In the Fall 2013 issue of IT/AV Report, we presented the views of AV system designers, integrators and end users in “Open Workspaces: What Do You Make of Them?”. Most of the opinions were upbeat and included suggestions for enhanced connectivity and the use of collaboration technologies. A few pointed to significant changes in meeting habits and business processes that employees and the employer would have to adjust to. Recent research and articles have examined some of the issues encountered by those working in open offices and, because this architectural trend continues to dominate renovations and new construction, it’s time to revisit the topic.
Common complaints from workers in open offices include headaches resulting from constant noise or the prolonged use of headsets, frequent interruptions and the lack of quiet space to concentrate. Although available AV technologies might easily eliminate these difficulties, budgetary constraints often prevent effective implementation of the appropriate solution.
A larger challenge may involve transitioning cross-generation workers into the new digital environment. Millennials are accustomed to Cloud-based applications and simple-to-use communications platforms in their personal lives, and would prefer to use the same for work-related, impromptu team meetings and videoconference calls. However, traditional AV systems still dominate conference and meeting rooms. Why? Perhaps because senior managers are the ones making decisions based on devices they are familiar with, or there is a need to reuse existing equipment.
In order to design and support workspaces with the appropriate technologies that will encourage creativity and increase productivity, we need to better understand users’ evolving needs and communication patterns, as well as the changing business cultures of the organizations they work for. It is critical to involve those who will occupy the open cubicles, and their mobile coworkers, in the needs-analysis phase of technology planning.
Workspaces that provide flexibility and offer options to users would surely meet the needs of a larger workforce. The need for more private meeting spaces is evidenced in the increasing demand for huddle rooms and smaller meeting rooms. The growing need for easy-to-use collaboration systems and support for BYOD (bring your own device) has resulted in new solutions from both hardware and software providers.
Both of these trends were also revealed in the June 2015 InfoComm International Economic Snapshot that provides a wealth of data on the overall AV market conditions, including the issues, factors and trends affecting business performance. Among the new areas of investigation and of specific relevance here were AV meeting room trends and videoconferencing software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
The report states: “For AV meeting rooms, the respondents were asked to indicate the most common AV-equipped meeting space that their organization will use in the next one to three years.” A collaboration room is the top choice by far, cited by 42.8%. You can see the tabulated responses in the accompanying chart and visit InfoComm’s website (www.infocomm.org), if you want to learn more.
Intelligent design of open office spaces with appropriate supporting technologies has the potential to streamline workflow, enable creative problem solving and increase productivity in a variety of industries. Here are some current reflections on this topic from a cross-section of those involved in exploring new frontiers.
Charles M. Salter
Offices that cram people into one big open space are often touted as “energetic” and “collaborative” spaces that spawn innovation. They are the pride of the tech industry in Silicon Valley but, more often than not, they are the bane of sanity and productivity. That’s what we are now learning, several years later, from people who actually work in them. From the AV standpoint though, these types of offices are still a boon to our industry because they increase the demand for small- and medium-sized presentation rooms. Naturally, these rooms require AV equipment, so it’s good for business.
In reviewing my commentary from two years ago, I noted that open workspaces, or the then-new open-office floorplan, seemed to be a good idea, and we could use the power of networked AV to maximize value for the enterprise and functionality for end users. Perhaps I was just excited about it at the time, but now I hear and read about some of the negative impact on people who have to work in those spaces on a daily basis.
Regardless, the AV industry has continued to advance in the realm of networked technologies, all of which bring great enhancements to well intended workspaces.
The cost of tech devices is coming down even as capabilities are increasing. Digital display resolutions are going up and screen sizes are getting bigger. But the one thing that I see these days is the death of the hardware-based codec and the rise of software-based videoconferencing.
In the past, we would specify Cisco/Tandberg or Polycom VTC equipment in one out of every 10 conference rooms. They were pricey, so deployment ratios were low. Nowadays, there is a greater need for small meeting and presentation rooms, coupled with an increasing demand for videoconferencing capability. I suspect that companies are realizing that they need more rooms with videoconferencing, and using software-based codecs is far more cost effective, especially in small meeting rooms.
