CLOSING ENTRY: Making better connections

How to think about designing physical spaces for remote collaboration

Teamwork isn’t as easy as it used to be. Even before COVID-19 changed the way all of us work, more businesses were encouraging employees to work remotely, at least on a part-time basis.

Companies are also finding themselves working nationally or even globally, prompting the need to find employees with the requisite skills, regardless of where they live and work. That, in turn, means navigating distributed teamwork that is cross-functional, cross-cultural, and cross-organizational.

To eliminate the distance between remote team members, businesses are looking to technology to bring their distributed workers together. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Webex, for example, are allowing team members to see each other and share content in real time.

Modern laptop, computer and office supplies on wooden table, space for text. Designer's workplace


The video and content sharing capabilities these platforms provide, however, are often underutilized by remote employees. Because some workers would rather not dress up for a call or show their messy house in the background, for example, they automatically default to the audio-only setting. Unfortunately, audio-only makes it impossible for call participants to read visual cues, such as body language and facial expressions. That often translates into talking over each other, while eliminating eye-to-eye contact – and with it the ability to get a read on each other’s intentions.

Collaboration technologies, of course, also have their drawbacks. While PC-based web video platforms can improve the experience of remote team members, they typically are unable to support content and participants at the same time. As a result, if you share content, you’re unable to see call participants very well since their images are reduced to small thumbnails at the bottom of the screen.

Similarly, because some distributed teams use technologies originally designed for personal communications on smart phones, tablets or laptops, such interactions are often accompanied by poor audio or video quality. Other software solutions are constrained by scale, making it impossible to connect more than a few remote employees at once. In addition, content-sharing in such solutions is typically limited to what is on a host computer.

While it’s too early to say what the long-term impact of the coronavirus on the workplace will be, it’s probably safe to assume working remotely will become much more commonplace going forward. So too will be the need for businesses to connect those workers, using videoconferencing or telepresence more heavily than ever before. That increased reliance on videoconferencing has significant implications for a company’s physical space since it will need to understand how to adapt its space in order to optimize its use of this technology.

With that in mind, there are several considerations to keep front and center when redesigning physical space to improve video collaboration, regardless of whether that space is in the office or an employee’s home.

Perhaps most important, be aware of acoustics. This issue can be a particular problem in working from home where noise from others in the family, barking dogs, doorbells and other interruptions can make video collaborations difficult. The office also presents challenges, particularly when the volume goes up or multiple conversations occur. While the best solution at home may be an out-of-the-way room with a closed door, offices can provide pods which give workers a destination to take a video call or host a small group session while avoiding disruptions.

For longer video conferences, it is helpful to have an environment that encourages movement and a range of postures. Doing so allows participants to stay energized and engaged. One solution for both the office and at home is stool-height tables that encourage people to stand up and stay on camera.

Dancker CEO Steven Lang.

Dancker CEO Steven Lang. – NJBIZ FILE PHOTO

It is also important for offices and homes to be equipped with large-scale collaboration devices that enable remote teams (such as product development or design teams) to interact with content. Using such technology enables team members to share a whiteboard or view and annotate drawings at a larger size.

Finally, camera and microphone placements are important for a teleconference to run smoothly. For home offices, this usually comes down to having decent equipment and proper positioning in front of it so the audio and video are clear and not distracting. For offices, though, consider camera and microphone placements in larger team rooms, enabling all users to be on camera and heard clearly. Multiple screens will enable participants to see each other and content at the same time, allowing people to move and still stay on camera.

The bottom line is that nothing can replace the experience of being together in person, but increasingly that is not an option. Technology can go a long way toward bringing distributed teams closer, but thinking about how that technology works within the office – or home office – makes a big difference. When the physical space is designed to enhance the technology, it can help create an even better experience for teams who are trying to work together when they have to be apart.

Steven Lang is president and chief executive officer of Dancker, a leading interior solutions firm working with clients to create spaces that maximize the flow between people and ideas by providing integration of architectural, furniture, technology and logistics solutions.

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