Meeting rooms: The good, the bad and the just plain ugly

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I need to get something off my chest. As a facilitator, one of my biggest pet peeves is walking into an inappropriate meeting room. It can sabotage the group before I even get down to starting the job I’ve been hired to do.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and uttered, “Oh, ?&*%!, how am I going to make this work?!”

Meeting rooms are a fact of working life, but we can’t seem to find a happy balance between aesthetics and functionality. Picture your meeting room for a minute. Is it the classic setup? Long, rectangular table, with chairs placed around? Maybe some art on the wall, an AV screen at one end, a sad, dusty plant in the corner, and a credenza for coffee/food at the other end? There may even be the smell of stale pizza and coffee lingering in the air.

Meeting rooms, no matter what’s up for discussion, have a huge impact on the experience of everyone in the room. When I ask for the ‘what worked well’ and ‘what would have improved the experience’ at the end of a meeting, this is what I end up hearing: The pluses are, everyone shared, there was respect in the room, we accomplished a lot, and we disagreed and found a way to agreement. The ‘improve’ are, there was no food or drink, (or beer) and yes, it could have been so much better if we had more (better) space.

But the space itself is never the No. 1 priority.

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Pretty does not = functional

I’ve walked into rooms that had the aura of power and prestige – and even plush chairs. Often those rooms don’t work because they are filled with a too large table, isolating people away from each other and ultimately inhibiting conversation and creativity. Then there are those rooms that, in the name of technology, sport 82-inch screens on every wall. There’s no usable wall space and it creates a disconnected atmosphere.

I’ve seen it all. In my memory is a long list of sometimes beautiful but unworkable rooms (fantastic artwork, exposed brick walls), or just plain ugly spaces (basement room, beat up linoleum and mediocre lighting) where I’ve had to lead groups for a day or more. Here are some examples of meeting places that sound good – until you get there and find they’re not. Here are some examples.

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Sounds good in theory…

  • Golf course: Sounds delightful. But my experiences have been sub-par, for an unexpected reason: too many windows. Yes, that view of the 18th hole was lovely, but it didn’t help that we didn’t have any wall space and anything on the windows was so backlit it couldn’t be read. People were backlit and couldn’t see each other’s faces too. And all that sunshine made the room a sweatbox.
  • Wine cellar: Sounds great, right? Wrong. Think about it, what are on the walls of a wine cellar? Wine bottles, leaving no space to hang charts and other material.
  • A library: Should be good!  But wasn’t. See wine cellar.
  • A tent: Sounds interesting, but it totally does not work.
  • An old school: Fascinating historic artwork on one wall, closely spaced windows on the other 2 walls with deep windowsills and heavy blinds. Again, no place for a work product. The wainscoting on the lower half of the walls became my useable space – not exactly easy on the neck for attendees.
  • Hotels: Are often guilty of jamming too many people into a room, maximizing room capacity, minimizing comfort. Between doors, credenzas, windows, retractable walls and artwork – they often lack usable wall space.
  • Wrong shape: L-shaped rooms are unworkable because some of the attendees can’t see each other, making it much harder to absorb what others are saying.
  • A lounge: deep, comfy lounge chairs seem like a great idea until people need to write things down and talk as a group.
  • Too small: A recent meeting I led had should have had a 25-person maximum, but they squeezed in 45. The tension in the air was already thick, and this only made everyone even more hot under the collar. It also created mini-silos of people, unable to move, completely unravelling the important discussions.
  • Too techy: Giant screens everywhere creates an isolating feel in a room (and eliminates wall space).
  • Whiteboard walls blocked by furniture: Love the whiteboard wall; makes me crazy when they are obstructed by credenzas, benches and tables.

Does it have the air of possibility?

So now that I’ve blown off steam about what doesn’t work, let me tell you about the things that make a room an inviting space. Don’t forget people may be spending entire days, sometimes wrestling with difficult or important topics. You want to create a mood that brings people up, not down.

Overall, a room should evoke an air of excitement and the sense that something different is about to happen. The room should welcome you enough to make you say, ‘I could spend a couple of days here. This is nice. It’s different than my daily life.’

Going offsite for meetings is an excellent idea, but you have to choose the space wisely. Not only because it can help people break some bad habits (yes, I’m talking to you, the person who always sits in the same spot at every meeting, but that’s a whole other conversation), but also because it invites the possibility of change.

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7 things that make a meeting space special

  • A room should be big enough to be comfortable, but not so enormous that it overwhelms attendees or creates an environment where it’s hard to have conversations. As a rule of thumb – if a hotel says the room max is 15 people on round tables, double the amount of space and you’ll have about the right amount of space of a full day or 2-day meeting.
  • Good lighting. Natural lighting is nice but good lighting, such as LED fixtures and/or flexible lighting makes my job easier. Appropriate lighting is important, so people don’t feel like they’ve been shuttered in a cellar. It’s also much easier on the eyes, helping people stay alert.
  • Flexible furniture. Tables and chairs that can move, to accommodate break-out groups.
  • Wall space. It should be plentiful enough for lots of paperwork. Remember that a workshop is about producing results together and that means they must be visible. Glass walls are also a great feature, because it allows for nice lighting, and you can often write on them.
  • Adjustable windows coverings. Though windows are nice to have, they can make it hard to take photos, make it hard for people to see and reduce wall space. Being able to adjust windows coverings is helpful.
  • Please be sure you have markers that work and accompanying erasers. And for heaven’s sake, get rid of the obstructive benches and tables.
  • Refreshment counter: This is in the category of nice-to-have, but making food and drink accessible is important, especially for day-long meetings.

If your meeting space has some or all of these things, I’m a happy facilitator. I can dream, can’t I?

Some of my favourite meeting spaces in Calgary:

  • Repsol: I’ve done quite a bit of work in these offices and hats off to their office designers! The rooms are great, with flexible furniture and rooms that can be reconfigured, AV space and natural lighting.
  • Millennium Tower, +15 conference rooms: While they lack the natural light, the rooms are incredibly functional with flexible furniture, whiteboard walls, unobstructed wall space and recessed counters for food and drink.
  • Downtown Public Library: The basement meeting space is decently designed for larger groups, including some rooms with glass walls.
  • Mount Royal University: MRU classrooms make great meeting rooms. Designed with both natural light, flexible furniture, lots of whiteboard and wall space. I can do great work here.
  • U of C Downtown Campus: (with reservations), I’ve worked in one room that had nothing but windows, pillars in the middle of the room and AV walls. On the other hand, I’ve attended workshops in rooms with flexible furniture, whiteboard space, and lots of wall space.

Drop me a note and let me know some of you favourite spaces to work in.

Update:  Since I wrote this, the folks at CPHR in Calgary invited me to their offices to see their training room space. It ticks all the boxes, natural light, lots of whiteboard space, flexible furniture, well lit, refreshment counter.  They are located in the Kahanoff  Centre and their space is for rent! 

Download my Meeting room guide. 

What I’m reading:

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt explores politics through the lens of human behaviour.  He identifies intuition and reasoning as key drivers of decision making. His research suggests that we make intuitive decisions and reason catches up. Our intuitive decision making is grounded in a set of moral codes. If you like political science (like I do) and find human behaviour endlessly fascinating (like I do), you’ll enjoy this book.

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