Getting furniture fit for AV needs

Hybrid working requirements and the rise of Teams Rooms is fuelling a drive for more specialist furniture in meeting and teaching spaces. Paul Milligan reports.

The last time furniture was a topic of discussion in the AV world was at the turn of the century when Polycom and Tandberg were trying to convince integrators their investment bank clientele should spend big money on telepresence rooms, complete with beautiful curved desks, made of expensive types of oak. Unsurprisingly the eye-watering costs of such installs limited their adoption, and high quality furniture was viewed as a luxury only a few could afford. What we have seen post-pandemic is a new interest in specialist AV furniture and there are two factors driving this, the dual impact of hybrid working/return to work and the rise of Microsoft Teams Rooms, to meet the specifications Microsoft has suggested for its most effective room designs.

pic: Ashton Bentley

We spoke to those designing and installing meeting and teaching rooms to ask how vital specialist furniture is in producing effective spaces, to ask what mistakes to avoid when buying furniture, and to ask if end users are actually willing to invest in specialist rather than ‘off-the-shelf’ products? First off we asked if the rise of Microsoft Teams Rooms (MTR) and the ‘return to the office’ movement was really driving sales of more bespoke or specialist furniture? With the return to the office movement and the rise of what workers want from an office space, specialist furniture has never been as important says Mark Atkinson, sales manager, from UK integrator Universal AV. “Traditional offices with banks of desks and meeting spaces are being revamped and redesigned with collaboration and informal work and meeting spaces taking the focus. Specialist furniture in these environments is key. Collaborative huddle spaces need to be more than just a desk for people to sit around, they need to be private even if in an open space.”

The return to the office has highlighted the need for video first, and collaborative meeting spaces says Philip Stoddart, director and co-founder of coodart, a workplace technology company. “Where previously the sequence of design was interior design, furniture and lastly technology, the focus has changed to understand the technology first its impact on the furniture and design. Getting clients to understand that technology will influence the furniture selection is the biggest challenge.”

pic: coodart

MTRs are providing opportunities for integrators and suppliers to adapt rooms in innovative ways says Lee Langthorne, business development manager for JM Supplies. “The fact that the kit needed for a basic MTR is pretty compact means that most smaller spaces can hide the kit behind the screen, with no need for extra furniture. More complicated set-ups are either using existing cabinets and credenzas or investing in new ones. What is exciting for us is that we have also seen the development of furniture specifically designed for MTR use, and bespoke to individual rooms, using a standard design.” To meet this need JM has launched Intellimax, a floor-standing, wall-fixed unit that can sit under a screen and hold all the necessary equipment to run the room, and to facilitate interaction.

If extra budget is being spent on getting the ‘right’ furniture, how does it improve the effectiveness of meetings and/or learning? Having the right furniture is crucial to ensure successful transitions to working digitally says David Corker, technical sales director from UK integrator Strive AV. “When the furniture is tailored to consider the space, its purpose, and the individuals who work in it, staff are empowered to step out of the default way of working.”

pic: Ashton Bentley

In teaching spaces, a lecturer will generally want a point of focus says Langthorne, to connect to a network, place a laptop or notes, and have somewhere for their water and coffee. “For that reason, the design of a lectern or presenter is crucial; is there enough desktop space? Can they connect to the network with cables or wirelessly? Can they control the other functions of the room and the AV functions?”

Traditional office room layouts are biased towards in-room collaboration and create sightline challenges and obstructed views says Rocío Díez, communications manager EMEA for Steelcase. Designers are rethinking traditional norms to improve collaboration spaces for hybrid work. “A shift from portrait (facing the short wall) to landscape (facing the long wall) allows people on both sides of the camera to see and be seen. Everyone in the room is equidistant to the camera. Remote participants can see facial expressions and body language. The curvature of the table ensures that every in-room participant can also see one another in addition to being at eye level with remote colleagues. That eye-to-eye view creates more equity between those in-room and remote.”

pic: coodart

For those looking to invest in specialist furniture for the first time, what are the common mistakes often made when buying and installing furniture in meeting and/or teaching spaces? The biggest mistake is buying ‘standard’ furniture says Simon Ferguson, sales director from Top-Tec. “We have often seen standard desks purchased through a framework agreement which are not fit-for-purpose, and then the technology is shoehorned into it with little or no cable management, bolt-on power and data units etc.” We can’t install what we think might work, it has to be based on some form of user research, “The most common mistake is not involving the people who will use it when making decisions about the space,” says Díez. It’s vital to match the furniture with the space, and the technology has to form part of that discussion. “The classic fail is putting a 600mm deep credenza in front of an interactive display, meaning there’s an additional reach distance to use the display,” says Stoddart. “Another is the placement of a chair(s) in front of camera positions, chairs that will always get moved, and be in the way of meeting spaces.”

