What is the Future Landscape for Corporate Boardrooms in a Post-Pandemic World? This article by John Doyle, senior audio visual consultant at ESD (Environmental Systems Design, Inc.) in Chicago, IL, presents an overview of possibilities for planning and operating these spaces. Doyle is professionally invested in pursuing ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.
By John Doyle, CTS-D
Close your eyes and imagine the classic, traditional boardroom. What do you see? A long table surrounded by tall-backed leather chairs? A dimly lit space infused with the smell of history and tradition?
Long before Adam Smith’s invisible hand of a free-market economy began wielding the meeting gavel, boardrooms have served as a gathering place for business owners, C-suite level executives, stakeholders, prospective clients, and the like. The classically designed boardroom also provides a larger space for major project team meetings where ideas are shared, content is presented, and brainstorming big business decisions take place. For many business leaders and the architects who serve them, the design and function of the traditional boardroom continues to be viewed through this aging and somewhat myopic lens.
Now ask yourself, why do we continue to design spaces with long tables where participants struggle to hear and see each other? What do uniformly spaced chairs add to interpersonal communication? And why does everything have to smell like furniture polish?
In this article, I hope to challenge some of the more entrenched aspects of the boardroom and offer a different view of what they can be. What new technology is available? How can these spaces be made healthier and more efficient? In the wake of a business-transforming pandemic, the time is right to redefine the borders of corporate boardrooms.
Form vs. Function
If we were to evaluate boardrooms from a usability standpoint, we would see the traditional boardroom layout is much more form than function. A space designed to gather a large group of high-stakes players in one location should enable them to see one another with proper sightlines. And shouldn’t such an environment enable all the players to have an equal voice and ability to share ideas more freely? Why should it be so difficult for participants to connect and engage with one another?
The modern meeting room is evolving beyond a simple boardroom with table and chairs to become a more functional, efficiently designed, technology-enabled space. One approach is to outfit the boardroom with more modernized, moveable furniture that is easily reconfigurable and gives a sense of spatial freedom. Some furniture manufacturers have taken up the technology mantle to make the table the focus of advances in smart tech, configured to wirelessly charge devices and control presentation displays in the room.
In addition to integrating the latest technology, such as interactive displays, multiple monitors to host virtual attendees, and state of the art acoustic design to maximize audibility for both in-person and remote participants, the next stage in boardroom design must include a seat for Mother Nature.
Natural Lighting: Whenever possible, adding natural light to any meeting room will promote better engagement and retention of important topics discussed while also reducing headaches, eyestrain, and blurred vision. A Harvard Business Review study cited access to natural light as the number one office perk, outranking more predictable contenders like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and childcare.
Plants: In addition to creating a more inviting space, plants in the boardroom (or any office setting) are shown to increase productivity, improve an overall sense of health and wellbeing, and reduce worker stress.
Air: In the wake of COVID-19, building tenants and visitors are more attuned to their indoor environment. Many are seeking higher performing HVAC systems that prioritize indoor air quality (IAQ) and enhance occupant health, safety, and wellness. Boardrooms and other office spaces can now include real-time monitoring of IAQ. This technology can be literally put in the hands of tenants using smart phones to check readings of monitors located throughout the work environment. At the same time, UV lighting and UV air cleaning systems can be deployed to pro-actively eliminate harmful particulates in work environments while cleaning staff can be alerted through automated software notifications when a room has been vacated and needs to be sanitized.
Architecture is often a reflection of society captured in a time capsule. A snapshot of a specific period in time and the people and values who are part of it. The design of a boardroom is no different. Its layout can say a great deal about the power dynamics and hierarchy of an organization. Modern boardroom design can also demonstrate how well a company is in tune with changes in society.
The recent resurgence in the call for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion is getting greater attention from C-level executives. There is a push for more diverse boards. According to a recent study, the demand for him-for-her referrals “to female board candidates nearly quadrupled in the last quarter of 2020 compared with a year prior” (Techcrunch.com). In that same report, among the new directors appointed during this period, one quarter identified as black or African American.
With this as a backdrop, designers of the built environment need to consider what this more diverse user base will want from a user-experience standpoint. This might include such considerations as gender-neutral bathrooms in close proximity to the boardroom as well as a more equalized furniture layout to enable everyone to have a voice in the room.
Basic Boardroom Considerations
In short, the modern boardroom should facilitate true equality and collaboration while providing participants in the room with a better feeling of safety and engagement. Here are some factors to consider that can help accomplish these societal goals while still retaining the “Wow!” factor of an impressive boardroom:
Boardroom layout and design: With space becoming less of a premium as more and more organizations begin to accept remote work as the norm, many businesses are now afforded the ability to expand their existing conference room configurations to accommodate the new normal.
- The standard 6’ of separation can be more easily achieved with larger conference rooms
- Atypical conference room furniture, such as round, U-shaped or “telepresence” style tables, can help spread participants out and thereby open the space up for a larger display for presentations.