From a technology standpoint, I think we need to keep an eye on the “Software Codec of the Month Club,” as I have named it. There are, perhaps, more than a hundred flavors to choose from these days, and the only hardware required to participate in a videoconference is a tablet or PC.
Although I consider myself an advocate for the advancement and utilization of technology, I also feel that open offices are exacerbating the problems that workers have to face. They can now do all sorts of fancy presentations and share and collaborate with colleagues and partners through videoconferencing, but what they can’t easily do is have a private conversation, talk naturally at their normal pitch or concentrate.
The good news for us is that new devices and apps are making it possible to improve the environment for workers in open spaces and cubicles. In addition, because employees frequently can’t find an available conference room for a quick meeting, there is an increase in demand for conference rooms, which means a commensurate increase in demand for AV technologies!
Shen Milsom & Wilke LLC
As the trend toward the construction of open-plan offices continues across all market segments, the requirement for providing huddle spaces or smaller meeting rooms where groups can work collaboratively without disturbing their coworkers also continues to grow.
There are three critical components to the success of these spaces. Firstly, there must be a sufficient quantity of them relative to seats on the floor. Secondly, they must be designed architecturally for some flexibility while still working as meeting spaces and, last but not least, the AV technology deployed must be appropriate for facilitating collaboration while also being easy to use.
Over the last 18 months, we have seen the following requirements appear repeatedly:
- Identity Transportability: the ability to transport your digital identity everywhere you go. In a unified communications environment, if you move to another desk or huddle room, you take your identity with you and you can log back in at that location and continue to work seamlessly.
- Scheduling: the provision of a robust scheduling system so you can see what spaces are available, reserve the space from your desk or remote location, and have the ability for your digital identity to be transferred into that space. The scheduling tool can also provide metrics about usage. Gathering these metrics is a vital part of devising long-term technology strategies and real-estate planning.
- Architectural Design: It is important to provide flexibility of configuration where possible. This may drive requirements for special furniture, flexible/movable equipment mounting and multiple connection points. In addition, although having to maintain a sense of connectedness to coworkers, the ability to achieve speech privacy and visual privacy is important. In particular, good acoustical design to optimize speech privacy is highly important for the future success of open-plan office space. This may include the use of a “sound masking” system to raise ambient sound levels.
- Wireless Collaboration: More manufacturers are coming into the wireless collaboration field, while the existing products are more mature and prices continue to drop. We still design collaboration rooms with a limited number of wired connections, but we urge our clients to consider wireless collaboration. One compelling reason for this is that there is no longer one ubiquitous type of connector used for video and computer/tablet graphics. However, you can guarantee that everyone will have WiFi on their device. It is essential that the client’s IT department be fully involved if wireless collaboration is deployed.
- Interactive Display: The recent launch of Windows 10 means that we can expect to see a new focus on interactivity with touch-enabled displays and potentially voice-enabled login and credentialing. This will make it more common for people to expect to walk up to a display and touch it and/or interact with it by voice. Touch will become ubiquitous, but it also adds challenges: specifically, the mounting height of the display.
Lastly, some provision for “legacy” equipment should be made. There are still users with VGA connections and USB thumb drives.
Dale Fulenchek, CTS,
Office remodeling always brings stress to the people involved, from the owners and architects to the systems integrators and the employees who occupy the space. This is especially true in the new open-workspace designs so many companies are adopting. Typically, the architects working with the owners identify what the actual needs are because only a small percentage of people make the decisions compared to the number of people who will be moved into the new “office cube farm.” Usually, corporate executives involved in such decisions will have an office with more privacy at the end of the “open-office” buildout and are not significantly impacted by the open-workspace environment.
A few years ago, I worked with a client who moved from north Dallas to the downtown area and everyone, from C-level management to the temporary staff, moved into identically sized workspaces with 48-inch-high partitions, a three-drawer file cabinet and a bookshelf, within a massive 35×40-square-foot space. On a recent visit there, I heard comments about the limited work area and high noise level. The company had chosen not to install sound masking, for budget and other reasons.