Systems that make appear initially clumsy to the eye may hide bigger issues too says Sam Botting, business development manager for TeamMate. “A lot of MTR’s and other spaces we’ve seen might have an AV system on the worktop of a meeting table with cables trailing down to the ground, it not only acts as a trip hazard, but it’s not secure or easy to service, and if serviceability is not thorough enough it can end up being more costly in the long run.”

pic: Ashton Bentley

Opting for style over function never works says Atkinson, “Very often decisions around meeting room furniture are taken by people not involved in choosing AV. We are often presented with beautiful furniture which we are not allowed to change in any way.” There are ways to protect yourself when it comes to buying decisions on furniture, an all-in-one stand or trolley can help cut out costly installations and also futureproof the space through minimal design upgrades if the technology changes.
Can we meet the changing requirements of meeting/learning spaces (including hybrid working/learning) with ‘off-the-shelf’ furniture or are bespoke products the best way to get the results the client wants? If furniture is designed well and fit for purpose, there is no reason it can’t be ‘off the shelf’ says Tony Leedham, director, Ashton Bentley. “Our tables are all made around a standard set of components (leg system, sub structure and surfaces), with these basic elements almost any table shape/size can be built, even with the most complex table we’ve supplied, it was 90% standard parts.”

Standard ‘off the shelf’ furniture doesn’t fully cater for AV technology in the way bespoke or technical furniture does says Botting. “You won’t be able to accommodate various worktop peripherals and route cables in the same way as something custom made will be able to do,”. The majority of people we spoke to occupied a middle ground on bespoke versus off-the-shelf, “Bespoke should be less than 10% of any spaces, and maybe more for design intent as much as functionality. Where bespoke can have a valid need is where there are non-standard technology integration requirements, i.e. multiple camera positions, ultra-wide displays, or LED walls that have specific access requirements. Most off-the-shelf furniture can be adapted via simple adjustments, often at the design stage. What is important is working with a manufacturer and furniture partner that understands that one size does not fill all,” says Stoddart. Bespoke may get you exactly what you are after, but comes with a warning too says Langthorne, “Truly bespoke designs can be difficult to produce, especially where an architect or interior designer with less knowledge of the requirements for AV equipment has become involved.”

pic: Ashton Bentley

There are clearly going to be cost implications to specialist or bespoke furniture, are end clients willing to pay for such products or do they need a lot of convincing? “In general, we find that clients will pay for the correct solution if they consider the problem is large enough and is being solved,” says Ferguson. This comment from Langthorne will no doubt raise a wry grin of recognition from others in the pro-AV world, “Generally I find that most end users understand the need for specialist furniture, although I do still get comments about how much cheaper it would be if they bought from well-known Scandinavian flat-pack store.”

The heart of this issue is really how much importance integrators or clients (or probably both) actually place on specialist furniture. Is furniture too often the last thought in any project budget, and if so how can we change that? It’s the age-old issue seen time and time again with the AV industry, we don’t get engaged early on enough in projects to stop potential mistakes being made. “The correct furniture is probably an afterthought in many projects,” admits Ferguson.

pic: TeamMate

“The technologies employed in these spaces often dictates specialist furniture but when a project is scoped by non-technical people it is only when the actual technical equipment comes into the conversation do people realise that standard kit will not work without much shoehorning. That will only change if all departments are involved in the scoping of a project in the early stages.” And that opportunity doesn’t come around very often admits Atkinson, “As an integrator we have to try and talk to the decision makers and argue the need for specific AV designed furniture. When given this opportunity, we often can convince our customers that the choice should be for specific AV furniture,”.

Developing the working relationship between AV and estates teams through sharing budgets on projects will help AV furniture being seen as the last thought says Botting. The final word, which is fused with frustration and some hope goes to Leedham, “We are seeing more joined-up thinking. Facilities are looking for furniture that compliments and ‘integrates’ with the AV. However, more education of the importance of a table is required. Furniture must be a fundamental part of the user experience. Not just a table with a hole cut in it for a tablebox.”

pic: coodart






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