It’s a new age for 'common spaces' and 'meetings': Here's how to embrace it

Do you sometimes find yourself stuck in a vicious circle trying to create a new approach to meetings that are productive, but in spaces that were designed 40 or 50 years ago? It's time to consider outcome-based design, Eric Lockwood, Technology Director of Design, Tangram, says.

Remember the pre-pandemic days? When we almost exclusively took part in in-person meetings? When everybody on the calendar invite was expected to gather in one place at a certain time?

As most of corporate America is aware, those days are long past us and will likely never fully return.

It’s a changed world, and our conception of "common spaces" and "meetings" must adapt accordingly.

Change is here to stay

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, most people adapted fairly well in transitioning to digital tools. We were even kind of excited to have some of our free time back, avoid our daily commute, and get a reprieve from having to be in the office every day.

Then came the wave of Zoom happy hours, online roundtables, and virtual events. Tradeshows went virtual after being cancelled. The traditional meeting was not spared either.

Next was the point of being biologically and psychologically maxed out. With "Zoom fatigue", it was very difficult to engage nonstop, all day long without the traditional social cues we receive when we're in person. Gone were the usual breaks between meetings, for example, to drive to another location. Even just a few minutes to walk around the office and get a cup of coffee allowed time to reset and adjust our mindset for the next session. The traditional commute also provided a transition period from home life to the office mentality, which was now lost.

But when we were exclusively working from home and people assumed we were sitting at our desks, we ended up in three, four, or five hours of back-to-back meetings just switching Zoom rooms. Rather than switching gears, we were grinding into every second to make it to each meeting.

This is when we began to see a curve of diminishing returns. That initial productivity boost from having the extra couple of hours at home and not in the car was fading. We hit a plateau and even began to recede.

Now that the work environment has reopened, we should be defining a new, optimal approach to meetings that blends the best of both worlds.

Shedding the old and embracing the new

There is a bit of a silver lining here. For a long time, we've needed an impetus to redefine meetings. In a pre-information-age world, a physical meeting was needed to share information, because that information couldn't be delivered digitally. Plus, we didn't have the assets to distribute the information in the context that we needed.

That's what an old-style meeting room was set up to do. Everybody had a chair. Everybody read a report together and put in their two cents. We've continued to try to adapt the old format with technology and furniture to support that workflow. But that workflow is no longer productive. We're in a vicious circle trying to create a new approach to meetings that are productive, but in spaces that were designed 40 or 50 years ago.

What we need to embrace is the idea of outcome-based design. What are we trying to accomplish when we come into a space in the 45 minutes that we're there? Are we really there just to read something to each other? Do we want to hold a meeting that could have been a virtual call or that could have been an email?

The fundamental question becomes, is there a reason to meet in person? Could we just meet virtually? Do we need to meet at all? Can we just share the information? Thoughtfully addressing these kinds of questions can help build a hierarchy of decision-making.

Why and how to have a meeting?

There are three reasons to have a meeting: to build a team, to form consensus, or to make a decision. Organisations must examine how they are using spaces to achieve one of those goals.

Totally virtual sessions have obvious drawbacks. Consensus can be hard to build in a digital forum. If people are talking simultaneously, it may take a couple of seconds to pick up on what another person is trying to say. Since we're not fully looking at each other, we don't get physical cues when someone may want to interject or have something to contribute. A digital space may not encourage the mindset that everyone has an equal share in the interchange, that it's okay for them to find a spot and jump in.

As a biology geek, I think there is a chemical reaction that happens when people are in a room. Is team building as effective for people that have never met in person but only virtually? There's also reciprocity and accountability that happens when you have met someone. You most likely don’t want to disappoint them.

The "new" work environment will likely entail a transition from 40 or 50 hours of work done each week outside the office to a hybrid model with perhaps 20 or 30 hours inside the office. We still need those spaces for deep focus work, especially for people who may not have a dedicated home working space or have roommates or other distractions.

Workplaces should be based on addressing the three basic outcomes as the essential reasons to build them. We need to create environments and processes that, although they may seem disruptive, will support those goals with a maximum degree of flexibility because, as someone astutely noted, "aha moments are rarely scheduled."

