What will the meeting room look like post-Covid?

Paul Milligan speaks to those who design and install meeting rooms to ask whether changes will be temporary or here for the long-term.

The meeting room has been an ever present of corporate life for decades, at the same time the supply of meeting room technology has been ever present in a system integrator’s life. The technology may have morphed from OHPs to interactive touchscreens over the decades but the desire for employees to gather in the same room to exchange ideas hasn’t lessened.

(all images courtesy of Diversified)

That was until Covid-19 hit in 2020 and employees were forced to work from home en masse, with meeting rooms lying empty for 12 months. What we did see in 2020 was a mass acceleration of the adoption of video meeting technology. Microsoft Teams hit user targets in mid-2020 it had forecast it wouldn’t meet until 2022. It’s clear Covid is driving seismic corporate change, but is it accelerating a change in meetings rooms that was already happening, or is it now driving a different type of change? “It’s accelerated change that was already coming, a shift to more hybrid ways of working,” says
Dan Lee, managing director from AV consultants Hewshott International. “Whereas a traditional meeting would have eight people in the room, it will now have four in the room and four working remotely.”

Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of conferencing installs confirms Ian Howard, technical director from UK integrator Twisted Pair. “Whereas a few years ago the conversation would be more around how many meeting rooms do you want?
Do you want a single display/dual display? How many inputs? Covid has forced a lot of people who weren’t invested or comfortable with conferencing to push them to start using it, as they’ve now seen it will be here forever.”

Covid has caused a sea change in our attitude to home working, and that is undoubtedly going to have a knock-on effect to office life too. “It’s clear that work life balance has changed, and the office space will become more of a collaboration environment,” says Darren Pitt, vice president sales and marketing EMEA and India for global technology solutions provider Diversified. “Whether people will go to an office and sit there all day just to crunch an Excel spreadsheet is very debatable, but will people go there to engage with colleagues and collaborate? Most definitely.” The meeting room post-Covid will be dictated by video says Julian Phillips, senior vice president, global workplace solutions, from integration group AVI-SPL. “Video is the number one medium for holding meetings and collaboration, which it wasn’t before. Video was almost like an elective as opposed to a default, and so I think that is an important design principle moving forward. Video is here to stay. That means we’re going to see video, not just in boardrooms, and in conference rooms, we’re going to see video everywhere that people gather in a physical space moving forward.”

Meeting rooms were designated using the principle that 70% of employees would be in the office to work on any given day. We know post-Covid that number will be far lower (30 to 40%?), and that is going the alter the number of meeting rooms and how they are designed forever. “We now need to start thinking about motion of people, and elasticity and flexibility of space, because we don’t yet know exactly how many people are going to be in any single day,” says Phillips. “We have to rethink the workspace in its design, we have to think about the design of technology to meet those particular requirements.”

Could the boardroom, once a healthy profit centre for integrators and full of high-end technology suitable for those in the upper echelons of corporate management, be one of the victims of Covid? Could that budget be better spent somewhere else? It seems they may remain for a while says Lee, “A big part of what corporates do is bring potential clients in and show them how nice their office space is, and how well equipped and technologically advanced it is. And I think they still need to
do that. I think the boards of big firms still want to meet, at least once a quarter and have those confidential face to face discussions they need to have about big strategy stuff.”

While rumours of its demise might be premature, boardrooms will have to adapt to survive in a post-Covid world says Phillips. “We don’t believe the boardroom is going away, but I think the name might change, there’s still a need to have a more formal, large gathering place for people to have a conference, but it’s going to be much more multifunctional moving forward.

Because these are going to be important meetings, and they're going to be less frequent, the production values are probably going to be higher. The video and audio experience needs to be a lot better than it was before, as probably more than half of the people in the meeting are going to be joining remotely. They need to be seen, they need to be heard, and to have access to whatever is going on in that room. Democracy is starting to play its hand here, the remote participants become just as important and we need to accommodate them in the design of that boardroom space than we did before.”

Instead of killing off the boardroom, Covid could instead kill off huddle spaces says Howard. “It’s literally been huddle room, huddle room, huddle room, everywhere you go. But now at the moment, I’d say the huddle room is pretty much dead, you can only have one person in there because of social distancing and someone can just sit at a desk instead or sit at home and join a call from a laptop.”

