E-Handbook: Facilities planning process balances safety and productivity Article 3 of 4

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This article is part of our Essential Guide: Workforce strategy and planning in times of crisis

Reimagining the future of conference rooms, post-COVID-19

Before employees are comfortable going back into conference rooms, companies will need technology to help them rethink the future of conference room design.

Will social distancing become a permanent way of life? Will we go back to handshaking and hugging if it becomes safe to do so? It seems unlikely. Handshaking supposedly began in the days when swords were the weapons of choice; people shook hands as a way to indicate they weren't going to attack each other. I don't think that conduct is necessary anymore -- at least not in a typical office setting. Handshaking is an unsanitary holdover from a different time, and at least in my opinion, we are better off without it.

It isn't just handshaking. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in a small room with a lot of people breathing the same air. I'm uncomfortable sitting shoulder to shoulder with people for extended periods of time. Maybe it's just me. But I don't think so. Maybe I will get over it. But I don't think so.

Making safe rooms a priority

In the days before COVID-19, conference room design was straightforward. All these rooms had to be was functional. Whatever features our working teams required had to be supported. Rooms had to be intuitive and reliable, enabling teams to be productive rather than hobbled by complex meeting room tools. And, finally, rooms had to be attractive. Teams -- and, more importantly, their bosses -- want nice spaces with cool tech. Today, however, a new issue has to be considered for the future of conference rooms: We must make people feel safe.

This can be achieved through a combination of policy changes, room design changes and new technologies. Policy changes will dictate new norms for societal hygiene. Cleaning guidelines will govern how rooms are disinfected between meetings. Big companies may hire more cleaning staff, while small offices may rely on ensuring that meeting attendees themselves understand how to wipe down high-touch surfaces before their sessions begin.

Hand sanitizer stations will be readily available. Shared food areas will have to be completely rethought or eliminated. We have a lot to figure out, we are just starting and we don't have all the answers.

Meeting room technology will also help accommodate social distancing. We aren't going to huddle around the speakerphone and breathe in each other's air. We also aren't going to sit shoulder to shoulder to help us look nice on camera.

The most obvious approach in conference room design is to redefine meeting room sizes so that social distancing can be enforced. Removing every other chair in a meeting room -- or even more -- is a good start. The typical 10-person meeting room now becomes a three-person social distancing room. The old three-person huddle room is now a single-person video phone booth.

Before facilities managers panic about needing three times as many meeting rooms, consider that not everyone is coming back to the office full time. Many office workers have long envisioned working from home, but they faced resistance from managers who believed productivity would suffer. That's no longer the case, and even in a post-COVID-19 environment, remote work will play an important part of many companies' operating strategies.

For facilities managers, the result is a balance: There will be fewer people in the office on a typical day, but they will need to be more spread out. You may not need more space, but you will have to set it up differently.

How technology will ease the burden

New technology can make a huge difference in conference room design. The first area is touchless controls. The fewer common surfaces we touch, the less likely we are to pass along or contract something. We don't want to wear gloves in meeting rooms if it can be avoided. The debate over meeting room voice controls, meanwhile, may no longer be a debate. I believe voice-assisted meeting rooms will become extremely common -- and quickly. Another option is app-based room controls. I don't want to pick up the meeting room remote control, so why not just let me use my iPhone instead?

Meeting room technology will also help accommodate social distancing. We aren't going to huddle around the speakerphone and breathe in each other's air. We also aren't going to sit shoulder to shoulder to help us look nice on camera. Our audio and video systems need to accommodate our new requirements. We need audio capable of covering a room, no matter where we sit. We need video that can either frame socially distanced people in a way that looks good or switch between them as they speak in a way that feels natural.

As workspaces are reimagined, a new set of conference room design best practices will follow. The situation today is so new that best practices don't exist. We have never done this before, and we are all starting the journey together. But keep this in mind when reassessing the future of your conference rooms: Your teams deserve to feel safe, and they will be more productive and less stressed if their workspaces support both social distancing and guidelines that dictate the cleanliness of shared spaces.

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