Office Furniture That Makes Video Calls More Apt For Brainstorming

Steelcase and IDEO point out that videoconferencing is built around straight-up information sharing, rather than collaborative working. Can they solve that problem?

We’re at an odd point with video communication. The technology is in all of our computers and phones, and the services are mostly free. But what if you were to Facetime your boss right now, totally out of the blue? How would they react?


Steelcase partnered with Ideo to reimagine video chat in the office. What they’re pitching isn’t what we have today–Cisco systems that duplicate corporate boardrooms across continents–but casual spaces to foster creativity. “You sit side-by-side looking at a big screen, and the space shapes our behaviors so we become very stiff and formal as well,” Christine Congdon, director of research communications at Steelcase laments to Co.Design. “Those spaces are fine for informative collaboration, but you’d never find yourself getting into a creative flow with colleagues at a distance.”

Instead, their “Living on Video” proposals are informal spaces reminiscent of photo booths crossed with living room furniture, where someone can relax, but the production approaches studio quality. The experience is casual, the video looks professional and, hopefully, it nurtures the kind of spontaneous conversation that can lead to new ideas.

“If you notice people when they take a phone call today in an open environment, they start pacing around, looking for a place to talk where they won’t disturb others, and where they can hear and be heard on the other end. Same holds true with video.” writes Cogdon. “So we created the ‘lounge unit’ that, in addition to lighting, controls the acoustics in an open space–the outer surface deflects sound and the inner surfaces absorb it. Plus, it’s designed with openings in the back so a user can see if someone is walking by, because people feel more comfortable when they can see other people approaching and don’t get startled.”

This balance of public and private is beginning to be a theme. We just saw the same premise in Keilhauer’s new line of office furniture. Steelcase builds on the idea, essentially swapping out a second chair with a video screen to create pseudo-private teleconferencing.

In another Living on Video concept, Steelcase sticks an entire teleconferencing unit into a wall hanging called a Core Unit. It looks a bit like a jumbo Blackberry kiosk, something you’d see at a trade show, but it sneaks in a monitor, camera, mic, and speakers into a self-contained, uni-purposed system. “It makes a video call as easy to do as a phone call,” Congdon writes. “If it’s easier, and not intimidating to users, it will be used more often.”

“Ease of use” is an interesting point with video calling. Because it’s technically quite easy to actually make and receive a video call, but it’s hard to create the exact environment to make that call feel great. It’s interesting that, for decades, video was just seen as a future technology. Now that it’s not, we’ve discovered that clever UI and devices that fit in our pockets aren’t enough to make the experience addictive. For businesses, Steelcase’s approach might make a lot of sense.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.