Guest Post by Monika Avery, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP BD + C, Principal and Interior Designer for The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM)

As we continue to talk about the purpose of Place in a post-COVID world, it is important to reflect on why certain activities take place during the workday and how the physical and virtual environments can support them.

Meetings, for example, are an ancient ritual. Why, when, where, and how will we have them? …and yes, we will. The funny coffee mug slogans, memes, and videos on the pain, comedy, and presumed uselessness of meetings are, unfortunately, not enough for all meetings to be cancelled. We will continue to have them, but now, as we return to a hybrid workplace, we must integrate best practices of interior design and technologies to support multiformat meetings.

Let’s start by asking ourselves, ‘why do we have meetings anyway?’

A meeting, according to Wikipedia, is a gathering of two or more people that has been convened for the purpose of achieving a common goal through verbal interaction, such as sharing information or reaching agreement. Circa the 1400’s, The Knights of the Round Table presumably had a meeting, likely at a round table. Incidentally, this is the most ideal table shape, as it presents a neutral hierarchy and a level playing field, that is at least until a meeting commences and when someone takes charge.

The round table shape also optimizes eye-to-eye viewing angles. This was probably not the first meeting in human history, we can speculate about many others, but its broader purpose is what matters. Its purpose was likely to recap events, understand strategy and goals, and identify next steps.

Social aspects of meetings aside, workplace meetings are a vehicle of communication that lead to organizational success. Logistics of how the new multiformat meeting is facilitated, including the nuances of who decides where and how the meetings take place will come with a set of organizational protocols that need to be clearly communicated to employees.

Most of us have experienced the all or nothing scenario when every meeting attendee is remote. But as some of us begin to appear back in the office, what happens when we have a blended scenario?

Teams, and team leaders, will have to ensure equal weight is given to both the onsite and remote participant experience, including content. They may question whether to assemble the team that is in the office in a conference room and “call” those working remotely. Is there a (good, well positioned, and well lit) camera, microphone, and speakers in the room so all participants can see and hear each other?  Or does the in-office team take the meeting at their desk – camera in laptop, ear buds with microphone? Will the majority-rules standard apply?

If most of the team is in the office, then is it a predominantly in-person meeting and vice versa? What if taking the meeting at one’s desk is disruptive to those around us? Where do we go then? One thing is certain, teams must be able to pivot between the multiformat meeting experiences – in-person, virtual, and the hybrid of both. These experiences must be engaging and immersive to facilitate high-performance and productivity.

The design of both the built environment and the digital workplace are critical to achieve success for the conventional and new meeting formats. The formality of scheduled meetings calls for well-appointed private spaces with seamless technology to facilitate action and success of the agenda for those on and off site. 

When the entire team is remote, informal interactions must be thoughtfully planned to ensure full team participation. Open or enclosed, acoustically appropriate areas may be fit out with informal soft furnishings and mobile table and seating options for laptop work and shared writable surfaces which must be visible to those on the other side of the camera to connect and collaborate across the whole team. SLAM workplace designers have integrated single occupant “Zoom” rooms in the meeting room menu. This room can be as efficient as 36-square feet to accommodate an onsite meeting participant with a laptop to connect to a multiformat meeting.

New and emerging technologies have made supporting remote participation easy. According to USIS, a global technology infrastructure and professional services firm, AV tech trends for the built environment can be contactless, frictionless, hybrid, touchless, and virtual or digital events. Responding specifically to the demand for on-site communications via digital display and video walls, interactive displays are evolving to touchless gesture-based and hover interactions. Bi-directional mirroring pushes content from shared displays to personal devices.

Touchless system control includes personal devices, voice commands, and beacons. In-ceiling sensors can detect users entering the room and automatically turn on systems and connect to meeting platforms via pairing of the personal devices. Wireless presentation platforms enable personal device content to be mirrored on the room display and vice versa. Ceiling microphones and auto-tracking video cameras ensure remote participants are engaged with the presenter. Automated camera switching focuses on the active speaker and switches camera shots, via voice activation microphones.

Meeting room and flex meeting space design should include displays, camera, and microphones mounted or available via mobile AV carts, and device connectivity. There is no longer a case for technology hindering communications in any types of meetings.

Not all meetings are formal when the team is in person. Ideas and actions can be generated through informal settings such as play areas over a pool table or walking paths through a corporate campus. The idea of scheduling meetings outside has become more attractive post-COVID, as health safety and access to open air is fresh on our minds. Outside meeting spaces conducive to conversation, collaboration, and safe socialization can range from garden cafe settings accessed through interior food service areas, roof decks and patios accessible through any interior shared spaces, courtyards, amphitheaters, and walking paths.

Access to natural environments and time spent in daylight and nature is supported by The WELL Building standard, as it promotes the integration of physical activity into everyday life by providing the opportunities and support for an active lifestyle and discouraging sedentary behaviors.  The design of outside meeting options will optimize performance and occupant experience in any climate.

SLAM’s landscape architects work closely with the workplace design teams to identify project specific opportunities for exterior workplace environments for clients across the country.  AV technologies, such as all-weather speakers and high brightness digital displays can be incorporated into outdoor spaces to allow for continued connectivity.  

In the many ways and places that multiformat meetings will be facilitated in the future, they will continue to be a key component of interaction, communication, and organizational success.  Optimizing the design of a variety of meeting places, inside and out, and the applicable digital technologies to accompany them is a critical component of workplace design and high performance.

Part three of the Purpose of Place series will focus on amenity spaces: a means to optimize the hybrid workplace experience.

Monika Avery is a principal and interior designer for The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM)