Conference Room Trends: Room To Grow

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By Jillian Ruffino Published in the September 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager In every organization, it is important to have a place for employees to gather, exchange ideas, and communicate those concepts to the world. Facility managers know the concerns they have regarding HVAC, security, or that one pesky toilet that always overflows mean nothing if the spaces in the facility are not properly serving their purpose. The conference room is one space that is crucial to the collaborative success of an organization. It can be defined as a place for conferring with or talking to others in order to compare opinions or make decisions. When the room becomes more of a hassle to work in than an asset to an organization, it’s time for an update.

Ancient Rooms In A Modern World

When asked to define an obsolete conference room, some experts describe the types of spaces that companies still use today. Matt Glowiak, product business manager for The HON Company, based in Muscatine, IA, pictures, “A single purpose, static room with oversized unmovable furniture and limited electrical and data capabilities.” In many cases, there is clearly the need for better technology and the furniture necessary to support it. Kirt Martin, principal industrial designer for Grand Rapids, MI-based Turnstone, describes, “An outdated conference room is the classic formal room that was designed to impress with its opulence and splendor. It reveals the poor wire management capabilities by exposing wires and cables underneath the table; the situation is worsened when employees get their feet tangled in the unmanaged wires.” A conference room should be a place that is tailored to the needs of people within a specific organization—where they can feel comfortable and have access to necessary technology. But a lot of today’s rooms don’t measure up. Regional Director Ron Schall of Englewood, CA-based Audio Visual Innovations, Inc., bemoans the conditions that are too often found in rooms, including, “Poor lighting, poor audio, and projectors that are not bright enough and unable to support high speed data.” Others agree. “A problem with these rooms is that they are sterile, bland environments that are absent of character and lacking the ability to attract people,” says Lew Epstein, vice president and creative director for Metro, headquartered in Oakland, CA. “Such conditions are tolerated, because people often have no other place to meet.” A badly designed conference room, however, can be just as difficult to work with as an archaic one. There are a number of questions that facility managers should ask before making any improvements. Who will be using the conference room, and what will they be using it for? What type of technology will be needed to facilitate this activity? Does the furniture need to adapt to the technology? All of these factors must be taken into consideration when planning conference rooms that function in a practical manner.

Collaborative Efforts

There are many uses for a conference room, and each organization uses the space differently. As previously mentioned, it is important to know how a particular group works and interacts before making any purchasing decisions with regard to these spaces.
The days of overstuffed chairs and impractical tables are over. Today’s business practices demand sensible furniture that gives users access to necessary communication functions. Photo by Audio Visual Innovations.
Kelly Sterk, Muscatine, IA-based Allsteel, Inc.’s workplace research manager, says, “Some companies use them as just one option in a portfolio of collaborative spaces. Others use these rooms as the sole or primary type of collaborative space. Each type should have a customized theme, unique aspects, and should be tailored to a different type of shared activity.” Looking ahead, today’s conference rooms need to adapt to future work styles. Human interaction has changed so drastically in the past 10 years, it must be conceded that the next decade will bring even greater transformations. Schall predicts, “Many companies continue to use conference rooms for traditional purposes. There is more emphasis today, however, on collaboration with other companies, vendors, and customers. This means the audio visual requirements need to be more flexible than ever before.” As Martin summarizes, “Facility managers need to know how these rooms will be used and what type of technologies are required.”

Technology In A Global Economy

Facility managers also need to acclimate themselves to the changes in technology that will furnish conference rooms with the necessary equipment for communication functions. The technology should reflect how people gather and interact in the world today. Glowiak explains, “In a global economy, when time and money are both equal factors, video conferencing is a necessity, since it is a less expensive and time consuming alternative to actual travel. Flat plasma screens have replaced large TV monitors and have given conference rooms of limited size the opportunity to maximize their space.” There are several other new technologies facilitating these changes in the workplace. They include, as Sterk outlines, “Wireless networking, interactive presentation technologies (like WebX), video conferencing, and audio conferencing. Effective use of these technologies is a challenge.” Facility managers should be vigilant in keeping current with the latest innovations. Without this knowledge, costly mistakes could be made. Even worse, a facility could end up equipped with a conference room that is out of date or difficult to upgrade. Glowiak advises, “It is extremely important for a facility manager to be well versed in the latest technology. For example, ignorance of wireless Internet technology could force a facility manager to perform a costly rewire of a single room when the same funds could create a completely equipped room with wireless Internet.” Schall continues with this thought: “It is critical to determine what the users of the conference room really need for audio visual. Most of the time this question is not even asked. A good integrator can walk a customer through this process and help determine the optimal equipment list for current and future needs.” Easy and reliable communication is the most basic and necessary technology requirement. Video and audio conferencing are a part of this as well. Also, as Martin says, “The ability to share electronic data in the conference room is imperative. They need to be equipped with speaker phones that have multiple pickups as well as infocus machines and screens.”

The Marriage Of Technology And Furniture

Users should search for furniture that adjusts to technology and can be modified for upgrades. “It is vitally important to be able to integrate these technologies with the space and furnishings,” says Sterk.
New furniture shapes will lead in the future. This table allows every participant to view technology. Photo by The HON Company.
In conference rooms, technology and furniture must work together to form a cohesive system. Martin elaborates: “The furniture and the technology should be thought of as one and should not be separated. Otherwise, you have a room that looks hodgepodge. It’s important to understand the capabilities of the furniture as well as the latest technologies to know if the furniture will or will not be able to handle a wider range.” There are many items to take into consideration. One of these is the management of wires and cables. Schall says, “Floor boxes and table boxes for the conference table will eliminate unsightly cables. Wire access is often forgotten by facility managers and architects.” The configuration of furniture is another aspect that cannot be ignored. The classic rectangular or circular table is becoming obsolete; it does not afford viewing access to every participant. Martin anticipates, “We will see more of a ‘U’ shaped table with the center of the ‘U’ being an area that creates the ability to share information electronically, both locally and with distant participants.” Worker behavior must also be accommodated. Sterk believes that furniture must provide users with “the ability to break apart into small groups and then reform into larger ones.” Comfort is necessary as well. “Furniture needs to make the users feel welcome; too formal an area does not facilitate interaction,” says Martin. It is important to remember that furniture often lasts longer than technology; it must be as logical tomorrow as it is today.

Looking Ahead

Many organizations in the years to come will not have traditional nine-to-five workers toiling in close quarters with one another. Telecommuting will continue to expand as organizations attempt to reduce overhead. These workers will need to have a space where they can congregate. Sterk predicts, “Conference rooms will become spaces for presenting or communicating information. They will be a home base for remote collaboration and video and audio conferencing.” Glowiak agrees, “The need for conference rooms will always exist as long as there is a need for people to have team communication. Technology will continue to advance, creating greater and easier ability for both worldwide and regional communication.” Epstein also recognizes the importance of conference rooms in the future. He says, “The value of face to face collaboration will drive an ongoing need for conference rooms. Physical and virtual spaces for collaboration will overlap and become dynamic environments designed for high performance teams.” Many lament the loss of human interaction in the modern world. Yet, new technologies acknowledge the importance of this contact. Conference rooms will never become obsolete as long as there are people working together to make things happen. When facility managers have carefully designed conference rooms in place and are able to remain updated on the latest innovations, they can rest easy—at least for a moment. Then it’s back to that broken toilet. This article was based on interviews with Epstein, Glowiak, Martin, Schall, and Sterk.

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