The evolution of the meeting room has left its imprint on the way Space Matrix designs meeting spaces

The Evolution of the Meeting Room: Past changes and a look at its new, post-lockdown avatar

The Evolution of the Meeting Room: Past changes and a look at its new, post-lockdown avatar

When you think of a collaborative activity in prehistoric times, you probably imagine a group of early humans, armed with crude tools, hunting large game together. But a modern study shows that there was another step before that. This study claims that the human brain evolved to accommodate such collaborative work only after people faced competition from neighbouring groups — and they worked together to put the collective need ahead of the individual.

The way we work today is not so different. Most modern organisations only experience success when people collaborate and leverage their individual expertise towards a greater goal. Human innovation truly thrives in meeting spaces where there’s adequate sharing of information and knowledge spillover between different departments.

With that, let’s look at how the concept of meetings have evolved over time — and how meeting spaces have adapted accordingly. Let us also examine how meeting rooms are changing now, in a safety-driven, post-lockdown world.

Meeting styles then and now

For a very long time, a whiteboard, a flipboard chart and a long conference table were the only staples of a corporate meeting room. The meeting format was simple enough. Documents would be photocopied and handed around, and people would take turns in presenting their ideas. With the advent of new technology, there were some changes — perhaps the addition of a meeting room PC or a projector — but until recently, the meeting format largely remained unchanged.

But over the last decade, meetings have gone through a revolutionary change. Today, we have board meetings for broader organisational agendas, and quick team huddles for daily catch-ups. Startups and young firms are known to follow dynamic new formats like standing meetings or gamified meetings, where a ball is tossed around and the participant who catches it gets to speak. There are even meetings where, in an attempt to keep conversations short and on track, participants are asked to hold a plank as they speak! At the other end of the spectrum, are hygge-inspired discussions with coffee and cake, and cushy beanbags for participants to curl up in. Over the last few months, we have seen virtual meetings taking precedence, with people signing in remotely to attend everything from quarterly townhalls to Friday happy hour sessions. So how do these modern meetings impact meeting room design?

5 factors that are driving the evolution of meeting rooms

1. The introduction of new content

Gone are the days when a whiteboard and a few printed charts would be sufficient to share information in a meeting. Today, we consume content in a variety of formats — a presenter might need to play an audio file, pull up a video live stream or showcase an interactive new design. The meeting room needs to support these seamlessly without unnecessary glitches or connectivity issues.

Space Matrix Innovation Lab, Bangalore

What’s more, this kind of meeting room technology cannot simply cater to existing media patterns. We believe it needs to be futuristic enough to revolutionise the way meetings are conducted. This is something we ensured in our Space Matrix Innovation Lab in Bangalore. The smart meeting rooms here are equipped with cutting-edge VR technology, so that our designers can go beyond the usual formats and actually present 3D demos of their designs. From zooming in on tiny details like small mechanical fittings to actually being able to showcase temperature and ambience settings — it enables designers to make their presentations more experiential and efficient.

2. The rise of remote working

Meetings are no longer places where colleagues necessarily ‘meet’ — today, digital participation is just as likely as physical presence. In fact, as offices start opening up after the lockdown, having a part of the team continue working from home is actually recommended.

Meeting room technology, again, is an important factor here. Collaboration spaces cannot only have tech tools to share and consume information — they also need to have facilities that enable a remote worker to dial in quickly and participate seamlessly. Video conferencing technology is highly recommended for the purpose. It is a great way for participants to minimise the degree of separation, get enough face-time with colleagues, and share ideas with ease.

However, one needs to go beyond just technology and pay attention to the overall office layout too. For instance, a completely open plan office design is not a great fit for workplaces that are embracing a staggered team approach. Too much background noise and general bustle can leave a remote participant struggling to follow the flow of conversation. Dedicated meeting rooms and phone booths away from the general work area, thus, are essential here.

3. Activity-based working and the millennial focus on flexibility

The way younger employees work and collaborate has changed drastically. Millennial and Gen Z members of the workforce are more comfortable with flexible, agile and activity-based working styles.

BrowserStack, Mumbai

With six different kinds of meeting spaces, the BrowserStack office in Mumbai is one great example of how spontaneous collaboration can be enabled. Of course, the office has acoustically optimised, tech-enabled formal conference rooms and informal meeting rooms. But it also has phone booths for teleconferences, cosy meeting booths for quick, semi-private discussions, and brainstorm zones designed specifically for focus and privacy. There is also a chic, step-seating area where people can work comfortably for an hour or so. This enables people to interact with colleagues from different teams and departments, thereby creating adequate scope for impromptu, casual discussions and knowledge spillover.

Such dynamic meeting spaces can easily be tailored to follow the new social distancing norms. For instance, an 8-person meeting room can be tweaked to accommodate 4-6 people now, by staggering the seats. Conference rooms, which are generally focussed around a long, central table, can now be reimagined to have seats at the periphery instead. Bar and step seating areas can have every alternate seat removed to maintain suitable distances. Portable screens, movable standees and partitions can help divide larger collaboration spaces into smaller clusters.

4. The need for security strategies that protect data — and employees

As work gets more digitally connected, there are higher chances of data breaches and hacking attempts. The Diginex headquarters in Hong Kong tackles this by incorporating almost military-grade security features across its meeting premises. Different meeting areas are secured with digital access, and certain collaboration zones are protected with firewalls, in compliance with FSC regulations.

Diginex, Hong Kong

What’s more, such security technology brings an undeniable advantage in today’s world. Digital access reduces common points of contact across the office. Rather than touching door handles or punching a code into a common keypad, employees can simply look into a retina scanner or hold their phones in front of a sensor and have the door swing open automatically. The Diginex office also has a state-of-the-art room booking system that saves time and improves workplace efficiency. More significantly, it makes movement more purposeful and reduces avoidable interactions — no more displaced crowds moving unnecessarily around the whole office.

5. The focus on employee & client engagement

Modern organisations cannot simply opt for stark, sanitised spaces while ignoring the human aspect of collaboration. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an emotional toll on everyone, so putting wellness on the back burner might just make collaboration more ineffective.

GLG, Mumbai

One way to tackle this is to have alternate, casual collaboration zones. The GLG Mumbai office, for instance, has collaboration spaces designed to exude a modern, café-like vibe. Rather than traditional meeting rooms, this café area functions more as a popular hangout spot, where employees can sit, chat and spark innovation, perhaps over a cup of coffee.

Space Matrix, Shanghai

Over at Space Matrix’s Shanghai office, we have a chic ‘design lab’ created specifically for easy collaboration. All our materials and finishes are stored at an arm’s reach, making it convenient for our designers to showcase their ideas to clients or colleagues. Spaces like these can still be designed to ensure thoughtful social distancing, but focussing on convenience and aesthetic appeal can go a long way in bringing emotional normalcy back in the workplace.

What will the meeting room become in the months to come? If you are exploring new ways to design socially distanced meeting rooms for your workplace, we can help you make sure your meeting room design can support the change.