A trapezoid? Office conference tables and rooms take new shape in hybrid-work era

Citi Commercial Pte Ltd

TRIANGLE, trapezoid, half oval and more - debating workspace tables these days can sound like a geometry class.

As employees embrace hybrid work, companies need to reevaluate meeting spaces when some attendees are in the office and others dial in. That begs the questions of how to optimise such spaces, which videoconferencing technology to use, and of course, defining what exactly a trapezoid is (read: a shape with four sides, two of which are parallel, while one or both of other two can be slanted.)

When someone says "conference room", most people envision a long rectangular table surrounded by chairs. But that setup isn't geared for virtual meetings where participants might sit far from a screen, assuming the room is even video-enabled. "There is a movement towards flipping these rooms from a portrait orientation to landscape," says David Cooper, product category manager at office furniture maker Steelcase. That would allow workers to sit closer to the wall-mounted screen. New camera systems can also zoom in on certain people so they fill up the screen like their remote counterparts.

Some companies are already experimenting with different table shapes. Microsoft has tinkered with triangles and half-ovals at its Redmond, Washington test centre to achieve the best setup for in-office conferencing. In its revamped Manhattan office, Cisco Systems settled on tables where the widest edge is closest to the screen, and it gets narrower further away, so everyone can be seen on camera without swerving around their neighbour. Steelcase pointed to its popular Elbrook collection tables that are shaped like gumdrops for a more collaborative huddle.

So, what's the best option? Take the meeting size into account. While a trapezoid- or triangle-shaped table may work best to accommodate large meetings, a semi-circle or pebble shape may work best for 3 or so people, according to Peter Miscovich, a managing director who consults on executive management at Jones Lang LaSalle.

You can debate edges with right angles versus gentle curves, but at the end of the day, it has to be functional for everyone involved.

"We're trying to replicate natural experiences that happen in real space, but taking the slight line of the camera into consideration," says Cherie Johnson, global design director at Steelcase. According to a report from Microsoft, 43 per cent of remote workers and 44 per cent of hybrid workers say they don't feel included in meetings. But only 27 per cent of companies have created new hybrid meeting etiquette.

Conference room design is only one element of hybrid meetings. Technology in those spaces may be more important, as people who have struggled to join a video call can attest. "Audio is number one and then video is number two," Miscovich says. He also emphasises the importance of interactive collaboration tools such as smart boards for brainstorming sessions. "You're designing mini movie theaters," he says with a laugh. "It all has to be seamless." BLOOMBERG

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