Howard Tiersky is the CEO of FROM: The Digital Transformation Agency, and author, along with Heidi Wisbach, of “Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That Are Engaging and Effective”. He is a successful entrepreneur who has been named by IDG as one of the “10 Digital Transformation Influencers to Follow Today” and by Enterprise Management 360 as “One of the Top 10 Digital Transformation Influencers That Will Change Your World.” For more information, visit ImpactfulOnlineMeetings.com.
Remote meetings have kept business going during the pandemic. But frankly, Zoom has its limits. As companies reopen, leaders are realizing that face-to-face meetings could really be beneficial — as long as those faces are at least 6 ft. apart. Remote work may be the new normal, but there are also times when getting everyone together in the same room is extremely valuable. Periodic in-person meetings — where you are thinking, strategizing and innovating in physical proximity — make daily remote work far more effective.
• When you’re kicking off a complex project or in other circumstances where you need to build strong relationships. There’s a sense of connection and empathy that just can’t happen over video. Relationships are always the key to long-term business success so, from time to time, teams must meet in person.
• When you’re tackling tricky or complex problems. Being able to whiteboard together in person is still far better than via the web.
• When meetings need to be long. It can be very fatiguing to remain on a conferencing platform for full-day or even half-day, sessions. In-person meetings are far more natural and productive.
• When you need to move very quickly with fewer misunderstandings. Team members are more likely to fully engage and deal with issues in real time.
• When you need people to brainstorm. Idea-sharing is faster and clearer. People don’t have to wait to talk but can just jump in, and it creates a different kind of synergy — one idea building off the other.
• When you need people to be fully engaged. Let’s face it, while on Zoom, it’s just too easy to turn off your video and throw in a load of laundry or even take the dog out for a walk.
As lockdown requirements start to be relaxed a bit, businesses can start to consider where it makes sense to explore bringing teams together in person. However, it needs to be done in a way that takes social distancing and other transmission prevention practices into account. That can be very challenging for a number of reasons:
• Traditional corporate conference rooms aren’t particularly COVID-19 safe. A room designed for 12 people to sit around a fixed table may hold only three or four people when seats are spaced 6 ft. apart. Space across many conference tables is less than 6 ft., so meeting attendees cannot sit across from one another safely.
• Walls behind seats in most conference rooms are often only a few feet back. This means once the room is occupied, safe exit can only be done starting with those closest to the door. What if someone needs to go to the bathroom mid-meeting? Everyone between that person and the door would also have to leave the room to maintain the 6-ft. social distancing zone.
• Most masks block half the face from view. It can be difficult to hear clearly, interpret facial expressions and, sometimes, even identify people.
• Conference rooms are often used by team after team, and yet we’re told the virus can live on surfaces for a period of time. Most companies aren’t staffed to disinfect rooms after each meeting. Furthermore, many surfaces used in corporate environments, such as upholstery and carpeting, are porous and therefore sub-optimal for rapid disinfection.
I run a meeting facility in midtown Manhattan, right at the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic. Preparing for reopening has been challenging. However, in response to increased demands requesting COVID-19-safe meeting spaces, we have come up with a suite of approaches and services that we believe solve many of these obstacles.
Innovation Loft has reconfigured its 6,000-sf space to follow OSHA guidelines and has implemented a range of recommended prevention strategies designed to reduce transmission. Yet, it has retained all of the amenities, technologies and comforts that keep people in the right frame of mind to connect, create and collaborate.
ENABLING SOCIAL DISTANCING
Here are some guidelines I followed as we converted the facility into a social distancing meeting space:
• Avoid elevators. Elevators present a huge challenge for social distancing. I’m fortunate that my facility is on the second floor and has two stairways from the lobby, allowing rapid entry without the close proximity of elevators.
• Make sure there’s plenty of space. The Innovation Loft, with its 6,000 sf of open floorplan, normally houses groups of up to 120. I’ve reconfigured it for groups up to 30 using an innovative social distancing layout. Each participant has a seat spaced more than 6 ft. from any other. But it’s more than just sitting in one place. We’ve created a “racetrack” walking path on the outside perimeter of our large space, which is used in only one direction and is 6 ft. back from the seating area. In this way, participants can go to their seats without coming close to others, and can exit at any time without coming near other seated participants.
• Be sure food is delivered safely. Buffets are a common way to serve food and beverage at meeting facilities, but they are out of the question while we are living under pandemic conditions.
• Leverage technology to avoid accidental closeness. Even with all this protection, participants may accidentally forget social distancing and approach one another.
REDUCING GERMS IN THE ENVIRONMENT
• Insist on fever check on entry. We have contactless equipment for our clients, and any participants with a fever are asked to head home.
• Be vigilant about disinfecting. Any facility used for meetings needs to be disinfected vigorously between every session. At The Innovation Loft, meetings are typically half- or full-day sessions, so it means needing to thoroughly disinfect only once or twice a day. The Innovation Loft has hardwood floors, and they are disinfected each night, as are all hard surfaces. Seats have disinfectable surfaces and are also disinfected each night. All surfaces are also wiped down with strong disinfectant between every meeting. Lastly, during the course of the day, attendants, who remain 6 ft. away from participants, use UV wands to add additional disinfection to surfaces.
• Be careful about infected air. Many studies have shown that viruses can be carried by HVAC systems throughout a facility.
• Account for the “shoe problem.” Scientists warn that one way disease can be spread around a facility is through shoes that can track virus in from outside. Participants are given two options to avoid this: They are given a bag to place their shoes in on entry if they wish to go shoeless, or shoe “booties” can be used to cover the shoes to avoid any germs being tracked onto the floor. In general, make sure the space is in full compliance with new OSHA guidelines.
ENABLING OUTSTANDING COMMUNICATION
• Provide see-through masks for participants. Masks are a common tool to reduce disease transmission but, regrettably, they also reduce communications. Non-verbal cues, including smiles and other facial expressions, go a long way toward building trust and creating strong relationships. I’m providing all participants in meetings at the Innovation Loft the option to use clear face masks, which enable their expressions to be easily seen.
• Maximize audio amplification. While you can typically hear a fellow meeting attendee who is speaking 6 ft. away, if you have a meeting of more than four or five people, the math starts to indicate that some of your colleagues may be more than 20 ft. away. That’s a long way to be heard when speaking in a normal voice. We provide microphones at each seat so participants’ voices are subtly amplified and, therefore, can be heard by everyone in the meeting.
• Make whiteboarding easy and effective. Being able to draw on whiteboards is a classic and highly useful collaboration technique during meetings. One is provided behind each participant’s seat. If a participant is sharing their whiteboard thinking with the whole room, a camera is used to put their whiteboard content up on screens around the room, similar to how one might share a computer screen.
Yes, it’s more challenging to host an in-person meeting now, but it is possible to do so and still follow social distancing guidelines. Online meetings are great, but there’s nothing like getting together in the same physical space. Business is still a human activity, and there are times we need that human connection without a computer screen between us.
Bottom line? The increasing demand for COVID-19-safer meeting spaces reflects our realization that business is all about connections — and connections happen best in person. C&IT