Services & Maintenance: Meeting Needs

By Patrick Britton, CTS, CTS-D
Published in the September 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Every day we become more dependent on technology. We take for granted technology that a generation or two ago would be considered works of science fiction. We carry telephones in our pockets and computers in our briefcases, and we can conduct “face to face” meetings with colleagues on the other side of the world using a television (though it’s not quite that simple).

More than a table and whiteboard are needed in the conference rooms of today. Many organizations require the latest technology—including videoconferencing—in order to meet the needs of users. Facility managers who know what their occupants need will be able to establish effective meeting spaces. (Photo: AVI-SPL)

Audiovisual (AV) technology has become a dominant factor in productivity in our work. We share information verbally through lectures, presentations, and audio conferences. We share visual information using Microsoft PowerPoint, Blu-Ray DVD, and video teleconferencing displayed by projectors hung from ceilings and flat panels fixed to the wall. Gone are the days when a conference room consisted of a large table and a portable whiteboard. No longer are classrooms limited to desks and a chalkboard.

The people using these types of facilities have come to expect that technology will be incorporated into meeting rooms, transforming them into collaborative workspaces. In many places, classrooms and meeting rooms have moved beyond the boundaries of brick and mortar walls and are now comprised of people discussing information over the Internet using videoconferencing and data sharing programs.

Demand for these rooms can be so great that they are sometimes reserved weeks, or even months, in advance. A failure of a presentation system can not only inconvenience the user of that specific room, but users in other locations around the world will be affected as well. The critical nature of AV technology in conference and meeting rooms has many facility managers (fms) asking themselves: How do I manage the use of these spaces? And how do I maintain the equipment to maximize life cycle and prevent critical failures that will impact my users?

Room Scheduling Systems

In the old days, the process of reserving a conference room was as low-tech as the room itself. Users contacted an administrative assistant who maintained a scheduling calendar for each room.

Flex Space
Choosing the “right” furnishings and technology makes the most of any meeting space.
By Dave Meneely and Pat Tobin

While in years past, conference rooms were used for face to face meetings and required little to no infrastructure beyond standard power, advancements in technology and changing business styles have resulted in multifunctional, interactive conference spaces for many organizations. When conference space is at a premium and staff members are jockeying for reservations in every available room, facility managers (fms) face the challenge of providing an effective combination of furniture and equipment to meet a wide variety of user needs.

Flexibility Is Key

Organizations, large and small, are able to accommodate conference needs with less space requirements through the creation of highly flexible rooms. With the right infrastructure, a single room can accommodate numerous functions, including board meetings, videoconferencing, training, seminars, staff meetings, and client presentations.

Flexible furniture solutions can make the most of limited space. Folding walls can be used to divide one large boardroom into two or more smaller conference areas. This ensures that a space is available for more infrequent, formal meetings with a large group, while the divided smaller rooms can be used for daily, informal staff meetings.

Individual conference tables for the smaller divided spaces can be pushed together to create a single large boardroom table when the folding walls are removed. There are furniture manufacturers that provide table styles designed to function this way in order to provide a finished, formal appearance.

In many modern boardrooms, technology requirements include power and data access at each seat for executives using their laptops during meetings; videoconference and presentation capabilities are often also required. While infrastructure for presentation and conferencing equipment is typically hard wired in one location, data sources integrated with movable tables require convenient and flexible cabling solutions. For videoconferencing needs, wireless microphones with high quality sound resistant to the radio frequencies from cell phones can be placed around a table.

Raised floor systems can be used to provide flexible wiring configurations for projector and flat screen displays as well as laptop connectivity. Using a disconnect plate with multiple connections around the room, staff members can easily move their laptop connections from one location to another.

Knowing The End User

To ensure that each conference space features the right technology and equipment, it is important for fms to understand their users’ needs. Knowing the full spectrum of ways a conference room will be used helps to define the technology and furniture requirements. Knowledgeable consultants can provide expertise on available products and how they will meet an organization’s specific needs. For example, note capturing technology that transfers handwritten notes to a USB drive, Web page, or printer may be useful for companies that use whiteboards for meeting notes.

The requirements for a client presentation room may be very different from those used for internal meetings. The size and shape of the table, for instance, should fit the size of the audience. A small round table will function well as interactive meeting space for three to five people, while a 16′ boardroom table is better suited to formal presentations and videoconferencing with large groups.

Once the needs of the room are defined, fms should consider how the technology must be configured in relation to windows and other light sources, the entrance, the shape of the room, and other physical structures.

Thoughtful planning from the early design stages of a project can help create a flexible, highly functional conference room. By defining standard dimensions for any enclosed space, conference rooms and private offices can be interchangeable. Two offices can be combined to create an additional conference room, or conference space can be downsized to create an additional office for incoming personnel.

Planning flexible spaces can also require complex considerations for voice/data, power, HVAC, and other infrastructure. Working closely with a project team that includes the architect, engineers, facilities staff, technicians, and furniture vendors, and considering flexible requirements from the very beginning will help ensure a successful result.