Technology can assist with the functionality of the open-office workspace in a few ways: sound masking, high-quality headsets for the phone and collaboration systems and acoustical materials that assist in deadening the direct or reflected noise. Passive modifications, such as the addition of sound-absorbing surfaces installed on the walls and ceiling at the direction of an acoustical designer, would make the rest of the installed electronics appear to work better.
Sound masking is intended to “mask” speech intelligibility by raising the ambient noise floor so speech cannot be clearly understood. If we cannot understand the conversation, the brain does a much better job of eliminating it and moving onto something that we can understand, and the conversations around us become less distracting. A sound masking system would typically be on a timer so the overall signal would ramp up before the work shift starts; then, as the work shift ends and there are fewer people, the overall level would ramp down. It helps prevent the space from sounding like there is a huge motor running when there are just a few people in that space.
Innovations in DSP technology algorithms and the use of multiple microphones have accomplished rejection of noise going on around a space to create a bubble or fence to the far end of a video, audio or telephone conference. The use of headsets for personal phone conversations is also helpful because the voice is very close to the microphone and the loudspeaker is closer to the hearer’s ear, thus reducing transmitted noise in the workspace. These devices are great for the remote end as well, but they do not put the “cone of silence” in the near-end workspace, so there are still distractions locally.
Another technology to consider is “status indicators,” such as a USB-connected cube with color-coded light that shows whether a colleague is busy on a call or other task. As you approach a work area, you can immediately see the status regarding availability of the person you wish to meet. Being able to view a person’s status at a distance may prevent some distractions; however, this technology does not prevent interruptions from “instant messages.”
The open-office or flexible workspace architectural concept has been widely accepted by corporations worldwide. Although it does allow for a much less expensive construction method, both in materials and time, it has compromised the comfort level of those using the space. We are in a position to design and integrate new technologies to make the work environment more palatable for workers and, hopefully, to help increase their productivity. Or, perhaps, these new office spaces could be thought of as business “hotel” spaces instead of permanent office workspaces.
Christina De Bono
Over the past decade, many companies have transitioned to open workplace and learning environments to foster increased collaboration, creativity and comradery among employees. With Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, many companies must seek recruits who are newer to the workforce. Many companies are now designing workplace and learning spaces that appeal to Millennials, who tend to favor open spaces that offer flexibility.
One of our key clients here in Southern California epitomizes this trend as it focuses on remodeling aging facilities with open spaces that incorporate technology to foster a more collaborative environment for its workforce. With 50% of its workforce eligible for retirement in the next five to seven years, our client has undertaken a strategic initiative to recruit, educate and retain the next-generation workforce through the use of technology and creation of collaborative spaces.
An example of this transition is a recent project to transform a ’60s-style instructor-led computer-training center into an open collaborative-learning environment. The new learning center entailed collaboration between multiple user groups, including executive management, HR, training, facilities and IT. It was critical to involve all of these user groups because the new learning center represents a complete change in the company’s approach to recruitment, training and education. It is a paradigm shift for this organization to transition from a top-down approach to a much more collaborative approach in the delivery of its education and training programs.
Professional AV technology became a vital part of the new vision and design in order to foster collaboration within an open-space learning environment. The entire learning center includes wireless presentation systems throughout the space, so participants can connect their laptops and smart devices wirelessly to the displays. This enables students and instructors to share content seamlessly, enabling more engagement by the participants in the class.
The huddle spaces have interactive touch-enabled displays, providing a way for small groups to collaborate, brainstorm and make changes to content instantaneously. The space has sliding glass walls, open ceilings and movable furniture so it can be rearranged on the fly to accommodate a variety of educational experiences. The audio system is designed to provide audio for the entire space or divided spaces, providing maximum flexibility depending on setup. Sound masking is installed throughout the space to provide sound intelligibility for the many different events and educational programs conducted.
As the trend toward open spaces becomes mainstream, AV technology plays a vital role in creating spaces that offer ultimate flexibility and collaboration. Our client’s new learning center is a great example of how significant AV technology becomes in an open, collaborative learning space. It also demonstrates the importance of understanding the client’s strategic goals and the level of interaction needed with multiple user groups to accomplish these goals.
