One of the biggest changes we see with customers in this COVID-19 cycle is their approach to physical and work from home meetings. Business tends to move in cycles of overreaction and correction, and the rapid shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example.
Prior to the pandemic, just 30% of employees worked remotely and many companies put large amounts of time and resources into making their office and meeting spaces appealing and productive. This was in part to encourage employees to have more face-to-face interaction. Some companies even had policies preventing remote work.
One way companies supported their employees in the office pre-COVID was by frequently equipping meeting spaces with new meeting technology. And not just in large showcase conference rooms; huddle rooms have become one of the most popular designs as offices have trended towards open floor plans. These spaces are sized to fit two to six employees and typically include a small monitor, whiteboard, phone, camera, and speaker. In October of 2019, it was estimated there were 33.3 million huddle room spaces globally, and market revenues for huddle room video conferencing devices were forecast to reach $1.50 billion by 2023.
But then the pandemic hit, and these beautiful — and costly — meeting rooms have sat empty for nearly a year. Companies were forced to reactively enable employee productivity at home, and it appears this change will stick. In the spring of 2020, nearly a quarter of respondents to a Gartner survey said they will move at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions, and it is projected that 48% of employees will work remotely by 2030.
Does this mean huddle rooms are dead, along with the traditional office? Definitely not. Rather, these spaces need to evolve. While most employees have found they can be productive as remote workers, many still prefer to work from an office. Whether it’s because they like the social aspect of seeing coworkers in person or the lack of personal distractions that are often present at home, not all employees are willing to fully transition to remote work. Even employees who do wish to continue working remotely need a well-equipped space at home to connect with colleagues.
As a return to the office becomes more viable in the coming months, companies have a decision to make. Will they accommodate both remote work and work from a traditional office, or just one or the other? Either way, there will be some changes to the way employees have meetings — and how companies can best support their employees to collaborate effectively when home is the new huddle room.
Employee Empowerment is the Key to Productive Work from Home Meetings
It takes more than just hardware to equip employees for successful meetings with both their in-office and remote colleagues. In a 2019 survey, respondents reported that the top five challenges that prevent meetings from being as productive as possible are all related to meeting practices rather than specific technologies. On top of that, 38% of survey respondents ranked low participation and interest from attendees as one of their top three challenges.
Virtual meetings where some or all participants are working from their own personal huddle room has pushed these issues into the spotlight. For many employees, it’s much harder to stay engaged with meetings or make your voice heard when you aren’t in the same room as your teammates.
Face-to-face interaction is crucial for effective communication but is often missing during virtual meetings. One study that examined how face-to-face interaction affects communication found that participants who conversed face-to-face found the interaction more enjoyable, reported more positive ratings of their partners, and led to higher feelings of oneness than those that engaged via chat over computer. A simple way to recreate the benefits of face-to-face interaction and foster participation during virtual meetings is to encourage, or even require, participants to share their video.
Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams continue to introduce features to make work from home meetings as engaging and productive as possible. New features like different video “views,” immersive scenes, real-time voice to text transcription, and digital whiteboarding can be utilized to overcome some of the challenges posed by virtual meetings.
But keep in mind that these features are only helpful if your end users know how and when to use them. It is crucial to have a plan for educating your employees on the latest and greatest updates, including new feature rollouts, best practices, and even when not to use certain features. Additionally, employees must be outfitted with the right meeting technology to take advantage of all these features.
The New At-Home Huddle Room
When a majority of employees began working at home, expectations for what is and isn’t acceptable in a meeting changed. What once would have been entirely unacceptable — a dog barking, children crying, or a spouse in the background — became the norm. The entire idea of what a meeting space should include and can accomplish evolved and there’s no going back.
For companies that plan to make the change to a fully remote workforce, individual home offices are the new huddle rooms. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, most employees simply took their laptops home expecting to return to the office within several months.
By now, most of us recognize that remote workers should be equipped with keyboards, mice, and additional screens to be as productive at home as they were in the office. But these items only help replicate an employee’s individual desk in an office, and don’t do much to enable productive meetings from home. To truly create a home huddle room, other equipment needs to come into play.
The following items can take a standard home office from meeting wasteland to huddle room hero:
- Headsets: A decent headset can make all the difference between jumbled, muddy sound and clear, easy-to-understand audio. Many manufacturers of traditional meeting room systems also make headsets including Logitech, Poly, and Jabra. There are many consumer brands that also have great options like Sennheiser, Bose, and Apple. And there’s a headset style for every employee, whether they prefer in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear sound and a wired or Bluetooth connection. Don’t forget to make sure they have a microphone built–in — without this, a separate mic becomes a necessity.
- Webcams: Although most laptops now have webcams built-in, this can be a hassle to deal with for any employee using an external monitor. Because of this, an external webcam can provide ease-of-use as well as potentially better video quality. There are countless options available, from $25 plug-and-play versions to high-end variants with 4K video. Some webcams also include microphones, which can be an alternative for workers who don’t plan to use headsets.
- Microphones: As mentioned above, many headsets and external webcams have mics built–in. However, for employees that choose not to use a headset or webcam equipped with a mic, an external microphone can be essential. Mics like this can capture better audio quality than the mics that are typically included on a laptop, and many have specific audio pickup patterns that reduce background noise.
- Lighting: Lighting is rarely an issue for meetings in the office, but when it comes to home huddle rooms, we’ve all seen coworkers who are washed out due to a window in the background or are barely visible thanks to a lack of lighting. Luckily, there are many low-cost lighting solutions to address this issue, from clip-on lighting cubes to so-called selfie ring lights. This type of gear can help reduce misunderstandings during meetings, increase employee confidence, and help present your company in the best light possible — both literally and figuratively.
