Opinion: Will conference rooms help or hurt in the return to work?

Bob O'Donnell

Posts: 17   +1
Staff member
Through the looking glass: Pity the poor conference room. Often maligned in the past for being the source of enormous amounts of wasted time, they’re now expected to power new levels of productivity and collaboration in the forthcoming post-pandemic, hybrid work-based world. At least, that’s what a lot of companies seem to be betting on as they start to figure out and even announce some of their back-to-work strategies.

We’re still far from being back to normal, but with the overall numbers improving and vaccinations growing, more and more people are starting to think and talk about what life will be like when large numbers of people do return to the office.

Based on a combination of published surveys as well as numerous conversations on the topic, it seems clear that there is going to be an enormous variety of approaches that companies will take as they determine their back-to-work process. The one point that seems to be consistent, however, is a growing dependence on collaboration-focused spaces like conference rooms, huddle rooms, etc. In fact, some companies are reportedly going all in on the idea, converting most of their existing office space into collaborative areas. Along with that, they’re talking about having their employees return to the office only when they’re working on collaborative efforts with their co-workers in these reconfigured spaces.

In theory, this certainly seems like an interesting concept, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s really going to be as effective as some people think. One of the biggest issues is that the penetration of high-quality, room-based video conferencing systems is pretty low in most organizations.

After a year or more of Zoom, Teams, Webex, etc. calls, it’s going to be pretty hard to make an argument for effective hybrid work environments if every single collaboration space isn’t set up with a video conferencing system. Sure, we can fall back to audio-only conference calls on an occasional basis, but that’s clearly not going to work for the long haul. In the short term, this could be an enormous boost of business for companies like Cisco, Poly, Microsoft, Google, Zoom and others that make dedicated room-based video conferencing systems for collaboration spaces of different sizes.

Even in rooms where those systems get installed, however, I can easily foresee a number of potential challenges. First, expectations for the quality and level of personal interaction that are possible for video calls has gone up dramatically over the past year. It’s going to be really hard to go back to many of the frustrating and limited functionality systems that people left before the pandemic. After what will likely be at least 18 months of Brady Bunch-style squares of individual meeting participants, seeing a long shot of a conference room table surrounded by a number of people isn’t going to feel particularly effective.

Let’s not forget that for many pre-pandemic meetings, if most of the participants were in the room and only a person or two was calling in, these older video conferencing systems weren’t even used, because they weren’t considered very effective or they were thought of as too complicated to use. If vendors can figure out solutions that allow individuals sitting around a conference room table to have their own camera—without everyone having to haul in their own notebooks, log into a platform, and stare into their webcams, thereby defeating the purpose of in-person meetings—that could be a big opportunity.

In addition, many existing systems are limited to a single platform and particular video codec—including a lot of old Skype-based systems—and, again, that’s going to feel extremely limiting after a year of easily bouncing from platform to platform. Yes, companies are certainly going to be purchasing large amounts of new systems for these collaboration spaces, but there aren’t many that are easy to (or even able to) work across more than one platform. In fact, this may provide an advantage for companies like Cisco that have large installed bases of Webex-specific, room-based video conferencing hardware.

Even companies that may have been using other platforms may suddenly realize that, in order to use the hardware video conferencing assets they have, they may need to standardize on a different platform. The other option could be that more companies start to revisit the idea of using general-purpose PCs as the core of their room-based video conferencing systems because of the flexibility they provide. In Microsoft’s latest versions of its large Surface Hub 2S devices, for example, the company offers an option for regular Windows 10 Pro instead of its Teams-focused version.

Even if equipment vendors can adequately address all these problems, it’s likely going to take quite a while (and a lot of money!) before all the necessary systems are available and installed. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that by the time all this gets done, the situation around the pandemic will have changed so much that we’ll be back to work environments that are a lot more like things used to be than many initially thought.

Early examples abound. If you look at Taiwan, parts of China, and other places that have the virus under control, they’ve pretty much moved back to work environments that are the same as they were before the pandemic. Admittedly, there are some big cultural differences between the US and parts of Asia—particularly around things like wearing masks—but it’s certainly possible that something similar could happen in the US and Europe as well.

On top of all the hardware and software issues, there are important human factors that need to be considered. Clearly, many people are eager to get back to regular interactions with co-workers and colleagues, and there are quite a few companies that are starting to make it clear that they do expect most of their employees to be back in the office. (Whether or not vaccinations will be required is yet another potential twist to all of this). Plus, human nature being what it is, once people start attending meetings where a larger and larger percentage of the participants are together in person, they are bound to start feeling like they need to be there.

The amount of communication—both verbal and non-verbal—that occurs from just being around others is much larger and more important than most of us realize. No matter how many improvements the software-based video conferencing solutions make, there’s no way to replicate that—not to mention the casual conversations in the hallway right before and after meetings, etc.

All of which brings me back to my original premise. The idea that collaborative spaces like conference rooms can end up providing the magic bullet that makes new hybrid work environments really succeed may not be as well thought out as some think. Certainly, they always have been, and always will be, a critical tool in enabling successful, productive work environments, but over-reliance on them could end up hurting more than helping when people do start going back to work.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter .

