Q&A: Optimizing Video for the Workplace

Steelcase is using video to engage employees

This summer, furniture giant Steelcase unveiled a series of concept spaces at NeoCon 2012 focused on optimizing the use of video interactions at the workplace. With so many employees working remotely or at far-flung offices and the rapid improvement of video technology, the company is moving quickly to take workplace engagement and collaboration to the next level.

This furniture concept, dubbed Living on Video, uses video technology to enhance the use of space and overcome limitations it might present to employee engagement and productivity. We spoke with Scott Sadler, product manager for Steelcase, about the concept and the future of video technology in the workplace.

Q: How did you develop your Living on Video concept?

For us, it’s all about bringing human insight to business and to work. It’s studying how people work wherever that happens: in the office, the home office, at an event, or a large-scale meeting. We’re all about studying how that work happens, and working to shape the space to really optimize that work. And what we’ve been seeing is that the workplace is changing — becoming more global, more integrated than ever before. This makes business highly volatile and uncertain with work more broadly distributed than ever before, and a constant pressure on employees to be faster.

The worker has also changed. We’re more hyper-connected than ever before and more mobile, and the technology and capabilities to work anywhere we ant have evolved.

Q: So is that what led you to really start exploring video?

People are becoming more comfortable with video every day because of the products that we have at home, like Skype, and as we experience video on our smartphone and tablets. As we get more comfortable with it, the natural desire is to bring it into our work. 

So more and more we’re seeing that work is also happening on video. [According to recent Cisco research] video traffic at large companies is increasing by about 70 percent annually, while 62 percent of employees are collaborating in different time zones. 

We know that people are becoming more comfortable with video, but the experience at the workplace can be compromised. It might be issues with lighting, acoustics, sightlines, even the simple sharing of content. What we found was that customers said it was a great collaborative experience in the room, but they wanted to also collaborate across distances. Our customers started pushing the boundaries for us.

Q: So how do you try to meet these challenges?

Steelcase makes furniture and technology products, so when we have an opportunity when we blend all these together and we can start to optimize for that experience, whether that’s setting lighting so it’s on the near side or far side of the room to give the speakers a healthy glow, or positioning the furnishings with the camera location in mind so that eye contact is always optimized. Some other things we can think about is positioning the microphone and speaker and the acoustic elements of the product so that you’re not hearing the background noise.

Q: What are some products you have developed?

Three years ago we launched a product called media:scape — a collaborative product that integrated technology and furniture that was simply designed as a way for people to work collaboratively with a simple user interface. They can instantly share information without barriers or connection trouble. 

But we believe we can optimize for that experience even more — we have opportunities to improve the experience and take away all the concerns that an individual might have so they can be more productive. 

Q: What are some specific ways a product like media:scape differs from furnishings that preceded it?

In terms of the space itself, there may have been an area dedicated to high-definition video conferencing, but customers would say, “We’ve got this expensive real estate that I only utilize the front half of the day or the back half of the day,” whether they were communicating with colleagues or clients in Europe or Asia Pacific. So one of the value propositions is that it’s also a great in-room collaboration tool. So the rooms equipped with video conferencing are utilized throughout the entire day.

It can be adjusted depending on the type of meeting. A few of us on a project team can have a quick touch-base meeting and update team members with data quickly.  If it’s more of an educational meeting, where someone would be on stage but they are uncomfortable with that, we can shift it to give them more of a seat at the table, which changes the dynamic of the meeting and conversation.