The conference room is perhaps the most unloved space in the modern office. Typically long and narrow, with a rectangular table presided over by a boss at one end, it’s the place where countless workers have fallen asleep, rolled their eyes, or sneaked a peek at the cell phones held in their laps.
The layout of the room contributed to these responses, workplace experts say, citing the suffocating formality of the space and the obvious hierarchy of seating arrangements.
But as the upheavals of working from home during the pandemic rock the office, this old-school space is getting a reboot.
In the early days of the pandemic, when companies thought everyone would be back in the office within a month or two, managers made quick fixes to the conference room in the name of germ control and social distancing. They displayed bottles of hand sanitizer and either removed all other seating around the table or taped big X signs to alternate chairs.
But as remote work took hold and the return to the office was postponed again and again, more important changes took place. To entice employees back into the office, companies are looking to make them more welcoming and conducive to collaboration, including conference rooms.
We reached out to companies and the architects and designers they hire to see how this turmoil is playing out across the country. For example, our photographer toured LinkedIn’s new flagship building in Mountain View, California, and found meeting rooms created by architecture firm NBBJ that feature inviting furnishings and state-of-the-art technology.
It’s too early to say which of the changes will prove most popular, or how long they’ll last, said Lisa Britz, director of workplace design at LinkedIn, who hopes the way Americans do their jobs will continue to evolve, likely inspiring more design tweaks.
For now, though, the conference room seems to be changing in four main ways:
NEW SHAPES AND SIZES
The conference room is increasingly breaking out of its traditional rectangle. And in many cases, it has gotten smaller, as meetings become less formal and new hybrid work patterns mean fewer people are physically present for them.
Architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has been designing “squarer” conference rooms lately, believing them to be more “democratic,” said Ece Calguner Erzan, director of the firm. “No more head of the table,” he added.
The return of back-to-the-office plans
After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes of returning to face-to-face work late last year, it now appears that a new RTO chapter is opening.
Some companies are creating conference rooms that can change shape, grow or shrink as needed, thanks to mobile partitions. This kinetic design approach has become more popular in the pandemic because it allows workers to exercise some control over their environment.
LinkedIn added open conference spaces amid the desks of engineers on the same teams. If an issue arises that requires discussion, workers can enter one of these spaces and close the sliding doors, or leave them open.
“The intent is for it to be hyper-flexible,” said Robert Norwood, director of the NBBJ. The disconcerting acoustic in the ceiling deadens sound, and its zigzag shape adds more dynamism to the room, enlivening what is normally a flat, static plane.
The old conference room used to be formal, even sterile, but the new ones are relaxing and often taking on a warmth that some company leaders say they hope will help employees transition back to the office afterward. of more than two years of working from their sofas and dining room. tables.
Inspired Capital, a venture capital firm, hired Benjamin Vandiver, a designer who specializes in residential interiors, to decorate their New York office; the results include a charcoal-colored conference room with a huge gilt-framed antique mirror propped against one wall and an oak modernist table by Anthropologie positioned diagonally.
LinkedIn has completely eliminated a center table in spaces that look more like lounges. Each has a soft sofa with cushions, and plants and books abound. The relaxed appearance is intended to help meeting participants feel comfortable and encourage staff members “who may not speak in a traditional setting,” Ms. Britz said.
Many conference rooms are increasingly located in building service spaces or even outdoors.
Owners of multi-tenant office buildings are devoting entire floors to beefed-up service suites that include conference rooms that can be booked by any company in the building. A pandemic-related perk: People from outside companies can attend meetings in a building without going to the tenant’s floor, minimizing concerns about germs.
Outdoor workspaces were already popular before the pandemic: scientific research shows that exposure to nature can spark creativity and reduce stress levels, and the conference room has now joined the exodus.
LinkedIn had long thought about setting up outdoor workspaces, Britz said, citing California’s mild climate. But when the pandemic highlighted the benefits of natural ventilation, the company acted on the idea, setting up a plaza area for meetings.
The space includes overhead structures made of steel and wood with louvers to reduce the sun’s glare on laptops and monitors. There are also blackboards and tables of various sizes, all with built-in electrical outlets.
Most technology upgrades in conference rooms are meant to ensure that workers can continue to collaborate even if they’re not in the same space. In other words, the conference room has become a Zoom room, for better or worse.
In a recent survey of companies that occupy office space, CBRE, the real estate services company, found that 76% of respondents considered enhanced video conferencing to be a top priority in their return to the office. (Forty-two percent listed contactless technology, which had sparked a great deal of interest at the start of the pandemic, before the discovery that the coronavirus spread primarily through the air.)
The screens were once relegated to a short end wall, forcing everyone in the meeting to turn towards them. Recognizing that most people in a conference room sit on the long sides of the table, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has placed screens in front of them, on the long sides of the room.
Cameras and microphones have been mounted on walls and ceilings to capture responses from in-person attendees for the benefit of those working remotely. Many companies use a 360-degree camera in the center of a table.
Another key component: “Soundproofing, soundproofing, soundproofing,” said Adam Rolston, creative director and managing director of INC Architecture & Design, which recently used soundproofing from a professional recording studio in a client’s conference room in New York. The goal is to eliminate echo and distracting ambient sounds and allow everyone to speak without raising their voices.
On LinkedIn, large horizontal screens allow you to share documents on one side and show the faces of remote colleagues on the other. Some conference rooms are also equipped with a digital whiteboard and a special camera mounted on an opposite wall that makes the typist disappear so that colleagues working at home can see what is being typed in real time.
There are also some decidedly low-tech additions to the rooms: foam-core boards propped up on trestles asking workers for their input on the new spaces.
LinkedIn will continue to make changes to the workplace as employee demands evolve, Britz said, adding: “The dust is still settling.”