I’ve spent more time in the office this week than I have since the beginning of 2020. Whilst three half days is hardly “back to normal” (and I doubt normal as was will ever be a thing again) it’s been interesting.
The single biggest challenge I see for office space design is rethinking meeting spaces to accommodate hybrid working in the future. Whilst conferencing software has come on leaps and bounds in the last decade (let alone the last two years) the hardware configuration for meeting rooms has barely moved on at all.
There are a few factors at play here. One thing that I have seen as an issue for years is that most people don’t get enough time to familiarise themselves with meeting room technology. Whilst many of us have perfected Zoom or Teams with social gatherings in the last few years, you simply don’t get the time to play around with meeting room tech.
As a result, the only time you get to use it is within the stressful environment of an actual meeting, when for the majority of people who aren’t prepared to persevere with getting technology working, the opportunity to try a new thing is pretty much zero. Therefore smart whiteboards and complex meeting cameras and so on often sit in a corner gathering dust. They’re just too scary to risk in front of an audience.
But the tech itself that is available for us to us in meeting rooms to run hybrid meetings doesn’t really meet needs.
We invested a few years ago in a handful of Owl conferencing units. They are whizzy and cute. A 180 Degree fisheye lens camera, nice speaker and mic unit and software that cleverly highlights the image of the people speaking in the room at any given time.
But the way in which is works is flawed. It sits in the middle of the meeting room table. which is fine when you look at colleagues in the room. But if you look across to a screen to speak with colleagues in a different place, your gazes go all over the place:
If everyone has their laptop in front of them (assuming everyone can remember to join without sound) then everyone has an individual webcam so the Owl is unnecessary. But getting everyone to join without feedback from hell is, erm, challenging.
Traditionally a meeting room would have a camera positioned near the screen, but that meant that whilst everyone would be looking in the right direction, unless it was a very small table, hardly anyone could be seen properly.
Through our two years of lockdown working, and with advances in web conferencing software, a few things have emerged about meeting technology.
Firstly, the inability for one person to talk over another on a Zoom or Teams call is revelatory. We have become far more polite and structured in our meeting interactions. We give permission for others to speak far more clearly and consistently.
Secondly, my perception is that punctuality is far improved. There’s no Zoom equivalent of having to pop your head around the door of a meeting room to let the overrunning occupants know that you have booked the room.
And finally, everyone is at a level in an online meeting. You can (assuming all cameras are on) see everyone in ways that you can’t in physical rooms. Eye lines are more or less equal.
Yes, there is a physicality about meeting in a room that is different. But the technology to support hybrid models of meetings are simply not there are the moment, and I do wonder if they ever will be.
About 15 years ago I spent a bit of time in a Cisco Teleprescence suite. Tens of thousands of pounds worth of high definition video and cameras and microphones (and, being Cisco, network bandwidth) and it was still the most immersive hybrid conference facility I’ve ever experienced. It was also far too expensive and totally impractical.
Covid has sped the technology and the use of web conferencing. Whether meeting room technology will keep up or not, we’ll wait and see.