- Tiered seating is a great way to spread participants out while also improving lines of sight
Technology: There have been a number of improvements in audio/visual (AV) technology that can be used in part or integrated together as a whole to achieve a more collaborative space.
- 360-degree cameras can allow all participants to be seen in a room, speaking across from each other rather than the traditional talking head at the front of a room
- Ceiling mic arrays remove devices from tables, freeing up those surfaces for paperwork and laptops
- Large format ultra-wide digital canvas direct view LED displays provide a means for everyone to share documents and data on a larger, brighter surface with rich color depth
- Multiple displays can assist presenters to reach all participants, even those who would otherwise be in obstructed viewing positions
- Wireless presentation / collaboration allows everyone in the room a means to share content without the clutter of wired connectivity
- Privacy glass: For boardrooms where privacy is key, electrified glass can be integrated into a system to switch the transparent windows to opaque to mask highly sensitive conversations.
- Sound masking speech privacy transducers: These can further protect a facility from eavesdropping
COVID-19 reality: In a post-COVID environment, how do we make larger rooms healthier and safer? This challenge can be attacked from several angles:
- Autonomous UV lighting to kill dangerous viruses and other microorganisms
- Touchless control (voice, gesture, QR code) to reduce surface contamination and threat of disease transmission
- Sensor technology to monitor and control occupancy of spaces
- Device integrations: Integrated Space reservation systems with live, rules-based feedback on proximity, capacity, indoor air quality, and heat mapping to show areas in violation and for actionable intelligence to inform users to change meeting plans / shift rooms as required
- Wearable technology that can be integrated with environment sensors to monitor safety conditions of a space
One of the biggest drivers in technology decisions tends to be cost. Many organizations initially aim to achieve every nuance of their use cases and room functionality options only to experience sticker shock when a basis of design document reaches their desk for review. Over the past few years, the AV industry has made significant strides to accommodate many of the “typical” functions of a meeting room at a more affordable price. This, however, comes at a different price.
Room Based Meeting (RBM): Many device manufacturers in the Unified Collaboration (UC) sphere have zeroed in on RBM systems. These systems are simple to operate due to their “pre-baked” user interface that incorporates the client’s chosen UC platform (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Bluejeans, Google Meet, etc.). The tradeoff is that the client must decide on a primary UC platform without the customizations they may want from an AV-enabled space. These RBM systems are often limited to what the UC software has provided. The advantage to this approach is that whenever a new software patch or release is deployed by software companies, the end user is certain to receive the latest and greatest updates with the backing of those industry giants to support them. With a custom solution, having to go to an integrator for updates and maintenance can be extremely cost-prohibitive.
Bring Your Own Meeting (BYOM): With the RBM systems, the ability to Bring Your Own Meeting (BYOM) to the room is somewhat limited. There are a few options out there to achieve this:
- Option One: Purchase an ongoing “Interop” license which essentially gives you the ability to connect disparate UC platforms in the same RBM system.
- Option Two: Go with a custom BYOM room which has to ability to interface with any UC platform.
- Option Three: Select a primary UC platform (i.e. Zoom) and allow the software itself to parse incoming meeting invites from other UC platforms however this has its own limitations as disparate platforms have an incentive to not play nice together.
- Option Four: Choose a primary UC platform with hardware that enables plug-and-play to switch from a Room Based Meeting to a BYOM.
At the moment, however, we foresee this roadblock disappearing in the near future through software updates from the given UC application. These software companies are beginning to see the light that end users have been saying for over ten years now, “why can’t these platforms just play nice with each other?”
Which system is right for you? It depends. By electing to go with an RBM system, you are ensuring your organization has a reliable, sophisticated system that is simple to install and use. You may not be able to connect external parties without access to your platform unless you pay for that interop license, but you will have a consistent user experience from room to room. If your organization finds the demand for interop increases, you can always add that capability through licensing. In this way, room uses can be determined and optimized and budgets can be controlled.
Boardroom Design Bottom Line
Boardrooms and other more complex spaces (multi-purpose rooms, divisible/combinable training rooms, etc.) may be good candidates for more extensive (and expensive) customizations. These spaces are not so easily accommodated by the simple RBM system. The complexity inherent with reconfiguring rooms along with the need for multiple cameras and display locations breaks the boundaries of easy and cheap for most applications. The best approach is to knock out simple rooms on the cheap and focus the lion’s share of the budget on bigger spaces that will see larger audiences and require more advanced feature sets.
Boardrooms will continue to reflect the changing needs and requirements of an evolving world. Working with an experienced design engineer can help identify the best strategy for meeting your boardroom meeting goals.
Doyle is senior audio visual consultant at ESD (Environmental Systems Design, Inc.) in Chicago, IL. He is professionally invested in pursuing ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.