If video is becoming the central aspect of meeting rooms, does that mean the choice of VC platform is driving the choice of the other tech in the room? For most clients the choice is one of two options; all in or mix-and-match. “Either they want to be completely platform agnostic and say our rooms will accept or work on any of the platforms out there, or they are saying we’re only going to do Teams or Zoom, and we’re going to throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly,” says Lee. Although going all in has advantages in terms of cost and the benefits that standardisation brings, it can also create issues when dealing with clients who have chosen another platform.

“Clients tend to have a predominant choice at the moment, whether that’s Microsoft Teams, which is huge at the moment, or Cisco, Zoom or Google,” says Phillips. “In the past we got in a car or plane to go to meetings with customers and partners, we’re going to have to use video for that activity right now, and they might not have what we’ve got. Whatever devices we’re putting in, whether it’s a laptop, conference room system, it has to be able to perform whether they’re internal or external, or working remotely. That’s putting pressure on the device manufacturers, because they’re going to have to build an agnostic approach to how they’re going to work across those different platforms.”



Specifying meeting room technology was often down to a simple choice? Meeting rooms came with a control panel (on the wall or on the desk), it was just a choice of which brand met your needs. That choice now isn’t clear cut because of a number of factors. In the last few years BYOD has become more popular than ever, we now have the means to control meetings from our phones or laptop. The last few years has also seen the rise of intelligent audio technology, from the likes of QSC and Biamp. All meeting rooms need audio, if those audio devices now have the means to control all the AV in the room too, then clients have a new way to cut costs. “I think that QSC etc are absolutely challenging Crestron and AMX. If you put a QSC dsp in
your meeting room you already have the processing there to run a control system as well,” says Lee.

Control is moving to apps on phones and laptops because they are familiar, inexpensive and easy to use. “I think touch panels are slowly being used less and less. If we look back 5-10 years with a Crestron/Extron panel there would be so many options to change different elements in the room. They want simplicity, and the only way of getting that simplicity is to try and remove the control elements as much as possible,” says Howard. This simplicity doesn’t equate to less opportunity for integrators however says Pitt, it just changes the opportunity: “The days of complex meeting spaces with Crestron control systems and lots of wizzy things have gone. Rooms are going to be very simple, and there’s going to be lots of them.

And it’s going to be a very different approach to delivering those kinds of rooms at scale.” If video is going to be the spine of all meetings post-Covid, and we have to expect that probably half of the attendees won’t be in the room, how can an integrator ensure consistency of audio and video quality when everyone in the meeting is on different networks, different devices, and the integrator doesn’t ultimately control the network either? “The role of an integrator will probably change more in the next two years than it has probably done in the last 20 years,” says Phillips.

“It’s not just about finding devices to do audio and video, it’s now about providing an experience to the user. That means we have to start getting involved in the network, we have to start getting involved in the quality of experience that you have across that network. We need to be able to come up with a plan and a strategy on how you provide and support that digital experience together with the analogue experience of people in a physical space, but it needs to be dealt with holistically, and not just trying to solve each individual part.”

There are limits to what an integrator can do adds Howard, “If the audio and video quality is poor, the first thing clients say is the AV kit is not working, and nine times out of 10 on an internal test you can see everything in the room is working fine, and the network element is absolutely fine. It’s the person who’s sat at home and is paying €20 a month for a slow connection into their house, using a five-year-old laptop, that’s where your issues lie.”

Standardisation is the key to success says Diversified’s Pitt, “It’s about controlling the global standards, controlling those
deliverables. We are seeing companies wanted to deliver consistent global standards across 20 buildings. No longer is it left to each team to sort their own rooms out, companies are saying we’ve got to have a consistent approach to this. When you look at scalable solutions, whether it’s a Zoom room or Teams room, it’s so low cost in real terms. They look at what they’re paying today for their existing estate, what the running costs are and if we can replace it with all this stuff we’ll have lower running costs, better utilisation, less downtime, less IT support, that’s the key to providing a consistent standard because you’ll have everyone on a level playing field.”

Those reading this may despair at hearing Teams and Zoom will be at the heart of meeting rooms for the near future, given that both are hard to monetise for system integrators, but all is not lost says Phillips. “As an AV integrator we’ve got a big job to do, there’s a big upgrade path ahead of us now, to be able to go back to what was there before, to elevate and improve the overall experience, but also to do those other things to ensure that we’re ready for the for the future.