Office meeting rooms are the confluence of at least five disciplines:
Workspace design professionals lay them out; Facilities management people service them; Telephony people provide some of the tech; IT people provide the rest; and learning and development people train people (occasionally) in good meeting practice. The result? Mostly a mess. Especially because the actual participants of meetings rarely get a look in.

Yesterday I spent some of the afternoon in a very swish meeting room completely fitted out in the last 24 months. Designed primarily for video conferencing, the space was dominated by three massive video screens the like of which are usually reserved for home cinemas. A boardroom-style oval of tables ringed the room. Microphones and speakers were subtly installed in the ceiling – no spiderphones here, thank you very much.

The majority of the meeting participants were in the room, but there were a handful on the phone. The loud, and high-quality speakers quickly made background noise from one of the callers distracting to everyone in the room, and in turn unlistenable to everyone on the phone. The clever technology that muted the mics in the meeting room when someone else was talking was reacting to the background noise and cutting out the presenters. Norman Collier would have been impressed. The loudness of the interference through the speakers in the room had an interesting levelling effect: usually this kind of thing makes the meeting useless for those on the call. This time it was rubbish for everybody.

This was a state of the art room. The tech was as good as you can get. But it perfectly illustrated how fixing one technical element in a complex organisational setting can actually make things worse. The meeting room technology was unfamiliar; we struggled to control the volume through a remote control device that came from the worst end of user interface design.

In our increasingly virtual and remote working world, we need to seriously rethink the provision of spaces for meeting. New technology layered on new technology isn’t going to make this better – we need to think from an organisational perspective much more holistically about the place that meetings play in modern working life.

Strange things are afoot; with “laptops up”, meetings are increasingly distracted and disconnected places where individual participants are constantly in second and third conversations, never quite focused. We provide meeting spaces with high technology but nowhere to write notes or sketches on a wall or flipchart. Fridays, a day of office-space desertion, are a day of high meeting room utilisation when conference calls become the norm as the people who aren’t working from home try to find private spaces to have calls with people who are. Open plan offices are great for some things, but not for lots of people taking part in conference calls, especially if some of them are in the same one.

The solution? Who knows; but I can make a couple of suggestions.

Firstly, to think about meetings as a multi-disciplinary problem from the start and bring together the various parties (including end participants) to shape approaches but also deliver the resulting spaces on an ongoing basis: devops for meeting spaces, if you will.

Secondly, to think about providing platforms for meetings, not services in meeting rooms. Too much of the current way of doing this thinks about the things: the furniture, the telephony, the technology. What we need to do instead is think about the things people might want to do, and from that provide the things that might help them to do those things.

3 thoughts on “Will everybody please mute…

  1. I remain to be convinced that the main problem is technological, even if it can often be bad… Meetings themselves are the issue, without clear objectives, common goals and shared priorities it’s rare for them to be productive.

  2. I think your second suggestion is key: focussing on what people need to do and selecting the technology to enable that — might give rise to surprising combinations of “no-tech” and high-tech. I would add that the “meeting service/platform” needs to cater for and incorporate the likely varied “channels of participation”.

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