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Say goodbye to boring conference room

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The conference room is perhaps the least favorite space in the modern office. Typically long and narrow, with a rectangular table presided over by a boss at one end, it’s where countless workers have dozed off, shared eye-rolls, or peeked at workers. mobile phones held on their laps.

The room’s design contributed to those responses, say workplace experts, citing the stuffy formality of the space and the obvious hierarchy of the seating arrangement.

But as the convulsions brought on by working from home during the pandemic upend the office, this old-school space is rebooting.

Early in the pandemic, when companies thought everyone would be back in the office within a month or two, officials brought quick fixes to the boardroom in the name of germ control and social distancing. They deployed bottles of hand sanitizer and removed all other seats around the table or stuck signs with large Xs on alternating chairs.

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

We’ve been consulting with companies and the architects and designers they hire 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 architectural firm NBBJ, featuring comfortable furnishings and state-of-the-art technology.

It’s too early to tell which of the changes will be more popular — or how long they’ll last, said Lisa Britz, LinkedIn’s director of workplace design, who expects the way Americans are doing their work will continue to evolve, likely inspiring new design changes.

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

The conference room is getting more and more out of its traditional rectangle. And in many cases, it’s gotten smaller, as meetings become less formal and new hybrid working models mean fewer people are physically present for them.

Architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill recently designed “squarer” conference rooms, calling them more “democratic”, said Ece Calguner Erzan, director of the firm. “No more table heads,” she added.

Some companies create conference rooms that can change shape, expand or shrink as needed, using moveable partitions. This kinetic design approach has become more popular during the pandemic because it allows workers to exert some control over their environment.

LinkedIn added open conference spaces amid the offices of engineers from the same teams. If a problem arises requiring 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, director of NBBJ. Acoustic baffles in the ceiling attenuate sound and its zigzag shape adds more dynamism to the room, enlivening what is normally a flat, static plane.

The old conference room tended to be formal, even sterile, but the new ones are loosening up, often gaining a comfort that some business leaders say hopes will help employees get back to the office after more than two years on the job. their canapes and their meals. the tables.

Inspired Capital, a venture capital firm, hired Benjamin Vandiver, a designer specializing in residential interiors, to decorate its New York office; findings include a charcoal-colored conference room with a massive gilt-framed antique mirror leaning against a wall and a diagonally placed modernist oak table from Anthropologie.

LinkedIn has completely removed a central table in spaces that are more like living rooms. Each has a plush couch with throw pillows, and plants and books abound. The laid-back look is meant to help meeting attendees feel comfortable and to encourage staff “who might not be speaking in a traditional setting,” Ms Britz said.

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

Owners of multi-tenant office buildings dedicate entire floors to beefed-up amenity suites that include conference rooms that any company in the building can book. A pandemic benefit: people from outside companies can attend meetings in a building without having to go to a tenant’s floor, minimizing concerns about germs.

Outdoor workspaces were already popular before the pandemic – scientific research shows that exposure to nature can boost creativity and reduce stress levels – and the boardroom has now joined the exodus.

LinkedIn had long considered implementing 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 outfitting a place for meetings.

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

Most technology upgrades in conference rooms aim to ensure that workers can continue collaborating even if they are not in the same space. In other words, the conference room has become a Zoom room, for better or for worse.

In a recent survey of companies occupying offices, CBRE, the real estate services firm, found that 76% of respondents considered enhanced video conferencing to be a top priority for their return to the office. (Forty-two percent cited contactless technology, which had gained increased interest early in the pandemic, before the discovery that the coronavirus was mainly spread through the air.)

Screens were once relegated to a small end wall, requiring everyone in the meeting to turn 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 responses from in-person participants for the benefit of those working remotely. Many companies use a 360 degree camera in the center of a table.

Another key element: “Soundproofing, soundproofing, soundproofing,” said Adam Rolston, creative director and general manager of INC Architecture & Design, who recently used the soundproofing of a professional recording studio in the conference room of a customer in New York. The goal is to eliminate annoying echoes and ambient noise and allow everyone to speak without raising their voices.

At LinkedIn, large horizontal screens make it possible to share documents on one side and show the faces of distant 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 colleagues working from home can see what’s being written in real time.

There are also some decidedly low-tech additions to the rooms: foam boards placed on easels asking workers for their thoughts on the new spaces.

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