Meeting Rooms. The Future is Bleak

Coronavirus has changed many things in our lives, not least how we work. Going back to the Office is not going to be the same, at least for the next 12-months and after 2 years of ‘disruption’ will we ever go back to what was once normal?

COVID has waged war with humanity and like with any war amongst all the tragedy and disruption comes opportunity. COVID has given humanity a lot of opportunity to reflect and change the ways we have done things and things that where once considered necessary have been proven to be less critical to us than we thought.

Talking with a few friends across the industry I hear a mixed bag of company decision making. Some are embracing the remote working ethos with no rush to go back to the office, others are starting to re-open offices and encourage / enforce employees back to office based work.

For those facing the position of having to return to the office there are going to be several challenges for businesses and employees to overcome. From a business capacities of offices are going to be affected.

An office with rows of desks end to end, back to back etc are no longer compatible with safe distancing. This could see office capacities being reduced by as much as 50%. This begs the questions

  • What is the business trying to achieve by opening with 50% capacity?
  • What job roles require a return to the office being so critical that they are forced to return, while the other half remain at home?
  • How are companies dealing with employee anxiety?

Why Meeting Rooms Are Dead

This transcends into the traditional meeting room as well. Meeting rooms once designed for 12 people could easily be reduced to less than 6 and even as low as 4 people in some cases where 1m distance is to be maintained.

The Standard Conference Table to seat 12 people is approx. 3.7m (L) x 1.2m (W). Now factor in that one end of the table is usually the presentation focal point (projector screen, camera position) and therefore unusable. This leave 3 usable sides. Maintaining social distancing of a minimum of 1m means that the effective room capacity has reduced from 12 to just 5 (2 on each flank and 1 at the far end).

Again using the same logic, the standard conference table size for a boardroom layout of 24 people is approx. 7.2m (L) x 1.8m (W). With social distancing this is reduced to just 13.

Smaller meeting rooms for about 6 people or so reduce by less dramatic numbers. A 6 person room could drop by 1/3, whereas any room above that capacity can expect at leat 50% reduction in seats.

From a pure capacity perspective it brings into question whether the expense of these rooms are worth it. After-all as much as 50% of the normal required participants would have to join from an alternative meeting room, or remotely using video conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams. What is the benefit of the meeting room now?

On top of this we also have challenges of usability. Inside these rooms there will be equipment such as HDMI cables, Projector / TV remotes, Whiteboards, Pens, Light Switches, Control Panels etc.

In a normal productive meeting, this equipment is used by everyone in the meeting at some point. Even with sanitizer at the entrance to the door, this exchange within the meeting introduces risk to the employee. People will touch their faces, bite pen lids, scratch and itch etc. All make using this equipment a risk that isn’t worth taking. You could say that you should sanitize after each micro usage. But in-practice in the heat of a meeting and with best intentions people are not going to.

You could proceed into the meeting with a designated driver, but then your own participation in the meeting is compromised.

This hygiene issue also now compounds the productivity of the room. Before, meeting rooms could be booked like Ryanair. As soon as the people come out of the door, the next lot can enter. It is common for meeting rooms to be booked continuously for 10-hours a day. Everyone has experienced the problem of finding a meeting room haven’t they?

No longer can meeting rooms be booked back to back. After each use a conscientious employer would be requiring the room to be cleaned and sanitized between each use. Seats sprayed with disinfectant spray, table and all peripherals / equipment cleaned with anti-bacterial products etc.

This whole process to do properly talking to professional cleaners could take up to 20 minutes to do properly. Over the course of a single day that means the rooms effective productivity has been reduced by 3 hours 20 minutes or 16 hours a week.

The effect of this is employees will have so much competition for meeting rooms because availability has reduced by 30% that they will not bother because it will just get in the way of business. They aren’t going to delay a business meeting for a room. They will do it from their desk, using Teams because it is easier and by now what they are used to anyway.

Right now, I see a very bleak future for Meeting Rooms in general. The reduction in capacity and productivity is almost secondary to the fact that employees simply do not feel comfortable in other people’s presence, even at 1m.

Instead, employers should be encouraging remote working and online meetings where people can maintain their distance without feeling compromised.

The Future

What does this mean for Meeting Room Devices? Well, I will bet there will be a sharp fall in sales of traditional meeting room devices. The future of the business meeting is squarely personal desk based with online tools like Teams.

Recently Lenovo with the help of Microsoft released the first Teams Display device. A desktop based, dedicated Teams device that allows for full Teams meeting experience that can be used separately to a user’s laptop.

See the source image
Lenovo Thinksmart Teams Display

We can expect more of these devices to appear in the near future.

Businesses should be encouraging remote meetings or meetings from your desk in cases where you are office based as a standard.

Businesses need to do more for remote workers

Talking to many people it is clear that some businesses have a lot to learn when it comes to managing a remote workforce. Lots of employees where left high and dry having to spend their own cash kitting out their home working environment.

When I worked for Dell they had a great working from home package. Not only did they supply all the required equipment (screen, laptop dock, keyboard, mouse, headset) they also provided a budget that could be used to purchase furniture.

What Now with those rooms?

If you haven’t done so, you will need to address a couple of technical issues with regards to your meeting room booking procedures

  • Edit the capacity of the room in Exchange so employees can understand the new limit for the room
  • Introduce buffer time at the end of the meeting for cleaning and trigger a cleaning activity during this time
  • Communicate with employees that meeting room capacity has changed and that they should look towards desktop based meetings first and consider the need for in-room meetings
  • Train employees on the new procedures around in-room hygiene and distancing

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