The conference room is perhaps the least loved space in the modern office. Typically long and narrow, with a rectangular table presided over by a boss at one end, it’s the place where countless workers have nodded off, shared eye rolls or sneaked peeks at cellphones held in their laps.
The design of the room contributed to these responses, workplace experts say, citing the stuffy formality of the space and the obvious hierarchy of the seating arrangement.
But as convulsions brought on by working from home during the pandemic roil the office, this old-school space is getting a reboot.
In the early days of the pandemic, when companies thought everyone would be returning to the office within a month or two, managers made quick fixes to the conference room in the name of germ control and social distancing. They deployed bottles of hand sanitizer, and removed every other seat around the table or taped signs with big X’s on alternating chairs.
But as remote work took hold and returning to the office was postponed again and again, bigger changes have kicked in. To lure employees back to the office, companies are seeking to make them more welcoming and conducive to collaboration, conference rooms included.
We checked in with companies and the architects and designers they hire to see how this upheaval is playing out across the country. For instance, our photographer toured LinkedIn’s new flagship building in Mountain View, Calif., and found meeting rooms created by the architectural firm NBBJ that feature cozy furnishings and cutting-edge technology.
It’s too soon to say which of the changes will prove most popular — or how long they will last, said Lisa Britz, LinkedIn’s director of workplace design, who expects the way Americans do their jobs will continue to evolve, likely inspiring further design tweaks.
For now, however, the conference room appears to be morphing in four major ways:
NEW SHAPES AND SIZES
The conference room is increasingly breaking out of its traditional rectangle. And in many cases, it has become smaller, as meetings get less formal and new hybrid work patterns mean that fewer people are physically present for them.
The architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has been designing “squarer” conference rooms lately, believing them to be more “democratic,” said Ece Calguner Erzan, a principal at the firm. “No more head of the table,” she added.
The Return of Return-to-Office Plans
After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes for a return to in-person work late last year, a new R.T.O. chapter now appears to be opening.
Some companies are creating conference rooms that can shift their shape, growing or shrinking depending on the need, thanks to movable partitions. This kinetic design approach has become more popular in the pandemic because it allows workers to exert some control over their surroundings.
LinkedIn added open conference spaces amid the desks of engineers on the same teams. If an issue that requires discussion arises, workers can pop into one of these spaces and close the sliding doors — or leave them open.
“The intention is for it to be hyperflexible,” said Robert Norwood, a principal at NBBJ. Acoustical baffling on the ceiling dampens sound, and its zigzag shape adds more dynamism to the room, enlivening what is normally a flat, static plane.
The old conference room tended to be formal, even sterile, but new ones are loosening up, often acquiring a coziness that some company leaders say they hope will help employees transition back to the office after more than two years of working from their sofas and dining tables.
Inspired Capital, a venture capital firm, hired Benjamin Vandiver, a designer who specializes in residential interiors, to decorate its New York office; the results include a charcoal-color conference room with a massive, gold-framed antique mirror leaning against a wall and a modernist oak table from Anthropologie placed on the diagonal.
LinkedIn did away with a central table altogether in spaces that look more like lounges. Each has a squishy sofa with throw pillows, and plants and books abound. The relaxed look is intended to help meeting participants feel comfortable and encourage members of the staff “who might not speak up in a traditional setting,” Ms. Britz said.
Many conference rooms are increasingly found in building amenity spaces or even outdoors.
The owners of multitenant office buildings are devoting entire floors to beefed-up amenity suites that include conference rooms that any company in the building can reserve. One pandemic-related advantage: People from outside companies can attend meetings in a building without having to go to a tenant’s floor — minimizing concerns about germs.
Open-air work spaces were already popular before the pandemic — scientific research shows that exposure to nature can spark creativity and reduce stress levels — and the conference room has now joined the exodus.
LinkedIn had long thought about setting up outdoor work spaces, Ms. Britz said, citing the balmy California climate. But when the pandemic highlighted the benefits of natural ventilation, the company acted on the idea, equipping a plaza area for meetings.
The space includes overhead structures made of steel and wood with louvers to reduce sun glare on laptops and monitors. There are also whiteboards and tables of various sizes, all with built-in electrical outlets.
Most technological upgrades in conference rooms are meant to ensure that workers can continue to collaborate even if they are not in the same space. In other words, the conference room has become a Zoom room, for better or for worse.
In a recent survey of companies occupying office space, CBRE, the real estate services firm, found that 76 percent of respondents considered enhanced videoconferencing one of the top priorities in their return to the office. (Forty-two percent listed touch-free technology, which had been of heightened interest at the beginning of the pandemic, before the discovery that the coronavirus spread mostly by air.)
Screens were once relegated to a short end wall, forcing everyone in the meeting to turn to face it. Recognizing that most people in a conference room sit on the long sides of the table, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has been placing screens opposite them, on the long sides of a room.
Cameras and microphones have been mounted on walls and ceilings to capture responses from in-person attendees for the benefit of those working remotely. Many companies are using a 360-degree camera at the center of a table.
Another key component: “Soundproofing, soundproofing, soundproofing,” said Adam Rolston, creative and managing director of INC Architecture & Design, which recently used professional recording studio soundproofing in a client’s New York conference room. The goal is to eliminate echoing and distracting ambient sounds and allow everyone to speak without raising his or her voice.
At LinkedIn, large, horizontal screens allow for sharing documents on one side and showing the faces of remote colleagues on the other. Some conference rooms are also equipped with a digital whiteboard and a special camera mounted on an opposite wall that “ghosts out” the person writing so colleagues working at home can see what’s being written in real time.
There are also some decidedly low-tech additions to rooms: foam core boards propped on easels asking workers for feedback about the new spaces.
LinkedIn will continue to make changes in the workplace as the demands of employees evolve, Ms. Britz said, adding, “The dust is still settling.”