With the hybrid workforce here to stay, the nature of teamwork has also changed, and the need for long-distance collaboration and communication tools is getting more and more complex.
This influenced considerations for in-office meeting rooms, which are likely to play a more prominent role in the actual office configuration, especially as returning workers return to more interactive environments.
While more cutting-edge technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) may not be ready for widespread adoption, collaboration platforms are beginning to offer richer experiences that ensure a high level of quality for in-person and remote participants.
JB Thubder, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester’s Future of Work team, explains that many companies have reduced the number of desks for workers and increased the number of meeting rooms.
“The reason for this is simple — people don’t feel particularly good about going into the office just to do solo work anymore,” he says. “Not every company has moved to what we call ‘any workplace’, but the majority have, and if the office becomes where you go to do work with other people, it changes the dynamic of how you use the space.”
Additionally, people in a hybrid environment often interact with remote participants, no matter how many people are in the room.
“You can’t treat these remote participants as second-class citizens,” he says. “It points in the direction of better investments in connected conference rooms that provide the people in the room with some benefit.”
Organizations need a volume of meeting rooms that didn’t exist before, says Brian Doherty, an analyst with Gartner.
“The main trend is to enable every meeting room with video because we are seeing a rotation of office spaces toward collaborative spaces and away from personal spaces,” he says. “You might take some of what used to be directors’ offices and turn them into meeting rooms or focus rooms, and you might also have some open collaboration spaces.”
Digital whiteboards, refined conferencing experiences
Doherty explains that improvements in digital whiteboard technologies and more granular controls for meeting participants allow for a higher degree of interaction.
He points to features such as Zoom’s Smart Gallery, which gives remote workers a clearer view of the participants in the room, noting that conferencing solutions from Microsoft and Cisco offer their own versions of the idea.
“It’s important for remote participants to have a good hybrid experience, because it’s an issue if you’re in a hybrid meeting, and there’s a room in the meeting and someone is presenting material, and you can’t see anyone’s body language or facial expressions,” he says.
Advancements in the digital whiteboard can now be more easily integrated into meetings across multiple platforms, making it much easier to engage users and coordinate them with what is going on in the meeting. “You get a much better room experience and an overall richer experience,” says Doherty.
“Without a doubt,” says Snorre Kjesbu, senior vice president and general manager of Webex Devices at Cisco, the future is multi-platform.
“By using platform agnostic devices, you can ensure the experience is consistent across the board,” he explains. “This is important — let’s say a user walks into a meeting room and there’s only a minute left before the meeting. With one consistent, familiar experience for joining the meeting, they don’t have to spend time fiddling with technology to initiate the call. It’s intuitive.”
Kjesbu adds that companies will need technologies that support good experiences like face-to-face communication.
“Conference rooms will need to be optimized for in-person and remote participants going forward,” he says. “If any place can be an office, getting people back into a corporate office can be challenging. The office needs to offer better experiences than those at home.”
He adds that these challenges are not being solved by information technology alone – workplace culture, office design and technology are being considered in new ways.
“This requires a partnership between key teams such as facilities, HR and IT,” says Kjesbu. “This partnership is essential in making hybrid work a success. We consider these teams when we develop solutions for hybrid work.”
Thubder points out that employees also need to be part of this conversation and talk about their needs when they come into the office, for example for collaborative group activities.
“You need to know what the reality is on the ground and how people want to use these spaces and what options they might take advantage of,” he says. “All of these things are important.”
AR, VR, and the limits of Lightspeed
Kjesbu says the possibilities for truly productive applications of augmented and virtual reality technologies are often misunderstood.
He explains that “the use of these tools in cooperation does not mean the establishment of a Jedi Council.” “Yes, we can bring captured participants into a virtual space. However, when you start capturing physical things and presenting them in a virtual meeting – it has huge implications for medicine, manufacturing and design.”
Using a hologram solution, one can see that object from all angles or analyze that physical object along with a 3D representation of the same.
“You can also manipulate this 3D object to get a really rich collaboration experience,” says Kjesbu. “It is this presentation of physical and virtual things that really influences the future of video conferencing.”
Doherty says that when it comes to the role that AR, VR, and the metaverse will play in the next generation of conference rooms, demand for these types of technologies is still very low and seen as more of a game than proven communication media.
“It’s not a serious competitor for this use case, it’s more suitable for connecting an in-office team with a field worker and coordinating through the use of augmented reality glasses,” he says. “Demand is low because the technology is not advanced enough.”
He points out that one of the main technical issues still to be fixed is how to solve the problem of eye contact, as participants in a virtual meeting often look at the camera rather than the person on the screen, which reinforces the feeling of disconnection.
“With everything we’re doing in AI, at some point someone is really going to be able to solve this problem,” he says. “There are some basic limitations in general — the speed of light is fatal to this stuff. We can improve it, we can try to make the experience better, but it’s not like being in the same room.”
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