Say goodbye to the boring conference room

The conference room is perhaps the least popular space in the modern office. Typically long and narrow, with a rectangular table chaired from one end to the other, it’s where countless workers dozed off, rolled their eyes, or peeked at cell phones held on their laps.

Room design contributed to these responses, workplace experts say, citing the formal formality of the space and the obvious hierarchy of seating.

But as convulsions from working from home during the pandemic shake the office, this old-school space is rebooting.

In the first days of the pandemicWhen companies thought everyone would be back in the office within a month or two, managers brought quick fixes to the conference room in the name of germ control and social distancing. They handed out bottles of hand sanitizer and removed any other places around the table or posted signs with large Xs on alternating chairs.

But as remote work has taken hold and the return to the office has been postponed over and over again, bigger changes have come. To attract employees to the office, companies are looking to make them more welcoming and supportive of collaboration, including conference rooms.

We checked with companies and the architects and designers they hired to see how this upheaval is unfolding across the country. For example, our photographer visited LinkedIn’s new flagship building in Mountain View, California and found meeting rooms created by architecture firm NBBJ that feature cozy furnishings and cutting-edge technology.

It’s too early to say which of the changes will prove most popular or how long they will last, said Lisa Britz, director of workplace design at LinkedIn, who predicts that how Americans do their jobs will continue to evolve, possibly inspiring. further design changes.

For now, however, the conference room appears to be transforming in four main ways:

The conference room is increasingly coming out of its traditional rectangle. And in many cases it has gotten smaller, as meetings become less formal and new hybrid business models mean fewer people are physically present for them.

The architecture studio Skidmore, Owings & Merrill he has recently been designing “squarer” conference rooms, believing them to be more “democratic,” said company principal Ece Calguner Erzan. “No more head of the table,” he added.

Some companies are building conference rooms that can change shape, growing or shrinking as needed, thanks to movable partitions. This kinetic design approach it became more popular during the pandemic because it allows workers to exert some control over their surroundings.

LinkedIn added open conference spaces between the desks of engineers from the same teams. If a problem arises that requires discussion, workers can enter one of these spaces and close the sliding doors or leave them open.

“The intention is for it to be hyperflexible,” said Robert Norwood, principal of the NBBJ. The acoustic bewilderment on the ceiling dampens the sound and its zigzag shape adds more dynamism to the room, enlivening what is normally a flat, static piano.

The old conference room tended to be formal, even sterile, but the new ones are loosening, often gaining an intimacy that some company executives hope will help employees return to the office after more than two years of working from their couches and dining tables.

Inspired Capital, a venture capital firm, has hired Benjamin Vandiver, a designer specializing in residential interiors, to decorate its New York office; the results include a charcoal-colored conference room with a massive antique gold-framed mirror leaning against a wall and a modernist oak table from Anthropologie positioned on the diagonal.

LinkedIn has eliminated a central table altogether in spaces that look more like living rooms. Everyone has a fluffy sofa with cushions and plants and books abound. The relaxed look is meant to help meeting attendees feel comfortable and encourage staff members “who may not speak in a traditional setting,” said Ms. Britz.

Many conference rooms are increasingly found in the amenity spaces of buildings or even outdoors.

Multi-tenant office building owners are dedicating entire floors to enhanced service suites that include conference rooms that any company in the building can book. A pandemic-related benefit: people from outside companies can attend meetings in a building without having to go to a tenant’s floor, minimizing germ worries.

Outdoor work spaces they were already popular before the pandemic – scientific research shows that exposure to nature can stimulate creativity and reduce stress levels – and the conference room has now joined the exodus.

LinkedIn has long thought about creating outdoor workspaces, Ms. Britz said, citing California’s mild climate. But when the pandemic highlighted the benefits of natural ventilation, the company acted on the idea by equipping a square area for meetings.

The space includes steel and wood overhead structures with louvers to reduce glare from the sun on laptops and monitors. There are also whiteboards and tables of various sizes, all with built-in electrical outlets.

Most of the technology upgrades in conference rooms are meant to ensure that workers can continue to collaborate even if they are not in the same space. In other words, the conference room became a Zoom camerafor better or for worse.

In a recent survey of companies occupying office space, CBRE, the real estate services company, found this 76% of respondents considered enhanced videoconferencing to be a top priority upon their return to the office. (42% listed touch-free technology, which had been of great interest at the start of the pandemic, prior to the discovery that the coronavirus was mainly spread by air.)

Screens were once relegated to a short wall, forcing everyone in the meeting to turn around to face it. Recognizing that most people in a conference room sit on the long sides of the table, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill placed screens in front of them on the long sides of a room.

Cameras and microphones were mounted on walls and ceilings to capture attendee responses in person 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 CEO of INC Architecture and Design, who recently used professional soundproofing from a 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.

In 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 “ghosts” the person writing so that colleagues working at home can see what is being written in real time.

There are also some decidedly low-tech additions to the rooms: foam core panels resting on trestles asking workers for feedback on the new spaces.

LinkedIn will continue to make changes in the workplace as employee demands evolve, Ms. Britz said, adding, “The dust is still settling.”