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Toju Mikie

Posts: 186   +168
I've only had one office job out of many other jobs, and I would hate going back to the physical office if I can avoid it, if I still had that office job. I was about to be fired from that job, so I had to quit. This was before the pandemic started. My concern is about the excessive monitoring that is done on employees at these types of jobs. Monitoring "performance" and "productivity" and managers checking security footage to monitor employees instead of, you know, for SECURITY reasons. Also, companies that do like a ranking system that constantly fire the lowest ranking employees add to the stress. At least if I was at home working, then I would not need to worry about some of these things and can just worry about getting some work done without someone constantly trying to monitor my performance.
 

Hexic

Posts: 955   +1,353
TechSpot Elite
Good employees don't need to be micromanaged, nor do they need to be monitored in person.

Certain jobs, depending on the professionalism, need that hand holding and direct accountability... But the truly good jobs let you do what you need to, as long as the work that you have been tasked to do gets done.

There are exceptions for those who physically need to be at work, regardless of industry... But for those who sit at a desk, it's completely up to management and how they hold their employees accountable in an effective manner and build trust.
 

McKocoa

Posts: 30   +44
Conference rooms may be the only thing left for some companies as more people stick with remote work, depending on the line of work, I think there will be more vacant commercial properties. The remote conference tech has seen widespread adoption though, so are meeting rooms necessary? I think they are for synergy and other dynamic buzzword reasons. In-person interaction is still important. I heard of several companies who cancelled their leases or sold property but will still maintain conference rooms and meeting rooms-- It saves money, workers generally like the switch. Another anecdotal example, some companies in big cities don't know what to do, half their staff has moved upstate, there's a fair amount of uncertainty for the future.
 

Dimitriid

Posts: 542   +926
Most of office culture exists to justify the peace of mind of mid managers, and mostly just the bad middle managers at that.

That is, if you are in charge of people and you cannot figure out what's the reason for "lack of productivity" you need to look at things objectively and find a way to marry what the company wants out of employees and what employees want out of a company. That's usually hard to address because mid managers don't like to advocate for the big things: raises, more time off, increasing team sizes, setting up realistic expectations for timelines, etc.

But for better or worst the pandemic has really shown effective management can be done remotely: almost no office jobs completely collapsed because of remote work, on the contrary more companies became sane and started looking into more remote work schemes already.

I understand some jobs do require really close quarters coordination, but the issue here is confusing jobs that shouldn't have worker but people pushed themselves too hard because of that close quarters coordination: what we know is that most people are able to make up for that if they get to be closer to their families and gain back 2 to 4 hours of their lives that were previously consumed by commuting on highways and such.

The issue is middle managers need to communicate this effectively instead of accepting things like "Yes, this new project needs a war room, lets get people back into the office" they should push back and go "this project needs more realistic expectations or at least a more versatile, phase based implementation instead of just making people 'crunch' for it"

Nobody likes crunch, people do it if they feel they have no option so micro managing mentality has to go.
 

Avro Arrow

Posts: 1,256   +1,386
TechSpot Elite
I suppose that conference rooms could really hurt if the people have let their levels of hygiene slide while being at home and don't revert. Also, if anyone wears that Windows sweater that the girl in the first photo is wearing, I'll hang them outside the conference room window by their feet until the sweater naturally falls off! :laughing:

All jokes aside, conference rooms are the most useless thing in all of business. In most cases, it's a bunch of overpaid people who have no idea what they're doing coming up with a bunch of bad ideas. I don't miss them one bit.
 

Shadowboxer

Posts: 1,490   +1,088
In our office, before the pandemic the conference rooms went mostly unused (we have polycom and MS). I can’t see that changing afterwards as the polycom system which is most prelavent isn’t compatible with teams. However the Surface rooms might be better I think. I’m not sure, I’ve not actually ever used or seen anyone use that surface hub thing in there.
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 8,014   +6,783
If corporate America is smart they will have created valid ways and means of measuring productivity for stay at home workers. The savings by not having to maintain physical facilities is significant and those savings go straight to the bottom line. For other companies that rely on a personal presence it's not going to be a choice at all unless they can find a work around, in which case those people are not needed and won't be maintained. There are lots of professions that can function and are improved by employee attitudes and strangely enough, current stat's suggest that companies get more work out of stay at home employee's ...... Thats a win/win any way you look at it.
 

Theinsanegamer

Posts: 2,446   +3,596
If you can do your job remotely with no in person contact, you are worth as much as ramesh from india, who works for $1 an hour and doesnt complain about the lack of healthcare. All this "work from home" stuff is going to be used as a pretext to outsource white collar jobs just like the blue collar jobs of the 90s.

Management is not going to let you work from home doing as you please forever. Once the fearpr0n over a cough finally dies down, as it always does, work from home is going to gradually disappear as management wants to see more of their employees to ensure they are doing their jobs properly. Why didnt we work from home before? "oh well employers didnt realize how well it could work"? If you can swallow that line, you've got a bright future in the adult film industry. They have long known how well it can work, but they cant watch you if you are at home all day, and will rectify it the moment it is socially acceptable to do so.

Or employers will implement ever more draconian work from home monitoring to ensure the bugmen dont stray too far from their worker pods, because you, as an employee, exist for the whims of the company. Any semblance of privacy or home-work balance will go promptly out the window as now there is 0 excuse for you not being available 24/7. It's going to be interesting (and hilarious) when the monkey's paw turns and those banging the "work from home forever" drum realize they have railroaded themselves into funding more yachts for the 1%.