Meneely is the president of PRO-AV, LLC. He has 15 years of experience in the audiovisual industry, using a hands-on approach to provide customers with the right solutions. Tobin is a vice president of Environments at Work and has more than 30 years of experience in all phases of the furniture industry. She has been involved in many areas of the business including developing project management teams, serving as an account representative for the A&D community, and maintaining the sales and service of corporate accounts.

Then, technological developments enabled organizations to change this process. In a simple solution, the scheduling book was replaced by Microsoft Outlook, IBM Lotus Notes, or a similar program. By assigning each room an account on the exchange server, users could check a room’s availability and then set the schedule by including the room on a meeting invitation.

There are scheduling software systems that allow users to enhance the functionality of programs like Microsoft Outlook. In addition to being able to schedule room use from their computers with Microsoft Outlook or IBM Lotus Notes, users can also reserve a room from a touch screen located outside the room. In that type of scenario, the touch screen displays the meeting currently scheduled in the room and alerts potential last minute participants of the room status with a red or green light.

An added advantage of this type of system is the ability to monitor the use of a room (or several rooms). Fms can monitor all of the meeting spaces in their facilities. They have the data to determine whether or not they have sufficient meeting spaces available to satisfy demand. An fm can monitor conference room use by size and function.

In recent years, this has particularly helped some fms to schedule the deployment of new videoconferencing suites. In this way, fms have the ability to spot current trends and stay ahead of the demands for technology.

Control system companies have stepped into the scheduling management domain by combining scheduling software with their room control systems. Many users have become familiar with control systems in conference rooms that allow them to operate a highly technical presentation system with a touch sensitive monitor on a table or mounted on a wall. The resulting software products allow fms to manage their technology resources.

While the original purpose of control systems was to simplify system use, one advantage has been that simplified use means reduced service calls to the facility management (FM) or IT departments. Systems can be configured to monitor use and e-mail an appropriate member of the FM staff when components are nearing milestones for standard maintenance (such as projector filter or lamp replacement).

When combined with a touch screen outside the room, the system provides similar functionality to scheduling software systems. When fully configured, these programs enable fms to establish an AV help desk that can be staffed by in-house personnel or an outside AV service provider. If users experience a technical difficulty, they can contact someone at the help desk who will be able to check the status of the room remotely. In many cases, problems can be resolved online, and the room is put back in use with minimal interruption.

Creating A Maintenance Plan

Once fms conquer the dilemma of managing conference room scheduling, they face the task of maintaining the AV systems in order to meet scheduling requirements. AV systems, like other building systems, require regular maintenance. This maintenance varies depending on the specific system in place, but it typically includes tasks such as replacing or cleaning filters, replacing projector lamps, and monitoring equipment for dust that will cause components to overheat with time.

Fms should request a recommended maintenance schedule from their AV system integrator before final acceptance of a system. This maintenance schedule is often provided in usage hours—very much the same way automobile maintenance is scheduled by mileage. The maintenance schedule may vary from room to room.

So what can fms do to extend the reliability and life cycle of their AV equipment? There are several technology options that can simplify the management of a maintenance program. There are room scheduling software products that enable fms to review the use of each room and determine the appropriate interval of maintenance for each space. Some systems provide e-mail notifications when individual components (such as filters or projector lamps) require attention. Scheduled maintenance should include a review of the functionality of all system components, a check for a buildup of dust that could cause overheating, and an inspection of user accessible cables for wear or damage.

While maintenance can be performed by in-house personnel, organizations can obtain service contracts from professional AV companies. This type of service provider will review the systems within the facility, assess their use, and provide a price for regular preventive maintenance visits. These visits should include all of the aforementioned services.

It is advisable to make sure the service contract includes a contact number to call when service is needed, especially in case of an emergency.

It should also outline the levels of response to be provided, which range from troubleshooting over the phone to dispatching a technician to the room in question. Contracts should outline response times (which can range from two hours to two or more days), depending on the critical nature of the system. Fms should note that the more rapid the response time, the higher the cost of the service contract. Rapid response does not need to be requested if a response within 24 or 48 hours will suffice for the organization.

An on-site AV help desk, such as the one seen here, can be staffed by in-house personnel or by an outside AV service provider. (Photo: AVI-SPL)

The contract should also specify the labor rate associated with service calls. Fms should work with their providers to develop an agreement that meets the needs of their specific facility. The purpose of the contract is to reduce the potential for system failure through regular maintenance while setting the expectations for repair services when a system does fail.

Increasingly, people not only expect AV technology in their conference rooms and meeting places, they demand it. The challenge to the fm is twofold: first, effectively scheduling conference and meeting rooms, and second, keeping these rooms operating. Is it any surprise that a solution would involve the use of more technology?

Britton serves as an integration manager for the Washington, DC. office of AV integrator AVI-SPL. He has nearly 15 years of experience in the AV industry, coordinating with clients in all sectors to manage infrastructure requirements such as electricity, network capabilities, and telecommunications.