Senior Vice President, Marketing
Futurist Alvin Toffler called technology the “great growling engine of change.” But not even Toffler could have predicted how the workplace would morph so quickly from a PC-dominated physical space to an environment of BYOD and mobile communications. And Millennials, although often getting a bad rap from those of us with graying hair (at least I still have mine!), are due tremendous praise for changing the way we work, which forces innovation by AV manufacturers and integrators.
The “face” of Silicon Valley can certainly lay claim to launching a thousand “ships” of innovation. Indeed, the concept of technological innovation and disruptive business models is basic to its lore. Open workspace architecture is nothing new to many businesses, such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Intel. What is new is that those upstart Millennials now want to work exactly like they live and play: seamlessly conducting business by phone and tablet. Because their demographic comprises a third of the workforce, that’s a reasonable request.
Businesses must compete for the best and brightest talent, no matter the business endeavor. A successful leader needs to dominate his market and provide the optimal workspace environment for productivity in his field. Open spaces lend themselves to team interaction, collaboration and general thought-provoking social engagements. However, designing and implementing AV solutions that actually meet client expectations and needs in these environments is extremely challenging.
New wireless and Cloud-based technologies from Crestron, Christie Digital and Kramer Electronics that incorporate both traditional source and BYOD connectivity with control and collaboration have certainly added to workplace productivity. Soft videoconferencing codecs, such as Blue Jeans, Skype, Google Hangouts, Fusion and others, engage Millennials and offer a greater range of “when and where” for meetings. Sophisticated interactive videowalls from companies such as Prysm with Cascade collaboration, or LG and Samsung with Bluescape, take full advantage of open spaces and merge multiple business practices in one solution. Each of these manufacturers has provided innovative responses to the growing demand for working environments that allow new talent to flourish.
Clients also expect more than pretty HD pictures. To truly collaborate, team members must be able to listen to each other. Nothing in open spaces will ever sound quite as good as that contained within four walls. That said, a good acoustician and sound masking consideration are critical to quality open-space design. New beam-forming microphones, line array speakers and digital signal processing (DSP) can work wonders…but Old Man Physics cannot wholly be cheated.
Ergonomics in furniture is also forcing innovation in open-space design. AV is now being integrated into purpose-built furniture. Certainly, including this type of customization cuts into integration budgets, and understanding the AV requirements is critical to the success of the project. Many ergonomic designs, for example, feature height adjustments for sitting and standing work environments that must be accommodated by AV. No longer is the scene of an ocean of single cubes the norm in the open workspace, replaced instead by environments designed both for the individual and for the team to work productively.
Diversified Systems has experienced these trends firsthand and has grown with them to meet client needs. Increasingly, budgets are being built on a larger quantity of simplified rooms. The most technical companies on the planet have the simplest meeting rooms, with these common denominators: They all are videoconference enabled and anyone can start the meeting! The future is often a bit murky, even mysterious—and, yes, mystery means money—but sometimes the world simply moves and demands that things work a particular way, and business gets done. Turning complex concepts into user-friendly, simple and satisfying solutions is a challenge to relish.
Companies continuously seek ways to improve bottom-line profit. Reducing overhead has been driving change in the workplace in recent years: Think Cloud computing and SaaS, offshoring and relocation, telecommuting and open spaces; all have been tried and, for the most part, done. The last act, and the most elusive of all, is boosting the productivity of the knowledge workers you have. When designing workspaces, it is important to keep the conversation consultative; there’s no one formulation that’s right for every corporate need, culture or workforce.
Traditionally, companies approached productivity as a means to effect culture change. For example, a common concern among facility managers is how to prevent people from reserving meeting spaces yet not show up, thereby blocking the productive use of the meeting room. This is what led to innovative technology, such as scheduling panels hung on the wall on the outside of the room, and occupancy sensors.
Open spaces, and the requisite open nature of conference spaces in those environments, such as huddle spaces, necessitate a different approach to office design. In these companies, culture change is already in full swing as a path to increased productivity, and facilities are challenged to keep up. For one Silicon Valley customer whose employees work in ad-hoc/dynamic “packs” instead of large or formalized teams, meetings tend to happen dynamically and people choose a room just as they meet.
