The Technology Behind the COVID-19 Meeting Room

There are (4) truths that we must accept as we look at technologies in meeting spaces in a post COVID-19 era:

  • The office has changed
  • People have changed
  • Technology has changed
  • We must change our assumptions and approach to meeting room technology

There is no doubt the office has forever changed. It’s one of the most disruptive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: more employees are working outside the physical office, changing the way we think about office life for good. A survey from human resources firm Mercer found 1 in 3 companies expect at least half of their workforce to remain remote post-pandemic. Anecdotally, conversations with workplace transformation executives across major enterprise clients all seem to have a ceiling of 60% on-site employment levels from Pre-COVID-19 occupancy.

As employees return to work whether by choice, as it a better work environment than their home, or whether is due to necessity, they work in an industry that requires in person interaction (e.g. healthcare or education) they are coming back to a very different work environment as very different people.

They are coming back with a different skill set from when they left the office, different expectations of technology and different experience about public and shared spaces.

They are more aware of what the touch and how close they are to other people. Cleanliness is associated with safety. They expect the convivences of home with the resources of the office.

The disruption of office and people have forced technology to change at a blistering rate.  As people become more comfortable engaging with new technologies and offices requiring us to change how we engage with the environment, more personal technologies are taking hold.

Let’s take a deeper look at two technologies most of us have used at home and will be coming to your office as we return to work: digital assistants and location-based control.

Adopting Digital Assistants

There’s no question digital assistants have shifted the way we approach personal tasks. U.K.-based analyst firm Juniper Research predicts 8 billion digital assistants will be in use by 2023, helping us schedule events on our iPhones or order food from our Amazon Echos. However, workplace adoption has lagged. I’ve entered businesses with Amazon Alexa-enabled meeting rooms where only 20 percent of employees are taking advantage of the technology.

People default to what they know, and the office is a very public place to fail. Any new technology must have a catalyst for adoption, and COVID-19 has been that catalyst for many underutilized technologies.  All major meeting companies have invested and heavily in Natural Language Processing (NLP) over the past few years and are now integrating it into their meeting platforms.  Cisco acquired MindMeld in 2017 and “Ok Webex” is now a voice trigger in all modern Cisco Rooms.  Microsoft is leveraging Cortana in Teams, and Zoom has recently introduced a native Amazon Alexa experience into Zoom Rooms with Logitech.

As users become more comfortable and confident with this user interface, they will expect more from it. These expectations will include opening service ticket, requesting the room to be cleaned, ordering lunch, and finding an available conference room.  Also expect the combination of user interfaces where you will ask the room a question verbally and it will return the results on display in the room. Think very large Echo Show.

These will all be expected features in the modern meeting room for safety, efficiency, and convenience.

Location-Based Control

As helpful as voice is, however, it isn’t always the right user interface. Meeting rooms will still require touch for some actions – for instance, if we’re trying to turn down the volume, it makes more sense to adjust it with a button. As employees look to avoid touching public devices as much as possible, we’re likely going to see an increase in workplace BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies – which, while convenient and familiar for users, open businesses up to a host of security and user experience challenges.

Most of us have used our phone to control some device in our home like a Smart thermostat, TV, lights, front door lock, etc… that all works because you are on your own home network and these devices are registered to you personally.

In an office environment we have to give all users with physical access to the room digital access to as well.  When they physically leave the space, their digital access should also leave.  The most common approaches to this problem have been to provide an on-screen code of some sort (QR Code or Room Pin) that allows the user to go to an internal web user interface to control room, or pairing with a device via an acoustic signal, or pairing a device through a Bluetooth connection.  Each solution has its pros and cons.

In pairing with a room through a room code, the assumption is made that the user device is on the same network as the room controller.  This can introduce some security concerns for IT in large organizations, or User Experience (UX) issues for the user as they may have to navigate changing networks in order to use the system or have a lot of perceived failures due to the added steps.

Acoustic pairing originally introduced by Cisco as Proximity and currently being leveraged by Microsoft in Teams as well as Zoom, gives control to the meeting platform, but does not extend to other environmental devices such as displays and lights.

Crestron has recently introduced a Bluetooth pairing system using its 60 series touch panels. It still requires a touch panel in the room, and user to pair their phone with the rooms they want to use.

All technologies will grant access based on location and digital connectivity, but all also come with user dependencies that increase with scale.

At RoomReady, we recently secured a patent for technology that solves this problem: location-based control. Using this technology, your phone can validate that you are where you say you are. By cross-checking a digital signal from a Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other NFC signal with geolocation on the visitor’s phone, your business can authenticate the user through the cloud and put them on the appropriate connection. They have the power to control your devices while they’re in the room, while staying on their own network.

Be Safe and be “Smart”

Rethinking meeting rooms in response to the pandemic is a challenge, to put it mildly. Every time we answer a question about how to make a room safer from COVID, more crop up about how such workarounds impact business security. While many of these problems can be solved with a work-from-home policy, some businesses just can’t operate remotely and some people don’t want to operate remotely. Many want to start proactively preparing for when their employees will be back in the office.

The good news: smart devices and the technology protecting them give us answers we didn’t have even five years ago. Common technologies, such as voice assistants, and cutting-edge solutions, such as location-based control, are helping us understand how to protect the meeting room for the COVID-19 era and beyond. Your “new normal” might be working at home for a while longer – but when your business calls people back, you’ll have the tools needed to keep the meeting room safe and secure.