell into it, having to repeat yourself because remote participants can't hear, or straining your eyes to see the people on the other end of the camera. Meetings are hard enough sometimes, and the technology should not exhaust you further.
Even with the desire of organizations to evolve the meeting space, Rob told me that there are still some technology barriers that get in the way of creating optimized meeting spaces. These are as follows:
- "Bowling alley" experience for video. If you've been on a video call and you're at the end of the long table, you know what I'm referring to, and there's no good solution here. One option is for everyone to sit at the head of the table and pack in close together. This isn't optimal because it's tough to see the people to your left and right. (Think about like when you're at a bar, if you have five people all in a line, then you're constantly bobbing your head back and forth to see the person two or three seats down from you.) The other option is to sit across from one another but, as Rob described it, then remote participants are just looking at everyone's ear holes. We discussed the concept of V-shaped tables, and while these partially address the issue, they still makes meetings awkward.
- Poor audio and video quality. Businesses need better audio and video quality for meetings. While there are absolutely fantastic audio systems today with HD quality, it seems there's always a lot of background noise that needs to be filtered out. One of my personal pet peeves is that in every meeting there's that one loud typist whose clicking of the keyboards seems to drown out everything else. Similarly for video, the quality of video systems is great today, but it takes constant work to use the remote to follow speakers and zoom in when necessary. This can make even the best HD systems have poor perceived quality. One final point: In practicality, while both video and audio are important, meetings can function with poor or no video quality, but poor audio quality is the killer of collaboration.
- Difficulty displaying content. Displaying content is often a crapshoot and is highly unreliable, and Rob and I discussed this topic at length. The most obvious problems are with cabling. There are so many different formats that it seems like if you're not carrying a bag of dongles around then you can't connect to the systems. There can also be challenges with screen resolution and which "F key" to hit to get the content to show on the screen properly. I've often seen people have to reboot computers to get the resolution to fit the display. Changing from one user to another can be highly disruptive to the meeting, which is why people still carry USB sticks to transfer content. Think about that: In this era of Gigabit Wi-Fi, we're still moving content from one PC to another with USB sticks so that we can get content to display correctly.
- Remote worker challenges. Businesses want the ability to bring in anyone, on any device, in real time, from any location. The fact is that most systems enable some workers to join over certain devices only. This can frustrate employees that might prefer using a certain device, platform or application that becomes unusable for a certain conference. Downloading special clients is often required, further adding to the frustration.
- Ease of use. Although it is as much about workflow as it is about technology, make it easy and seamless to access meeting rooms and join conferences. Bring together the physical space reservation with the conference set up, be it scheduled or ad hoc.
As a systems integrator/service provider and a company that directly deals with customers, I asked Rob what advice he would give to vendors. This is his wish list:
- Focus on simplification. Think about how to make technology easier to use, even in difficult and noisy places.
- Make quality a top priority. In Rob's opinion (and mine as well, I might add), collaboration vendors have been so focused on rolling out new features quickly and driving price down that audio and video quality has suffered. Be very careful on this because the customer will push back.
- Don't forget about the physical meeting space. While it's cool and sexy to build virtual products and enable flexible working, the physical meeting space isn't going away any time soon. It's still a power house for driving adoption.
Rob's final word of advice to the vendor community was to fix the above issues first in order to drive more adoption of meeting space technology. Then bring in the cool stuff because the technology becomes a pull instead of a push. Wise words indeed.