How to Hold an In-Person Meeting in the Coronavirus Era
Innovation expert Howard Tiersky says there are times Zoom just won’t do. When your team has to get together in person and is looking for a meeting space that works in a coronavirus world, consider these crucial elements of a productive social distancing venue.
Remote meetings have kept business going during the pandemic. But frankly, Zoom has its limits. As companies reopened, leaders realized face-to-face meetings could really be beneficial—as long as those faces are at least 6 feet apart!
“Remote work may be the new normal, but there are also times when getting everyone together in the same room is extremely valuable,” says Tiersky, owner of New York City’s Innovation Loft, which has made extensive updates for the coronavirus era. “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,” says Tiersky. “However, it needs to be done in a way that takes social distancing and other transmission prevention practices into account. There’s a growing demand for meeting space designed with social distancing in mind.”
That can be very challenging for a number of reasons:
Traditional corporate conference rooms aren’t particularly COVID-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 feet apart. Space across many conference tables is less than 6 feet, 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 be done starting only 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-foot 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.
Tiersky runs a meeting facility in midtown Manhattan, right at the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic.
“Preparing for reopening has been challenging,” he admits. “However, in response to increased demands requesting COVID-safe meeting spaces, we have come up with a suite of approaches and services that we believe solve many of these obstacles. This allows companies to come to our facility and hold a meeting while maintaining social distancing.”
His Innovation Loft has reconfigured its 6,000-square-foot space to follow OSHA guidelines and has implemented a range of recommended prevention strategies designed to reduce transmission. Yet at the same time, it has retained all of the amenities, technologies and comforts that keep people in the right frame of mind to connect, create and collaborate.
Here are some guidelines Tiersky followed as he converted his facility into a social distancing meeting space. You may want to keep them in mind as you seek solutions for your own in-person meetings:
Enabling Social Distancing
Avoid elevators. Elevators present a huge challenge for social distancing. Tiersky is fortunate that his 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 square feet of open floor plan, normally houses groups of up to 120. Tiersky has reconfigured it for groups up to 30 using an innovative social distancing layout. He explains, “Each participant has a seat spaced over 6 feet 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 feet 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 beverages at meeting facilities, but they are out of the question while we are living under pandemic conditions. The Innovation Loft allows participants to text attendants when they want a drink or snack. Items are brought to each person’s station by a masked attendant and left on that participant’s personal service table, 6 feet behind their seat (similar to an Instacart delivery). After the attendant withdraws, the participant can retrieve the food while still observing social distancing.
Leverage technology to avoid accidental closeness. Even with all this protection, participants may accidentally forget social distancing and approach one another. The Innovation Loft issues each participant a proximity detector—powered by social distancing app Social Safety—that buzzes when someone comes within (approximately) 6 feet of another person to remind them to keep their distance.
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,” explains Tiersky.
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 (not carpet), and they are disinfected each night, as are all hard surfaces. Seats have surfaces that can be disinfected (no plush fabric), and they 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 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. The Innovation Loft installed a UV irradiator in its air conditioning system to reduce this. The facility’s heat is provided by a hot water boiler system that does not circulate the air.
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. Tiersky gives participants 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 Between Participants—Despite the Circumstances
Provide see-through masks for participants. “Masks are a common tool to reduce disease transmission, but regrettably, they also reduce communications,” Tiersky says. “Non-verbal cues, including smiles and other facial expressions, go a long way toward building trust and creating strong relationships.” Tiersky is provides all meeting participants 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 feet 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 over 20 feet away. That’s a long way to be heard when speaking in a normal voice. Tiersky provides microphones at each seat so participants’ voices are subtly amplified and 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. Tiersky provides one behind each participant’s seat. If a participant is sharing his/her whiteboard thinking with the whole room, a camera is used to put his/her 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,” says Tiersky. “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-safer meeting spaces reflects our realization that business is all about connections—and connections happen best in person.
Howard Tiersky is CEO of FROM. His company has helped develop innovative new products for a range of companies ranging from Amazon to Verizon and also including brands such as Sesame Workshop, A&E and some of the largest banks and sports leagues in the world. He is the author of a best-selling book and has been named by IDG as one of the “Top 10 Digital Transformation Influencers to Follow Today.”
The Innovation Loft (InnovationLoft.com), in Manhattan, is bright and airy, with high ceilings and hardwood floors. The Loft was built for group creativity and collaboration. Its amenities include curved movable and writable walls, extensive audio-visual tools and a range of helpful materials (all included) from art supplies to games to costumes. Learn more at innovationloft.com/safermeetings.