This culture presents some design challenges over traditional meeting spaces that are reserved well in advance and are used more predictably. For one, knowledge workers have to quickly determine availability and then get down to work with no startup delay. Facilities managers need lower cost and a reduced equipment footprint, so the facility can adapt and, almost like a “pop-up” store, quickly bring spaces online to support changing needs.
To achieve these objectives, we deploy at-a-glance room availability via digital room-scheduling signage and an app for a user’s iPhone/Android BYOD mobile phone that lets them find a place to meet in any area or building. Equipment for huddle spaces must not be much more than the display itself, and wirelessly connected to laptops, tablets and mobile devices to eliminate cables. Bluetooth beacons paired with occupancy sensors identify the space you’re in so that, with just a few taps on your phone, you can reserve that space and invite people to a meeting there, or just sit down and start presenting, which has the effect of removing that space from availability.
The technology infrastructure must be focused in support of the culture in two primary areas: 1) management of these spaces, from the standpoint of knowing when they’re in use, how often they’re used and also monitoring availability/online status of the equipment, and 2) the consistency of the user experience across all rooms, be they small and open or big and walled. These are enterprise features that are key to sustaining knowledge-worker productivity by facilitating a reliable, available, consistently easy-to-use experience every day.
Jim Smith, CTS, CVE
Consulting Systems Engineer
Over the past few years, as enterprises, and especially technology companies, have embraced the “open floorplan” concept, interesting discoveries have been made. Among the discoveries is that an open floorplan provides no privacy. In environments with no privacy, audio transmission and multimedia presentation becomes problematic. Camera views and display images must be dynamically managed. Transfer of a collaborative encounter from the open space into a huddle room must be simple and non-disruptive. Automated tools for call management have become mandatory.
Furniture manufacturers are positioning their newest solutions to the open floorplan as “must haves,” with some incorporating user-ID-detecting automation that can customize the shared workspace per the individual logged in. The shared workspace aesthetic can be addressed today by using available technology. How about the rest of the environmental considerations, such as audio, video and lighting? Traditional concerns, requiring non-traditional solutions.
As early adopters of open collaborative spaces have realized that the environment is not conducive to effective meetings, how does one isolate and control the audio and ensure some measure of privacy? It is not always possible to manage the dynamics of participants wandering into and out of the collaborative events. Manufacturers of UCC (Unified Communications and Collaboration) technologies offer solutions designed for the open workspace.
The first need is to address the audio privacy and intrusion concerns. Advances in digital sound processing have led to the development of noise-reducing “fences.” This technology uses distributed microphones to define a “keep out” area and when referenced to a close-talker microphone reduces the pickup of extraneous sounds significantly. If no one of interest is talking, it can block the extraneous noises completely. Some manufacturers might rely on audio techniques, such as “beam-forming” microphone arrays or headsets, to accomplish some level of area sound isolation.
In the other direction, ultra-directional loudspeaker technology is usable in open spaces if the acoustics of those spaces are well managed…otherwise, personal loudspeakers (ear speakers) may help. Sound masking may seem attractive, but can also be disruptive because it could open up audio pickup of live microphones if not actively managed. Acoustic echo cancelers usually hate active sound masking systems.
Automated or fixed cameras can provide live video in open spaces, but any required user interaction with those cameras becomes important in making the choice. Having fixed-field-of-view cameras in the open spaces is often used to manage the scene. If the collaborative event is transferred to a huddle room, automated video framing can be used to good effect as people enter and leave that huddle space. Usage metrics, such as a dynamic people count or participant ID, can also be provided by such tools.
Mentioned in passing was the possibility of a collaborative event being transferred from open space to huddle room on an ad-hoc basis. BYOD plays into this possibility by presenting a user interface that allows swipe-transfer call management. This would require some active-pairing technology or distributed control to be implemented so users would not have to manage their own control linkages.
Attention to the total environment becomes important to success. Understanding the actual user workflows places additional demands on the manufacturers to avoid making assumptions while developing applicable technologies. If the manufacturers use the open workspace concept themselves, it can help with providing effective solutions.