Out with the giant conference table, in with the big screen.
The traditional layout of meeting rooms is undergoing a radical rethink as companies grapple with ways to create optimal collaboration spaces for hybrid teams.
At the newly-designed offices of the pharmaceutical giant GSK, architects at FCA reconfigured a key boardroom to look more like a small movie theater. Multiple projection screens are intended to create a sense of parity among virtual and in-person participants; carpeting and acoustical panels are installed to improve a meeting’s sound quality; and plush seating makes marathon sessions more comfortable.
“I think this type of meeting room is going to become much more prevalent moving forward,” says John Campbell, president of the Philadelphia-based architecture firm. As technology becomes the ever-present element in business meetings, Campbell believes that sitting around a hulking table won’t be necessary. “We’re not walking into a room with piles of paper anymore,” he explains. “The table was a place to hold papers to be passed around, but now we tend to share information through digital screens.”
He imagines meetings where people will no longer have to strain to hear remote callers on a speakerphone or squint to see slides if they happen to sit at the far end of a conference table.
But having watched the workplace evolve over the past 50 years, Campbell is quick to add that conference tables won’t disappear entirely. “When you’re negotiating, you’ll need a table,” Campbell explains, noting that conference tables can be instruments to create psychological distance and a sense of power, as Russian president Vladimir Putin does with his ridiculously long meeting tables.
The upheavals caused by the covid-19 pandemic presents a rare blank slate for architects and companies. “This is actually one of the most exciting times in my career,” Campbell says. “When I first started, lots of people had [fixed] standards and we had to follow a cookie-cutter approach.
The crisis in office space compels organizations to think more broadly and boldly, Campbell observes. “The beauty is that old ideas have been blown apart and our job now is to work with clients to help them understand who they are, what’s their culture, what is really the right solution for them,” he explains.
Designing for flexibility is essential at this juncture says Campbell. He tells Quartz that more offices in Europe and Asia are adopting raised floors—a construction model that leaves a gap between the slab and flooring to conceal power and data cables. This allows offices to move furniture without having to drill holes in the floor or disturb people, he explains.
Movable partitions, like the “dancing wall” produced by the Swiss furniture company Vitra, are also proving useful, says Campbell. Once marketed as privacy barriers for overcrowded open-plan offices, the mobile fixture that transforms into a bookshelf, coat rack, rolling coffee station, or plant stand allows companies to experiment with new space configurations as employees trickle back to the office.
“We’re in interesting times,” Campbell says. “It’s all a big experiment.”