Joan: An interesting solution to the meeting room availability nightmare

Meeting room roulette can be costly, both in terms of actual salary dollars and frustration. Joan is a hardware/software solution that can help reduce both the stress and the cost of allocating meeting rooms.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: Visionect

It took Bob almost two weeks to get his product planning meeting together. Wrangling participants from Engineering, Sales, and Product Marketing, coordinating schedules, and finding a meeting room was, in his words, "a full-on clusterf#$%."

Then it happened. Five minutes into his meeting, he and his fellow conferees got kicked out. Janet, the VP of International Sales had a guest and needed a meeting room. Since Risa (conference rooms in his company are named after Star Trek planets, because of course they are) was next to her office, she claimed it. Now, Bob and his group had to go on a conference room hunt, finally finding a free space three floors down.

Of the hour booked for their meeting, 20 minutes was wasted. There was no way now that they'd be able to get things together enough to reach consensus in this meeting. Another would have to be scheduled.

Bob's experience is not unusual. According to the Wall Street Journal, "40% of employees wasting up to 30 minutes a day looking for meeting space." The Wall Street Journal even has a name for victims of this phenomenon: conference room evictee.

There are roughly 11 million meetings a day in the United States, and if you figure that many of these meetings are delayed or interrupted by conference room scheduling snafus, we're looking at a tremendous waste of time. Because the average meeting costs a company $338 in terms of salary dollars, we are also facing a lot of money lost simply because of poor scheduling.

Scheduling software isn't enough

To solve this problem, many companies have taken to software. G Suite and Office 365 both have robust meeting scheduling systems that also allow for meeting room reservations. It doesn't work.

Do you know why it doesn't work? Because the scheduling software isn't plastered up on the conference room door. Folks looking for a free conference room look in the room, not at their online calendars or by launching an app on their phones. 

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I know you've seen it. Packs of roving meeting attendees on the prowl, popping open conference room doors and exchanging the universal corporate greeting, "Is this room taken?"

Not only are some scheduled or impromptu meetings blocked from happening, the meetings that are actually productively moving forward regularly get interrupted.

Joan: a possible software and hardware solution

Enter Joan, a signage and software solution that its creator, Visionect, thinks might solve the problems I outlined above. I was sent two Joan units for testing by Wellbots, a partner company who supports the ZDNet DIY-IT discovery series for both desktop fabrication and robotics.

I was sent a Joan Executive display. This is a $499 six-inch unit that's meant to be mounted outside meeting room doors.

Image: Visionect

I was also sent a Joan Board, a 13-inch $1199 unit that can book multiple conference rooms.

Image: Visionect

These are battery powered e-ink displays that mount to the wall with a magnetic plate. They're very much like Kindles in that they use very little power and can run for months without needing a recharge. Mine has been running for weeks now. The benefit of this is that you can mount it on a wall without worrying about wires.

Each Joan device connects to the cloud over Wi-Fi. They only support 2.4Ghz, but most routers support both 2.4 and 5Ghz, so it's not a big deal. I had no problem connecting the Joan units to my network because I finally have pretty strong Wi-Fi throughout my environment.

The Joan devices talk to the Joan portal. This is an $8.99/month service that coordinates the various Joan devices you have at your meeting rooms, and provides meeting coordination and notification services.


Calendar connection options

A key element of the Joan portal is the coordination of corporate calendars with the Joan devices. It does this by requesting access to your G Suite or Office 365 calendar. It also supports Exchange, iCalendar, and 25Live.


I see the value of this level of coordination, but I did not like having to grant all calendar access rights, including delete, to the Joan portal. In fact, I could not bring myself to do it. My calendar runs my world and has information about proprietary meetings with clients. I wound up creating a dummy account and using that for the calendar, pretty much defeating the purpose of the Joan service.

You're going to need to decide how important meeting scheduling is compared to calendar security. The Joan support folks (who were nicely responsive) did tell me, "it is possible to limit the rights given to the calendar. You can provide Joan with the link to your calendar in the .ics or .ical format where Joan will have read-only rights, but this will limit the use of booking on the spot, check in to meetings, and cancel the meeting."

That's unfortunate, because the key win of Joan is the linking between the corporate calendar and the device. But I also have to say that it wasn't just my paranoia that limited my willingness to share my data. Some programmer at Joan thought it was cute to make the following screen the first thing you see when interacting with the product.


Apparently, you will be assimilated.

When the program you're using starts off with the catchphrase of the Borg, it just doesn't inspire the spirit of open sharing. 

That said, Joan does have its strengths.

How Joan can help solve the meetings nightmare

Joan allows you to book and determine meeting room status, online and at the room itself. This solves a big problem of most online calendaring solutions. Often, the status of rooms are printed out once a week or even once a day, and those schedules are taped to the door. But schedules change constantly, and the paper notices can't be trusted to be current or accurate.

The Joan displays are up-to-the-moment. Not only does a Joan unit display the status for its room, it can also be used, with the proper permissions, to modify the calendar status of the room while you're standing right there at the door. It's visible right at the door, so meeting goers (or meeting room usurpers) don't need to take the time to open up an app on their phones to check. 

It's right there. Everything you need to know about the room is at the room.

Joan also provides a number of other services, including email notifications of meetings for outside participants (along with room location directions), an API for developers, and some experimental systems that allow booking rooms over Slack and displaying non-meeting related information (like a Twitter feed) on the displays.

At first glance, Joan looks expensive for what seems to be, essentially, a glorified Kindle. But if you realize that each meeting costs, on average, $338 in salary dollars, Joan can pay for itself pretty quickly. If it helps just a few meetings go off without a hitch, or without sending employees into a nomadic search for available space, it can pay for itself within its first month.

If you have a lot of meetings on-site and you have challenges coordinating meeting room availability, Joan is definitely a worthwhile product to consider.

Unless, of course, you become assimilated by the Borg first. 

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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