Innovative solutions in a blended workplace

The platforms we use now for remote interaction are all very time-based. We come together in a virtual meeting for one or two hours, we’re notified that the time has expired, and we close out. Maybe we follow up with an email with some action items and then we schedule another meeting. We recap what we did last time and run through deliverables. Often almost half of every meeting is a restart, with the next half getting to a certain point before we have to stop again. More effective meeting management is critical for boosting productivity

The choice of furniture is also an important consideration based on the objectives of the meeting. To set an analytical frame of mind, use soft furniture that allows people to lean back into a seated, thoughtful position. For a more creative mood, people should be perching and active with standing-height seats, high tables, and similar items since motion activates the brain.

At the same time, we need to break down some of the traditional hierarchies, like having one chair at the end of the conference table. Round, hexagonal and trapezoidal shapes can give people agency and choice.

Adapting to personal styles is the key. It’s based on a concept called neuro-diversity in terms of how people best work and learn, and creating spaces that support different modes. Some people like to sit. Some like to stand. Some like to have their gear on their lap. Some prefer a table.

Another important trend involves the emergence of different expectations for what tech looks like for meetings. When a few people are sitting in front of their laptop, three feet from the screen, they are presented full-faced during a call or meeting. But the eight people who are back in the conference room that used to seat 16 are all small heads around the table. There can be an imbalance in terms of visual access, perceived role, and impact that can be detrimental. Cameras are available with presets to trigger different views of the room or closeups of certain seats.

In addition, lighting must be better utilised in those physical spaces to avoid down-lighting that shadows people's faces. Larger format displays in meeting rooms are also more important now, for example, with one screen to display a PowerPoint and one for showing remote Zoom participants.

These considerations become even more complex when two people are sitting in an office down the hall, two people are at home, and a customer is on the call remotely.

There are multiple opportunities today for room configuration, technology, and meeting management in this new workplace. Previously, they were nice-to-haves because remote was 10% of our activities. But that 10% is now 50% to 75% of what we're doing every day.

As the workplace continues to evolve, those nice-to-haves are becoming essential priorities.

Building spontaneity and inclusion into meetings

There is a relatively new approach called brainwriting (versus brainstorming) used by the Stanford Design School. This approach can be implemented in-person or virtually.

Participants start by writing down their thoughts and anonymously passing notes around the room. It’s a silent process for sharing these ideas around the room, without having to feel brave enough to speak up. Then a discussion is started about which ideas stood out to people and what kinds of thoughts they stimulated. It’s basically a non-threatening, blue-sky approach to creativity. The topics and ideas are grouped together, with some becoming action items.

Virtual breakout rooms can be created for different tasks, with the larger group coming back together at the end of the hour. Those virtual spaces can be saved so the brainstorming project lives digitally for people to revisit asynchronously when they think of something to add. Then these resources are available the next time the group reconvenes.

The Stanford Design School also has a process they call "I like, I wish, I wonder." It's a non-committal process, because people aren't having to say it out loud. People write their ideas on post-it notes, and they all go up on the board. It’s meant to generate positive suggestions for improvement. At the end, you let people go around with stickers and rate them on potential impact, then lastly group them.

The first seven minutes are dedicated to "I like". What do you like about working here? What do you like about your job? What do you like about your team? What do you like about the product we deliver?

And then the next seven minutes is "I wish". What do you wish we had that we don't? What are we missing? I wish we had another crew. I wish we had another programme. I wish people would show up to kickoff meetings on time.

Then onto "I wonder". I wonder if we opened a Seattle office? I wonder if we had just a service team doing calls, what would that do to our revenue stream? At the end, you go through and you group them again. You might be surprised at the innovation that emerges from these sessions.


About the author

Eric Lockwood has over 27 years of experience in technology consulting, design, and integration for the built environment over three continents: North America, Europe, and Asia. As Director of Design for Tangram Technology, Lockwood focuses on design innovation and customisation to address new technological challenges, many of which have been accelerated by the pandemic.

Lockwood’s current clients include the Writers Guild of America, Chapman University & CoreLogic. He holds a degree from University of Salford, United Kingdom in BEng Electro acoustics is CTS-D Certified, and is a member of the United States Green Building Council.


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