- Desk Phones: Most employees have never had a company desk phone at home, but as remote work becomes more permanent, demand for this is starting to increase. Some workers may prefer the familiar interface of a traditional desk phone over new softphone options. For others, it can be a way to keep their personal phone from being bombarded with work-related spam calls and their bill from increasing due to international calls. While many workers will choose not to use a desk phone at home, making this an option can create a positive employee experience for some.
- Robust Wi-Fi: Out of everything on this list, wi-fi that can support video meetings is the most important. It doesn’t matter if an employee has a top-of-the-line webcam, best-in-class headset, and Hollywood lighting if their audio and video are constantly breaking up due to a poor connection. Although home wi-fi has become a standard utility for many workers, they may have a simple, low-speed connection. These types of connections struggle to support a multi-participant video meeting — much less simultaneous video meetings if an employee shares a house with a spouse that’s also working from home or children engaged in distance learning.
At this point, many workers have bought items like webcams themselves, with little or no assistance from their company. Both supporting employee-provided gear and providing this technology to employees creates a new administration and security headache for IT.
To start with, companies must decide if they will provide this type of technology to employees as part of their device provisioning. Providing this type of meeting technology for home offices can be pricey, but these costs may be offset by reducing meeting technology needs in the traditional office. If companies do choose to provide meeting tech to remote employees, IT departments then need to determine which devices will be a part of their standard deployment. Another strategy some companies have taken is providing a one-time stipend to remote employees to purchase their own gear.
Whether the gear is company-provided or supplied by employees, IT should be on point to help with set-up and troubleshooting assistance. To fully support remote workers, companies must create standards for headsets, webcams, mics, and lighting and have a tool to proactively identify and resolve technical issues. After all, poor equipment leads to a poor employee experience . . . which can lead to poor productivity in meetings.
The Evolved In-Office Huddle Room
Even for companies that are planning a partial or full return to the office, huddle rooms are changing. Some of the design of huddle rooms may stay the same as it did prior to the pandemic, with seating for two to six employees. But other aspects will likely need an update. Things that were never even considered previously are now top of mind, like social distancing and reducing germy surfaces.
To make a return to the office in the near future successful, new technology and practices may need to be implemented. Many conferencing software platforms have introduced features to help keep employees safe from COVID-19 during in-person meetings. For instance, Microsoft recently announced the rollout of several new Teams features that allow for touchless meeting experiences. This includes voice control for Teams Room devices, smart phone remotes for Teams meetings, and meeting room capacity notifications.
Huddle rooms will likely also play host to solo workers who simply need a quiet, isolated space to concentrate when they’re at the office. You can create spaces for solo workers for quick calls or focused work by skipping the monitor, phone, and camera in some huddle rooms. In most cases, these spaces simply need to be outfitted with seating, a table or desk, adequate lighting, and a whiteboard. For this type of use, traditional meeting technology really isn’t needed — just the space.
Each user can bring their own laptop (with a built-in camera) and headset, and they’re good to go for a video meeting. This type of set-up is more cost effective for IT because there is no need to invest in speakers, monitors, or cameras for the huddle room. It also creates a more flexible space than the traditional huddle room, as the room can be used in multiple ways.
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Does this sound familiar? That’s because this change echoes the way we used to think about personal offices. In the past, IT had to supply each office or workspace with a phone and ethernet hook up. Now, because of enhanced unified communications and wi-fi, neither of those things are required. Instead, just a desk and a monitor are enough.
The Future of Meetings is a Hybrid Approach
Although some companies are considering a permanently remote approach to work and others plan to stick to the traditional in-office method, the reality is that the future of work will be a mix of both. This hybrid work model will require companies to be able to support employees — and meetings — both in the office and in home huddle rooms. The in-office huddle rooms of the future will require flexible technology that allows employees to use the space as they need and training to empower employees to make the most of their meetings no matter where participants are located.
According to Gartner, the global average utilization for meeting rooms has risen in the past decade to around 30% — but, when in use, on average only 40% of seats are occupied. On top of this, it’s projected that by 2024 in-person meetings will drop from 60% of enterprise meetings to 25% and only 10% of enterprise video meetings will take place in rooms, with the remaining 90% on personal computers or mobile devices. Because of this, meeting spaces — and huddle rooms in particular — should be viewed as flex spaces that need to work for both fully in-person meetings and those with remote participants.
It will be crucial to embrace technology that connects in-office workers with their remote colleagues, so employees who aren’t physically in the room can still contribute. Digital whiteboards, like the new Microsoft Surface Hub 2S, can enable a seamless collaboration experience for both in-office and remote workers by allowing handwritten notes to be visible both in the physical huddle room and on-screen for virtual participants. To make it clear for remote workers who is talking in the physical room, implement cameras that zoom in on individual meeting participants as they speak. Microphones that are compatible with real-time voice transcription double down on this and provide the additional benefit of post-meeting notes. And meeting reactions allow participants to communicate non-verbally during a meeting, mimicking facial expressions and exclamations that occur during a typical face-to-face meeting but are often lost during video conferences.
Ultimately, huddle rooms and in-office meeting spaces as a whole may end up looking quite different in the future as we continue to embrace remote work and a hybrid workforce. More ad hoc meetings will happen at employees’ desks, and workers who need a quiet, isolated workspace will often choose to work from home. The meeting spaces that do survive should be outfitted with the tools necessary to support all meeting participants — no matter where they are.
In addition to equipping your employees for successful work from home meetings, make sure your IT team has the tools they need to support productive employee meetings both at home and in the office. Our PowerSuite software includes room monitoring and problem management as well as room experience tracking to ensure meetings run smoothly.