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 @bobodtech.